A range of policy problems – from climate change to pension sustainability to skill shortages – confront governments with intertemporal dilemmas: tradeoffs between maximizing social welfare in the present and taking care of the future. There is, moreover, substantial variation in the degree to which democratic governments are willing to invest in long-term social goods. Surprisingly, the literature on the politics of public policy has paid little explicit attention to timing as a dimension of policy choice, focusing almost exclusively on matters of cross-sectional distribution. This essay develops a framework for explaining intertemporal policy choices in advanced democracies by adapting findings from the literatures on distributive politics, political economy, and political behavior. The article makes a case for analyzing the politics of the long term in two dimensions: as a struggle, at once, over how welfare should be allocated across groups and over how policy effects should be distributed through time.
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