Yahoo! Finance isn't always known for their breathtaking opinion pieces, but Friday's piece "Instant Gratification Nation: Can We Still Sacrifice for the Future?
" is an echo of the sentiments I discussed in my recent post on government and politics
: that it appears as though the United States of America has lost its ability to delay gratification.
[In Stanford experiments run in the 1960s and 1970s] each [child] was offered an explicit choice that tested his or her ability to defer gratification: Get a reward now or a bigger reward later. The experimenter left the room, leaving a bell on the table in front of the student. If the student rang the bell before the experimenter returned, he or she would get a reward, albeit a less preferred one (a single marshmallow instead of two). However, if the student resisted ringing the bell until the experimenter returned (typically after 15 or 20 minutes), he or she would get something even better -- two marshmallows.
The author goes on to correlate these early traits to future decision making:
For example, one follow-up paper found a statistically significant relationship between how long a student waited to ring the bell and -- more than a decade later -- their "ability to cope with frustration and stress in adolescence."
While this isn't exactly a wow
fact - it seems like a relatively obvious outcome - and, in fact, our author goes on to relate it directly to the current Presidential election:
I went to Barack Obama's and John McCain's Web sites to look at their economic agendas. To judge by both their plans, just about every major policy challenge can be addressed by giving some group more marshmallows now -- subsidies here, tax cuts there.
Which is nonsense. The definition of an investment, whether it's public or private, is an undertaking that requires foregoing consumption in the present in order to achieve higher consumption in the future. It's just like the marshmallows, only you get real money, or more life satisfaction, or something else worth waiting for.
One of the follow-up studies using data from the Stanford marshmallow experiment begins, "To be able to delay immediate satisfaction for the sake of future consequences has long been considered an essential achievement of human development."
And this is exactly what I was trying to get at in my earlier post:
I understand that risk is always involved in reward, but it's been proven over and over again that a long-term conservative stance can often get the job done better and with less risk than a patchwork of short term reactionary decisions.
I'm talking about our marshmellows here, and the idea that squirreling them away is probably the better move in the long run, even if we don't seem to be doing that now.
I'm talking about long-term investment, e.g. the Interstate Highway System and the Manhattan Project.. and this is exactly what the author gets at by the end of his piece:
[we seem to lack] vision for how ambitious collective endeavors can change the trajectory of our lives.
.. we seem to have forgotten that tax cuts can't do anything that requires a major collective investment by society. Tax cuts could never have built the Interstate Highway System, one of the great public investments of all time.
Let's be honest: none of this is news or new. It's old hat, but it is a hat that's been around and stood the test of time. If we could, in one fell swoop, convert our fractional federal reserve system into a government-controlled currency system (thereby stopping the government from paying interest on it's own made up money) and infuse the country with the spirit and chutzpah to attack large infrastructural projects funded by the government, I think a whole lot could change for the better around here.
Sadly, that's one big IF