To Old Age

A mini-tempest in the blogosphere followed upon the recent appearance of Ezekiel Emanuel’s “Why I Hope to Die at 75” (The Atlantic, September 17, 2014). Emanuel, who is a “progressive” brother of the “progressive” Rahm Emanuel, was active in the shaping of Obamacare. For that reason, his pronouncement has been interpreted by some as a sinister policy suggestion, and derided by others as a foolish position. (See, for example, this, this, this, this, and this.)

Emanuel takes pains in his article to deny sinister intent. But some commentators aren’t buying Emanuel’s denial. Here’s Greg Scandlen, for example:

In [Emanuel’s] opinion, people older than 75 are annoying. They aren’t as productive as they used to be, don’t “contribute to work, society, the world.” They are more likely to be disabled, “a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived.” Plus, they are a pain in the ass: “they set expectations, render judgments, impose their opinions, interfere, and are generally a looming presence for even adult children.”

Zeke admits there are exceptions to all of this. Why, he even once worked with an 80-year-old economist who was quite useful….

And that may be Zeke’s biggest flaw—he is arbitrary. There is nothing magical about the age of 75. Some people have rich lives long beyond that. Other people become senile well before. But like most Progressives, Zeke sees only cookie-cutter people. In his mind, we are all the same, just a pile of numbers and statistics….

… He says, “We [Americans] are growing old, and our older years are not of high quality.” What an idiotic statement. What is “high quality?” Is it okay with him if my life is not “high” quality but still “pretty good” quality? Is his standard of high quality the same as mine? Are there no younger people with “low-quality” lives?

But he is also naïve. He cites a study of aging, and says “[t]he results show that as people age, there is a progressive erosion of physical functioning.” Good grief. He needed a study to know that? Everyone has known that since the dawn of man.

He writes of his 87-year old father, who had a heart attack about ten years ago. “Since then he has not been the same. Once the prototype of a hyperactive Emanuel, suddenly his walking, his talking, his humor got slower. Today he can swim, read the newspaper, needle his kids on the phone, and still live with my mother in their own house. But everything seems sluggish.” He also quotes his father as saying, “ I have slowed down tremendously. That is a fact. I no longer make rounds at the hospital or teach.” Zeke adds, “Despite this, he also said he was happy.”

The man is 87 and has slowed down, but he is happy. Only Zeke Emanuel would see this as a problem. Apparently, in Zeke’s mind the failure to be hyperactive is worthy of death (“Zeke Emanuel Wants You to Die at 75,” The Federalist, September 23, 2014).

David Henderson adds this:

Scandlen puts his finger accurately, based on what I’ve seen of Emanuel in the past, on Emanuel’s attitude. The way I would sum it up is “Sometimes wrong; never in doubt.” The man (Emanuel) really does seem to think he knows how everyone should live.

It seems clear, for example, that Emanuel would like his father to die….

What I learned from Emanuel’s article is what a narrow view of the good life he has.

Now, this wouldn’t matter much if Emanuel were a random guy saying that he doesn’t want certain kinds of medical tests after age 75. But he’s not. Remember that he was one of the architects of ObamaCare. With his attitude about the importance of people over age 75, can we seriously think that he wouldn’t want to cut off certain health care services for people over age 75?

Emanuel says he’s not advocating any particular health policy based on his views….

“Let me be clear.” Hmmm. Where have we heard that before? Basically, I just don’t believe him….

… Emanuel has never come across as someone who simply wants to persuade people; he has always come across as a life arranger…. (“Zeke Emanuel on Optimal Life Expectancy,” EconLog, September 23, 2014).

A “life arranger.” Perfect description. (Here’s a takedown of Cass Sunstein, another life-arranger associated with Obama, about whose “libertarian” paternalism and other statist urgings I’ve written here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

As an antidote to Emanuel, I offer W. Somerset Maugham (who lived almost 92 years), writing at the age of 64:

I look forward to old age without dismay. When Lawrence of Arabia was killed I read in an article contributed by a friend that it was his habit to ride his motor-bicycle at an excessive speed with the notion that an accident would end his life while he was still in full possession of his powers and so spare him the indignity of old age. If this is true it was a great weakness in that strange and somewhat theatrical character. It showed want of sense. For the complete life, the perfect pattern, includes old age as well as youth and maturity. The beauty of the morning and the radiance of noon are good, but it would be a very silly person who drew the curtains and turned on the light in order to shut out the tranquility of the evening. Old age has its pleasures, which, though different, are not less than the pleasures of youth. The philosophers have always told us that we are the slaves of our passions, and is it so small a thing to be liberated from their sway? The fool’s old age will be foolish, but so was his youth. The young man turns away from it with horror because he thinks that when he reaches it, he will still yearn for the things that give variety and gusto to his youth. He is mistaken. It is true that the old man will no longer be able to climb an Alp or tumble a pretty girl on a bed; it is true that he can no longer arouse the concupiscence of others. It is something to be free from the pangs of unrequited love and the torment of jealousy. It is something that envy, which so often poisons youth, should be assuaged by the extinction of desire. But these are negative compensations; old age has positive compensations also. Paradoxical as it may sound it has more time. When I was young I was amazed at Plutarch’s statement that the elder Cato began at the age of eighty to learn Greek. I am amazed no longer. Old age is ready to undertake tasks that youth shirked because they would take too long. In old age the taste improves and it is possible to enjoy art and literature without the personal bias that in youth warps the judgment. It has the satisfaction of its own fulfillment. It is liberated from the trammels of human egoism; free at last, the soul delights in the passing moment, but does not bid it stay. It has completed the pattern (The Summing Up, Pocket Books Edition, June 1967, pp. 215-16).

I first read The Summing Up about 40 years ago, though I didn’t at the time focus on the quoted passage. (I was interested them, as I still am, by Maugham’s reflections on the craft of writing.) But here I am now, almost a decade older than Maugham was when he wrote The Summing Up, and 16 years older than Emanuel. I can tell you that Maugham is right and Emanuel is wrong, if not about himself then about the legions who are near or beyond the age at which Emanuel wants himself (all of us?) to die.Signature