What’s Wrong with a Gerontocracy?

Written by: Paul Rubin

Primary Source: orinanobworld.blogspot.com

The digital version of the June 24, 2013 issue of Time magazine contains a viewpoint column by Grace Wyler titled “Washington is a Gerontocracy“. The subtitle adequately conveys her central point:

A 20-something can be the CEO of a billion-dollar company but can’t run for the Senate. That doesn’t make sense.

Given some of her arguments, I thought an operations research/mathematics perspective might be in order (plus it’s a holiday and I have nothing better to do with my time).

First, I should stipulate that I’m actually somewhat in agreement with her. Here, in no particular order, is a partial list of things that a 21 year old US citizen legally can do:

  • consume alcohol (most places, anyway);
  • own property;
  • sign contracts;
  • wed;
  • reproduce;
  • drive an automobile;
  • vote;
  • control a variety of lethal military ordinance;
  • serve (and perhaps die for) his/her country.

Here, per Ms. Wyler, is a list of things that same citizen cannot do:

  • serve in the House of Representatives (minimum age: 25);
  • serve in the Senate (minimum age: 30);
  • serve as President of the United States (minimum age: 35).

Now, one of the truisms of operations research (albeit one not often taught in classrooms) is that when confronted with constraints for a decision, the first question should be something along the lines of “Why do those constraints exist?” It is not uncommon that the actual reason, if you can drill down to it, is something like “Because <insert name of previous or current big-wig> thinks/thought it should be that way” or “Because that’s how we’ve always done it” (since the last time anybody bothered to think about it). With that in mind, I am not ready to dismiss the validity of lower age limits in general and those specified in the Constitution in particular, but I do think it is worth reviewing them and asking whether they are still appropriate.

I also happen to agree that, to some extent,

Capitol Hill could probably take some cues from people who aren’t afraid to move fast and break a few things.

I further agree that

Congress is struggling to keep up, spinning its wheels in a bygone era when people thought the Internet was a “series of tubes.”

Some of their votes on electronic privacy, protection of intellectual property and other technology-related bills have suggested a less than stellar understanding of technology … but when the current 20-somethings are 40-somethings, that will resolve itself, much as the current “gerontocracy” knows how to drive a car without smacking it with a buggy whip.

Those points made, I have to take issue with some of Ms. Wyler’s arguments.

But if any of these wunderkinder want to direct their powerful young minds toward governing the country, they will have to wait a few years. … [T]here is a serious downside to barring young people from seeking federal office: with the public debate determined and dominated by senior citizens, the country doesn’t get to hear from — and vote for — the interests of young adults[.]

Having earlier touted a few 20-something billionaires who made their money from Internet businesses, Ms. Wyler suddenly seems to have forgotten their online presence (and the online presences of the multitude of non-billionaire 20-somethings who patronize those businesses). Television is also awash in good-looking 20- and 30-somethings, whether on scripted shows or reality shows. If there is one thing young people do not currently lack, it is platforms to make their opinions heard. Furthermore, I’m fairly sure the Constitutional limits on the ages of office-holders do not apply to staff (else the occasional Congressman-page scandal would be reported in the AARP newsletter and not in Time). Our current leaders have ample opportunity to listen to the opinions of their (considerably) younger constituents, whether they exercise those opportunities or not.

The result is that Capitol Hill remains at least a generation behind the rest of the country. In the 113th Congress, elected in 2012, the average age in the House is 57, and the average age in the Senate is 62.

In support of Ms. Wyler’s position, using 2012 demographic data from the US Census Bureau, 57 is roughly the 70th percentile of adults (those over age 20) and roughly the 78th percentile of the entire population. So Congress does in fact skew a bit old. On the other hand, if we equate a “generation” to approximately 25 years, the “average” member of Congress is a bit more than a generation older than the 20-somethings and roughly a generation younger than the eldest segment of the population. So if they are “a generation behind the rest of the country”, the “rest of the country” must exclude anyone with an AARP membership … and trust me, you do not want to meddle with us. (Old proverb: Old age and treachery will overcome youth and skill.)

In his book Too Young to Run?: A Proposal for an Age Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, [Pomona College politics professor John] Seery writes that the age restrictions imposed by the Constitution lower the incentive for young adults to participate in what is supposed to be a representative democracy.

This is certainly plausible, the key being that “lower” conveys a direction but not a magnitude. The young adults in question can run for many local, regional and state offices. Where I live, we had a recent college graduate serve on our city council at 24 and serve as mayor well before his thirtieth birthday. I’m not one to advocate for career politicians, but an apprenticeship before taking national office does not seem unduly burdensome. There is something comforting to the notion that the people steering the ship are not out on their maiden voyage.

On to my personal favorite:

New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, who died June 3 at 89, was the 298th Senator to die in office. Of the 22 Senators who have died in office since 1970, 16 were over 70.

This is again presented in the context that the Congress is too old, so presumably the reader is expected to infer that (a) having 16 of the last 22 senators who died in office be over 70 is somehow bad and that (b) electing younger people to Congress would reduce this number.

Electing younger Senators and Representatives would indeed bring the percentage of those expiring in office who are 70+ down, at least marginally, because it would create more opportunities for someone relatively young to die in office. According to the Social Security Administration actuarial tables, though, the average life expectancy for a 25 year old male is 52 years (death at age 77) and the average life expectancy for a 25 year old female is almost 57 years (death around age 82). If our goal is to decrease the percentage of in-office deaths that occur beyond age 70, let’s look at some options that would have a more significant impact:

  • elect younger Senators and Representatives with serious, preferably terminal, illnesses;
  • elect younger Senators and Representatives who enjoy participating in extreme (and hazardous) sports;
  • elect younger Senators and Representatives who drive without using seat belts or ride motorcycles without helmets (preferably at high speed in both cases);
  • elect younger Senators and Representatives who are on active duty in war zones;
  • elect younger Senators and Representatives who are active members of street gangs or drug cartels;
  • elect substantially more young Senators and Representatives with strict term limits (so that they cannot grow old in office).

I kind of like the last one; the other suggestions may not be very practical. More to the point, though, is that we need to ask why it is a bad thing that so many of the Senators who died in office were relatively old (or, from my current vantage point, “not particularly young”). If someone is going to die in office, I personally would just as soon have them lead a long and hopefully fulfilling life first. Now if we want to reduce the frequency of deaths in office, as opposed to the average age of those who go out with their boots on, I can think of a few measures (including cutting back on free food and alcohol provided by lobbyists), and electing younger members of Congress (of reasonable health and with reasonably conservative personal habits) would likely lead to a nontrivial reduction in frequency.

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I'm an apostate mathematician, retired from a business school after 33 years of teaching mostly (but not exclusively) quantitative methods courses. My academic interests lie in operations research. I also study Tae Kwon Do a bit on the side.

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