Sunday, December 23, 2007

Presentism and Selfishness

I will begin with a big audacious claim and weasel out of it as refutations require. Most of the major problems in this world can be traced to two sources: presentism and selfishness. Presentism is the preference for immediate satisfactions over future ones. Selfishness is the preference for our own satisfactions over those of others.

Where to begin? We cannot deal effectively with global warming because the benefits of not doing so are enjoyed now, while planetary catastrophe will be experienced later. The same holds for other environmental problems. We cannot move quickly enough toward energy independence because it would be costly now, and the good results would come later. We should have been taking steps like adding a substantial tax to gasoline at least as far back as the Carter era. President Carter advocated a strong future-oriented energy policy but was thwarted.

Congress will not take steps now to deal with Medicare financing that will sooner or later confront us because politicians are focused on getting reelected in the nearer future. Bush pushed through massive tax cuts assisting mainly the rich, especially the obscenely rich, resulting in huge national deficits whose consequences will have to be faced later. A tragic, unnecessary war has been financed by deficit spending because lowering taxes has become a religion for the Republicans, and responsible fiscal policy in the here and now is bad for electoral politics. The enemy is us, not just our politicians, because they know we want our goodies now with as little cost to us as possible and that we are not easily persuaded by futuristic logic.

We have a housing mortgage crisis because people wanted a larger house that small beginning interest payments a few years ago would allow, and banks promoted bad loans out of greed for bigger immediate profits. When the larger payments became due, homeowners defaulted, and the banks had to foreclose, hurting everybody. Now we are in a credit crunch because in the past present interests took precedence over ignored future outcomes.

We are funding our national spending spree with loans from nations like China and Dubai. No one knows what the future results will be. Individuals are getting more and more behind on credit card payments because of past and present purchases. Devotion to presentism shuns frugality and responsible spending. In 2005 we had a negative savings rate. From the Associated Press:

"Consumers depleted their savings to finance the purchases of cars and other big-ticket items. ... The Commerce Department reported Monday that the savings rate fell into negative territory at minus 0.5 percent, meaning that Americans not only spent all of their after-tax income last year but had to dip into previous savings or increase borrowing.The savings rate has been negative for an entire year only twice before — in 1932 and 1933."

Christopher Jencks beautifully points out how difficult immigration reform is because of what I am calling presentism:

"Many employers would accept more stringent penalties for hiring illegal immigrants in the future if that were the only way to legalize their current workers, and many immigrant groups would do the same. On the other side, many conservative activists might accept legalization of today's illegal immigrants if that were the only way to ensure a crackdown on hiring illegal immigrants in the future. In principle, therefore, a deal should be possible. But this deal turns out to have a fatal flaw. Legalization can be implemented within a few years, while penalties for hiring illegal immigrants have to be enforced indefinitely. That means employers get what they want right away, while opponents of illegal immigration have to wait.
"The Immigration Charade," The New York Review of Books (September 27, 2007)

We could go on. Much that is not accounted for by presentism can be attributed to selfishness. They overlap but cannot be reduced to each other. Presentism is selfishness in the moment for ourselves and others disregarding the future. Selfishness is preference for ourselves disregarding the neighbor in the present and the future. Selfishness in theological terms is sin; presentism adds disregard of wisdom to sin.

Selfishness is such a staple of moral theology that it needs no illustration. Just observe any issue that arises and see how the parties (individuals or groups) line up, taking positions that benefit them, interpreting or ignoring the facts to suit their interests.

Protestant ethic with your emphasis on frugality, self-restraint, discipline, and responsibility -- where are you when we need you?

So what is the cure? If you are a preacher, you might start with Romans 1:27ff. and take it from there. Secularists can point out the consequences of selfishness and the folly of presentism, quoting the old biblical and cultural adage that we reap what we sow. Obviously the gospel in both its religious and secular forms calls for repentance (change of mind) and reformation of character with the appropriate deeds (fruits meet for repentance Matthew 3:8 KJV) that follow. Rates of expected success for prophets or secular reformers: small. The pleasures of presentism and selfishness are too seductive to be resisted.

Here endeth the lesson. Remember: hell is truth seen too late (Thomas Hobbes).

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