Derek Thompson: Why do such elderly people run America?
True enough, an old president will not function with the acuity of a young one. Give him a set of arithmetic problems, and watch him fumble, while his neuronally gifted interns ace the test or, more likely, cheat with their smartphones. The decline in the ability to deal with most simple cognitive tasks is linear from young adulthood to very old age, says Gregory Samanez-Larkin, a neuroscientist at Duke University. Your mind declines no faster from 55 to 65 than it does from 35 to 45. (After 70, the decline becomes less predictable, mostly because those ages have been studied less.) If you have ever sat impatiently while watching an older relative try to find a television channel or use a remote control, that decline is what you witnessed.
But consider what that older relative witnessed: your impatience, and perhaps even your inability to tame your desire to flip channels like a madman. Samanez-Larkin and his colleagues Daisy Burr, Jaime Castrellon, and David Zald recently found evidence that older adults are better at keeping their emotions and impulses in check. Their results, published in Emotion, “provide unique evidence that emotional health and regulation improve with age.” Moreover, Samanez-Larkin says, the set of skills known as “decision making” does not decline in any predictable way during normal aging. The interns might be whizzes at a chalkboard, but faced with complex decisions—whether to buy a new TV, say, rather than how to use it adroitly once they have it—the fogies match and sometimes outperform them.
The question then becomes: Is being president more like having to do a lot of math problems, or more like having to contain one’s emotions and make difficult decisions? It might be both: Presidents need to have a spry brain, capable of assimilating new information and rapidly adding it to their cognitive repertoire. But the job is, most crucially, about making decisions—extremely difficult decisions that are, unlike arithmetic, matters of judgment and value. The rightness of a decision is often unknowable ex ante. In these treacherous exercises, the elderly do not do badly, and impetuous youngsters sometimes come very close to getting us all killed. When you travel to a country with lots of road deaths, you should choose an old taxi driver with a very slow car.
There is also the question of energy, which—unless Sanders (78) and Biden (77) really are on amphetamines—seems certain to decline, and probably within the four- or eight-year period during which they might hold office. (Compared with them, Trump is a spring chicken—a Rhode Island Red, judging by color—of 73.) The job of a president has, historically, been exhausting emotionally and physically, and we should prepare for the possibility of a president who, like Ronald Reagan in his later years in office, simply slows down.