The Cost of Living a Long Time
By Michael M. Uhlmann
Sunday, February 18 1996; Page X05
RICHARD POSNER is a man of considerable parts. He was for many years professor at the University of Chicago Law School and an energizing force in the law and economics movement not only there but throughout the country. He is a prolific author (legal articles and reviews by the dozens and books on everything from sex to the jurisprudence of Holmes and Cardozo). Since 1981 he has been a member of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, where he now presides as chief judge. His opinions are read, quoted and argued about. He is spirited, provocative, creative and not at all shy about letting the world know what he thinks.
In Aging and Old Age, Posner brings his formidable intelligence and the tools of economic analysis to a study of the closing years of the human life cycle. How and why is it that older people think, speak and behave differently from the young? Why do they vote differently, commit fewer crimes, gab so much, pinch pennies? What is the relationship between our young "self" and our "self" when old? Do seniors extract a disproportionate share of wealth from the younger generation? Do laws designed for the benefit and protection of the old accomplish their intended goals? These are only a few of the questions raised by Posner in the course of constructing an elaborate analytical model, in which he seeks to integrate economics with the findings of cognitive psychology and evolutionary biology. Having constructed his model in the first part of the book, he then applies it to such issues as whether the quality of judging is adversely affected by old age (yes, but not in the way you might think) and the advisability of physician-assisted suicide (Posner suggests that it could lead to fewer suicides). He also analyzes the social security system, the logic and performance of pension regulations, and the allocation of medical resources to the aging -- with surprising results. And if this were not enough, in his final chapter, he casts a withering glance at the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which turns out to be only marginally useful to its intended beneficiaries and then only at the expense of injuring others.
As even a cursory glance at this list of topics will confirm, the book is rich, almost dizzying, in its detail. Posner is at home with and draws from a wide multi-disciplinary literature. There is hardly a page on which some useful insight cannot be found. But for all its detail and, betimes, analytical brilliance, it remains in the end an oddly dissatisfying work -- an elaborately prepared meal of many exotic courses that nevertheless leaves you hungry. Like the pudding Winston Churchill sent back to the kitchen, it has no theme.
This is a consequence of both Posner's assumptions and his style. As to the latter, any reader of his other works (including his judicial opinions) will tell you that Posner is perfectly capable of writing clear English prose. It is all the more regrettable, therefore, that Aging and Old Age contains more than its share of jargon -- in this case, a kind of social scientese Esperanto -- that tends to obfuscate far more than it clarifies. For example, Posner feels it necessary to contrive a mathematical equation for judging the rationality of suicide, which calls to mind nothing so much as Dr. Johnson's remark about dogs walking on their hind legs: the wonder is not that it's done well, but that it's done at all. I suppose there's a utility to erecting mathematical models on suicide, but as Flaubert's Bovary or Dostoyevsky's Kirilov remind us, there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in one of Posner's equations.
Or consider Posner's discussion of King Lear: "Because of his advancing age, Lear wishes to divest himself of responsibility for his kingdom . . . and he proposes therefore to divide the kingdom among his three daughters, reserving a right of support for himself. But the division of the kingdom is a recipe for civil war, as King Lear learns to his sorrow. (We can see here a metaphor for the inefficiency of breaking up a large estate into small farms.) And the right to support that he had reserved turns out to be unenforceable." That's certainly one way to look at it, but I am not convinced that the world lost much because Shakespeare failed to study economics. Here we cross from matters of style to matters of substance. What is true of Posner's handling of Lear is perforce also true of his approach to the world in general. Economics is for Posner the architectonic body of knowledge, or, as he puts it, the "baton" that directs the orchestra of human understanding. It may no longer be the "dismal science" (if anything, it inclines these days toward a genial optimism about the human condition), but its reach often exceeds its grasp -- as when, for example, it quantifies the unquantifiable or disregards what it cannot measure.
Posner's discussion of aging demonstrates both the glories and the limits of the economic point of view. When he is on the terra firma of measurable data, he has few equals, and the student is handsomely rewarded in following his argument. But he ignores the ancient adage that a wise man seeks only such certainty as the nature of the subject under inquiry will admit. Posner strains to make economics the divining rod of our existence. In the end, the effort is bound to be Procrustean: It's what gets left out that matters. You can read Aging and Old Age from cover to cover without ever learning, for example, that ties of consanguinity are rooted in nature and nourished by love. For Posner, the glue (such as it is) of familial relationships, especially between old and young, is little more than a series of utilitarian calculations carried out by essentially autonomous individuals who are moral strangers to one another. In such a world, the only difference between Cordelia and her sisters is the difference in their marginal utility curves for happiness. In such a world, not even an economist would want to dwell.
Michael M. Uhlmann is a Washington attorney and a Senior Fellow at The Ethics and Public Policy Center.
© 1997 The Washington Post Co.
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