What if we fought against the tyranny of the short term?

Today, the “Day of the Thinker” will be devoted to the journalist Jean-Louis Servan Schreiber.  This past week, in France, his book Too Fast! Why we’re prisoners of the short-term, just came out.  It’s been quite a while since I’ve wanted to talk about the tyranny of short-term—and now I have the perfect occasion!

Jean-Louis Sevran Schreiber is 72 years old, a newspaperman, an essayist and the son of Emile Sevran Schreiber, founder of the business paper “Les Echos”.  He began his career in 1960 working as an editor-in-chief for “Les Echos”.  In 1967, he founded one of France’s foremost economic magazines, l’Expansion.  Jean-Louis Sevran Schreiber is the author of a number of works personal and professional psychology and has always been interested in the question of time management (especially the creation of time management seminars).  Today he directs the French chapter of “Human Rights Watch”.

In Too Fast!, Sevran Schreiber gives us an excellent summary of the what he calls “the pandemic of short term-ism” in all its domains: politics (the contradiction between short time and democracy), corporations (productivity devours those who use it), consumption (the notion of psychological obsolescence), life rhythms (of which emergencies are the first priority), relationships towards others (and the notion of the relation to high speed), and the environment (the resistance towards egoism).  The paradox is that at a time where, historically we have never worked less and lived longer, we have never felt that there is not enough time. He reminds us that we cannot react according to time, but according to what we do with time: “It is not time that’s problematic, but our schedules”.

In an interview, Sevran Schreiber gave us the essence of his point of view.  He published Too Fast! as a warning concerning our relationship to time and our submission to speed and its corollary “generalized short-termism”, meaning that “short notice dominates our decision making process”.  Using a particularly arresting image, Jean-Louis Sevran Schreiber says “We are all collectively passengers in a car whose headlight’s scope diminish as the car accelerates.”  Will we drive off the road?  He reminds us that for a trader “the horizon of time is the end of a day!” Transferring data electronically has accelerated their circulation to the extent that information and decisions must be made instantaneously.  To the question “Why do we like this amount of speed?” Sevran Schreiber replies “speed is a consequence of our genetic programming; the possibilities of our brain overtake those of our bodies.  At the same time, speed overtakes the capacity of our brains, and makes us myopic of resulting in consequences of our decision.”  We have crossed, according to him, the “point of excess: we are incapable to face imperatives of reform, making fundamental decisions, be it in politics, financial or environmental….the temptation of governments is to answer this need for speed by accelerating the legislative process and compromising laws.”  We seem to be heading towards a “democracy of opinions”.  This is the same for businesses “Today, corporations are directed by professional managers selected for their abilities to “produce” rapid results for their shareholders– the objective is no longer in creating the best products but in turning the highest profit.”

It is perhaps regrettable that after such a stable analysis, Sevran Schrebier doesn’t provide any concrete solutions, relying instead on the reader to carry them out.  He reminds us that taking distance and “looking towards the real” is important as well as putting “long term” in practice in our lives.  Conscience is the beginning of redemption but the subject deserves, in my opinion, a more profound analysis and more radical political, economical and social propositions.  Should we perhaps increase the length of political terms?  Should we question publishing corporations results on a quarterly basis?  Is it not urgent to judge managers and employees by creating durable value?  Shouldn’t we learn how to value relationships and embrace the long term?  In short, isn’t it time to give time some time? 😉

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