Psychologists have long noted our tendency to greatly discount the long term and instead focus on the short term. That which is nearer in time holds much greater sway over our decision-making process than that which will happen at a later date. This explains our fixation on companies’ quarterly financial results and runaway government deficits, why many people begin saving for retirement much too late, even why sports teams will greatly mortgage their future to get a star player now.
When we actually think about it – which is all too rare – we realize how costly and even foolish such an approach can be. Worrying about how a business has done over three months can force its management to knowingly make inappropriate decisions for fear of the potential wrath of shareholders. When one’s job security is dependent on the here and now, can one realistically wonder why decisions are made that are to the long-term detriment of the company?
This problem is greatly exacerbated when prudence – but not expediency – calls for spending money now to avert or at least minimize a potential problem down the road, especially an issue that may not actually happen. This is why, for example, the construction industry must be regulated. Left to market forces, companies are liable to cut corners vis-a-vis safety issues, as the relatively limited potential for disaster down the road can’t compete with today’s desire for profit.
It is because of man’s propensity to overlook potential problems that residents of Houston, Texas living in areas with a high risk of flooding are required by law to purchase flood insurance. Unfortunately, many – in fact, most – have ignored this law. Enforcement is difficult, so thousands of people are facing the prospect of losing their homes without receiving enough money to replace them. This just compounds the tragedy that is unfolding in the fourth-most populous city in the United States.
As we prepare for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the notion of sins – and our failure to think about long-term consequences is a sin – and how to grow from them is something we ought to focus on. All too often, “mistakes” result from our desire for short-term gain even at the risk of long-term pain. This may manifest itself in our ethical decision-making, business practices, time devoted to family and the community, missed educational opportunities or neglecting our health. The pace of life is so fast that we rarely stop and take stock of our life’s direction. The Ten Days of Repentance are meant to give us time to reflect on how we can build on the past and do better in the future.
Perhaps out of necessity, Jewish organizations have often been unable to focus on long-term planning, struggling as they do to meet too many needs of today. Yet without more long-term thinking, specifically as it relates to the tuition crisis, we as a community face long-term decline. As fewer and fewer children receive a serious Jewish education, there will be more and more intermarriage, fewer and fewer people donating to Jewish causes, more and more buildings with fewer and fewer people occupying them and fewer and fewer Jews to offer support for Israel.
The future of the Jewish community tomorrow is being determined by our actions today. An ounce of prevention is most definitely worth a pound of cure. Let’s think long-term.
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