Quantifying Wisdom

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Matt Yglesias writes:


A state is fundamentally an ethical enterprise aimed at promoting human welfare. A business isn't like that. If you're trying to look at America from a balance-sheet perspective the problem is very clear. It's not "entitlements" and it's not "Social Security" and it's not "Medicare" and it's not "health care costs" it's the existence of old people. 

Old people, generally speaking, don't produce anything of economic value. They sit around, retired, consuming goods and services and produce nothing but the occasional turn at babysitting. The optimal economic growth policy isn't to slash Social Security or Medicare benefits, it's to euthanize 70 year-olds and harvest their organs for auction. With that in place, you could cut taxes and massively ramp-up investments in physical infrastructure, early childhood education, and be on easy street. The problem with this isn't that it wouldn't work, it's that it would be wrong, morally speaking.

I think there's some level of sarcasm and intentional overstatement here. But it got me to thinking about the actual worth of people over 70, and whether the problem is simply a moral one. Let me be direct--Wouldn't we be a much dumber society if there were no 70-year olds?

My Dad isn't 70, but he's over 60, and in many ways, I think he's done his best work as a father in his post-child-rearing. That work has mostly consisted of dispensing counsel aimed at preventing his offspring from doing something stupid. Very often it's been the species of stupid which he himself imbibed as young person. As a child, you aren't prepared to hear this sort of advice. But as a relatively young adult--especially if you have kids--you're open to the notion that older people may know something that you don't.

Let me stipulate that I don't believe that age necessarily guarantees wisdom. Nor do I think that age necessarily improves the person. And perhaps this is a case where anecdotes are trumped by data. But it strikes me that old people may well produce a disproportionate share of a society's wisdom, or at the very least, some of its sense of purpose and history. I suspect, though I don't know, that that may have some economic value. 

Perhaps, it's just me. But in my time as a reporter, I've always found elders to be invaluable resources. Interviewing Michelle Obama was awesome. Interviewing her mother was doubly-so, because she had a grander sense of what Chicago had been:

"Most of the people were working government jobs, like the post office. My father was a decorator. There was a gentleman in our neighborhood who owned a grocery store," Robinson recalled. He "had to go to his farm to pick up his groceries. It was rough. There were plenty of reasons why people could not do. People who couldn't afford rent for a whole apartment, they would share...

"That's where we got our understanding that it was going to be hard, but you just had to do whatever it takes," she said. "We all went to church. I was a Brownie. I was a Girl Scout. We all took piano lessons. We had drama classes. They took you to the museum, the Art Institute. They did all those things, but I don't know how. I grew up with a grandmother and an aunt. My aunt would do things my mother would not or could not."

This was surely of economic value to the Atlantic, and to me. But snark aside, there some real wisdom here. I know a number of people who are involved in policy-making concerning black communities who'd do well to hear this sort of thing.  Again, to be clear, I think you can achieve age without achieving wisdom. But I'm not so sure you can achieve wisdom without achieving age. 

Forgive the haze enveloping this post--my perspective is more literary than wonk, and thus subject to all the problems entailed in that approach. Someone more lettered will have to close the circle for me, or demonstrate why it can't be closed. 
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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