In Defense of Gerontocracy?

I have come to see the moral clarity and conviction of young people and the wisdom and pragmatism of the old not as adversarial forces but as two elements in a dynamic system that need to be designed for as parts of a whole.

Here are two reactions to Frank Bruni’s column In Defense of the Gerontocracy: Maybe older is better. Just look at Nancy Pelosi, about US Senator Dianne Feinstein [age 85] apparently scolding of a group of young constituents who pressed her for action on the Green New Deal. The two comments below, from Micah and Paul B., are not directly responding to each other’s posts, but the effect is the same.

From Micah in NYC,

I usually love Frank Bruni’s columns, but this one infuriates me. Sure, yes, there are good Boomers. Fine. But, fundamentally, that’s not what the Feinstein kerfluffle was about. It was about a powerful woman condescending to terrified children who will inherit an Earth rendered uninhabitable by her brutal timidity long after she is dead. I am 23; if we don’t act now to demolish the structures that enable climate change, our planet will be in catastrophe long before I am Dianne Feinstein’s age, or Frank Bruni’s. Acknowledging that is far, far more important than a fragile generation’s ego.
Micah, NYC, 26 February 2019

From Paul B. in New Jersey,

You miss the whole concept of this essay. Ms. Feinstein was not dismissive of the children’s concerns; anything but. What she was saying is that large problems deserve passionate attention but also deep thought and planning. The devil is indeed in the details. The passionate intensity of youth insists upon immediate solutions without thinking deeply on the nature of the problem and the construction of complex solutions, essentially saying, “wouldn’t it be great if... or it is terrible that...” It is only through life long painful experience that anything remotely resembling wisdom is gained and one possesses it only at the apex of life and only briefly. Even though passion may seem to have dimmed, commitment remains. You would do well to listen to the elders while you can, rather than charge into what you know little about. Decent manners would not hurt, either.
Paul B, New Jersey, 26 February 2019

While I do see these two views as connected parts of a whole I will place my bets with Micah — with the the young and the young at heart. At this moment in history, with the ticking bomb of climate change, there is simply not enough time to rely on the slow, wise processes of the past.

As Bill McKibben wrote in Rolling Stone, “If we don’t win very quickly on climate change, then we will never win.” Or as Alex Steffen has said, “Winning slowly is same as losing.”


In the article If Americans Can Find North Korea on a Map, They’re More Likely to Prefer Diplomacy (New York Times, 5 July 2017) Kevin Quealy unpacks several studies that show that when people know more about the geographic location of geopolitical hotspots — when they know where North Korea and the Ukraine are, for example — they tend to favor diplomacy over military engagement.

The people who had the most geographical knowledge were, by-and-large, highly educated, but the next most knowledgeable group was…older people.

“Nearly half of respondents 65 and older found North Korea. The Korean War, which ended in 1953, may be in the memory of today’s older seniors,” wrote Quealy.

From these studies it might be fair to conclude that the lived experience of older people may give them quantifiably different starting points for decision making than the young — which seems uncontroversial when I put it that way, but given Americans’ general state of ignorance regarding geography and history I would want more people in the proverbial “room where decisions are made” who had a living, working knowledge of where things are and what happened there in the past, than not.

"Professionals are often incapable of independent thought"

By the Spring of 1998, Jonathan was 13, and his ambitions were growing. He had glimpsed the essential truth of the market: that even people who called themselves professionals are often incapable of independent thought…
— From Jonathan Lebed’s Extracurricular Activities, by Michael Lewis, New York Times, 2001

This quote, this assertion in this context, hit me like a lightning bolt 11 years ago and has rung in my head ever since.

Michael Lewis’s article, written for the Sunday Times Magazine, brilliantly teases out the excruciating ironies — the abject conflict — between new and old ways of thinking about expertise and authority. 

It is a story about about a boy from New Jersey who figures out that he is just as capable, in fact more capable, than established professionals at analyzing stocks. He makes about $800,000 in 6 months of trading, and as a result he is prosecuted by officials from the Securities and Exchange Commission who are both mystified by his very existence — and threatened by his implicit challenge to The Way Things Are Done (which, we have learned throughout a decade of financial crisis, is often a nonsensical house of cards).

Eventually, the Bloomberg News Service commissioned a study to explore the phenomenon of what were now being called ‘whisper numbers’. The study showed the whisper numbers, the numbers put out by the amateur Web sites, were mistaken, on average, by 21 percent. The professional Wall Street forecasts were mistaken, on average, by 44 percent. The reason the amateurs now held the balance of power in the market was that they were, on average, more than twice as accurate as the pros – this in spite of the fact that the entire financial system was rigged in favor of the pros. The big companies spoon-fed their scoops directly to the pros; the amateurs were flying by radar


It occurred to no one that the public might one day be as sophisticated in these matters as financial professionals.


Even a 14-year-old boy could see how it all worked, why some guy working for free out of his basement in Jackson, Mo., was more reliable than the most highly paid analyst on Wall Street. The companies that financial pros were paid to analyze were also the financial pros ‘biggest customers’. A year later, when the Internet bubble burst, the hollowness of the pros only became clearer.


“At length, I phoned the Philadelphia office of the S.E.C., where I reached one of the investigators who had brought Jonathan Lebed to book. I was maybe the 50th journalist he’d spoken with that day, and apparently a lot of the others had had trouble grasping the finer points of securities law. At any rate, by the time I asked him to explain to me what, exactly, was wrong with broadcasting one’s private opinion of a stock on the Internet, he was in no mood.

‘Tell me about the kid.’

‘He’s a little jerk.’

‘How so?’

'He is exactly what you or I hope our kids never turn out to be.’

‘Have you met him?’

‘No. I don’t need to.’

No medium has ever survived the indifference of 25 year olds

If you believe, as I do, that many of those [newspaper publishing] institutions are so mismatched to the task at hand that most of them face a choice, at best, between radical restructure and outright collapse, well, in that case, you’d probably find the smartest 25 year olds you know, and try to convince them that now would be a pretty good time to start working on Plan B… No medium has ever survived the indifference of 25 year olds.
— Clay Shirky, Institutions, Confidence, and the News Crisis, December 2, 2011