Former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer has set up a ‘Center for the Next Generation‘, announced the biz section in this morning’s New York Times. As far as wealthy Americans go, this guy has good credentials: he gave $5 million to the California campaign to stop ‘Proposition 23’ – a vote that would have rolled back the state’s greenhouse gas emissions cuts programme. This Center – described as a non-partisan ‘nonprofit organisation that aims to be a loud voice in major public policy debates’ – sounds like a worthy endeavour, and my first thought was “Hooray! Someone fighting the good fight.”
But then I got this image in my mind of political debate as essentially a war of the titans – a battle between millionaires, with Tom Steyer on one side and the Koch brothers (famous for using their billions to undermine environmental legislation, trade unions, Obama’s healthcare reforms, among other terrors) on the other. And I felt a bit left out.
Is it right to depend on a former hedge fund manager’s goodwill to ensure future generations’ needs are considered in public decision-making? Can we be proud of a modern democracy that responds to big wads of cash and big advertising campaigns, no matter who they’re wielded by? It feels less like ‘one person, one vote’, and more like ‘one rich person, as many votes as you can buy’.
I’d feel better if future generations and children were better-represented within the institutions of government, with a formal procedure for taking their needs into account when making decisions. Hungary has a Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations, supported by a line in its constitution that enshrines the right to a healthy environment. WWF-UK and the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development have done some interesting work on governance options in this area – see Peter Roderick’s informative document on Taking the Longer View.
We shouldn’t be protecting the interests of future generations because a few wealthy individuals think it’s a good idea. Quite apart from the moral reasoning (we should be doing it because human beings have an obligation to leave the world a better place for the people who come after us), in a battle of funds, those who benefit from the fossil-fuelled status quo have the odds stacked in their favour.
I am very glad the Center for the Next Generation exists, because it will add a much-needed counterweight to the campaigns against the public interest waged by Koch brothers and co. But I’m not sure we should call this democracy.