What the World Will Look Like in 2050

Talking computers, cancer cures, artificial limbs and cheaper health care are just a few of the things Americans expect to see in four decades, according to a new Pew Research poll.


It's striking how optimistic Americans are about the future, especially in comparison to the answers we gave 1999 -- at the peak of a historic economic boom. We're less concerned about the rich/poor gap growing (maybe we expect the wealthy to mop up our long-term deficit crisis?). We think health care will be more affordable than we did in the days when HMOs reigned. Strangely, that optimism doesn't extend to education, as respondents were practically split on the question of whether public ed would improve in the next few decades.

I'm not sure that amorphous polls like this bear much fruit for policymakers and politicians, but it's notable that Americans are fundamentally hopeful about the future even in (or perhaps especially in) down times.

In the next few years, electeds are going to grapple with deficit reduction ideas that will make their voters (and, vicariously, themselves) squirm, because higher taxes and lower spending means sacrificing a bit of what we have and receive today to ensure that we can have and receive something very much like it in the future. According to the behavioral economics term hyperbolic discounting, we prefer a reward today over tomorrow. In fact, we discount the value of a reward the longer out we receive it. This explains why, for example, it's tough to sell Social Security reform on basis of its partial insolvency in ... 27 years.

On the other hand, Americans seem to expect many underlying conditions (with the notable exception of global warming) to improve in the next 40 years. Maybe the mindset is: things are going to keep getting better no matter what, so why should I sacrifice what I have now that I'm comparatively poor? It's not the attitude I would encourage or condone, but there's a dash of sense to it.