Why the effects of aging are detrimental to being the U.S. president.
- As there's a minimum age, there should be a maximum one.
- Aging causes decline in numerous cognitive skills as shown in numerous studies.
- Older candidates are less likely to support new ideas, technologies and societal changes.
Look, this is not meant to be ageist. But as we have a minimum age to become president – 35 – there should be a maximum age too. Why 35 anyway? Who determined that 35 is the age you have mature enough ideas and know enough about the world? So a younger person is not able to have good ideas before then?
Of course that age limit comes from the founding fathers who drafted the Constitution. They somewhat arbitrarily calculated that 35 was the age you'd achieve competency in life and be ready to rule a nation.
What should be the top age limit to run for president? For one the retirement age is 66 - maybe that's a good cutoff point after which we shouldn't have to contend with people trying to take on what is likely the hardest and most demanding job in the world.
To look at this further, here are top 10 reasons for why we should have a maximum age to become president –
1. Mental sharpness
As a society, we value age. Older people are supposed to have the knowledge and the experience. But is that enough in a position that requires one to react to thousands of variables in an increasingly-complex world where missteps can lead to global catastrophe?
A 2015 study carried out by MIT's Joshua Hartshorne and Laura Germine from Harvard found the different ages when our brains are their utmost. The majority of mental processing skills like memory, pattern recognition, and reacting quickly peaked from around the late teens into the 20s. Other components of such 'fluid intelligence" peaked as late as 40. Certain life skills like the ability to recall people's emotional states were at their strongest in the 40s and 50s. General knowledge and comprehension peaked by 50. Vocabulary, which is a measure of accumulated intelligence, actually peaked into the late 60s and early 70s.
When does the brain's power start to decline? After reaching their full potential in the 20s, the processing functions like strategic memory that helps recalling names and numbers start to decline during that same decade. Tasks found to be sensitive to aging, getting worse over time, include simple and choice reaction times (RTs), tasks involving working memory, tests of episodic memory as well as spatial and reasoning abilities, mental rotation, and visual-search performance. Some studies show that a third of older people struggle with declarative memory (retrieving facts or events) while about a fifth do as well on cognitive tests as 20-year-olds.
One big cognitive ability that has been proven in various studies to decline with aging is the ability to pay attention to more than one task at once. "Although dual-tasking is already difficult enough for younger adults, it apparently is even more difficult for older adults," states the 2017 paper by psychologists Eric Ruthruff and Mei-Ching Lien. How much more difficult? A 2015 review by psychologist Paul Verhaeghen found an average dual-task "cost" of 215 ms for older adults while just "106 ms" for younger adults (2015). That's more than twice as slow.
It goes without saying (but let's say it anyway) that being a president is perhaps the epitome of a task-heavy job in a very multi-faceted country.
Besides, the various age-related effects on the brain, there are always a plethora of age-specific illnesses. Aging is a key risk factor for most common neurodegenerative diseases, specifically dementias like Alzheimer's disease, cerebrovascular disease, Parkinson's disease and Lou Gehrig's disease.
Older people have a lot of personal and historical baggage to contend with. Donald Trump (73) certainly lived his lifetime's worth, with a portfolio of scandals involving bankruptcies, porn stars, sexism, violence-inciting racism, not to mention with what was it - oh, yes, collusion with a foreign power.
Most candidates with a long life story come with both the good and bad experiences that have shaped them. Some would see in that an accumulation of wisdom. Others – defining characteristics that shape the character and worldview and the relationships that the person has to respond to. Experience is best when it allows you to create something new or easily respond to situations using your gathered knowledge. It's worst when it is a force that makes you beholden to fringe special interests, blackmail, business needs and scandals. In other words - the swamp.
3. Obsolete ideas
Older people make decisions that benefit other older people. They also tend to be more conservative by default and reflect worldviews that may have been prevalent at some point of their lives but often are no longer so.
Case in the point, the recent revelation of a racist exchange between Presidents Reagan and Nixon recorded on tape. In the phone call, the then-California Governor Ronald Reagan dials up President Richard Nixon at the White House to joke about African delegates to the United Nations, who did not vote the way the U.S. wanted.
"Last night, I tell you, to watch that thing on television as I did," Reagan said. "To see those, those monkeys from those African countries—damn them, they're still uncomfortable wearing shoes!"
Hearing this, Nixon laughs raucously.
You can listen to the conversation yourself here.
At some point in history, that kind of talk would not have offended many, while now it's certainly viewed as completely unacceptable. At least publicly. An older candidate is more likely to represent attitudes or ideas that are no longer in step with the majority of the country.
Add to this the researched fact that while remote memory remains relatively stable in older people, formation of recent memories declines as a faculty. That means it's easier to recall how it was in the "good old days" versus being able to incorporate contemporary information and experiences.
But what about Bernie Sanders (77)? Certainly, one can't accuse the Senator from Vermont for going the easy and expected route as he advocates for new programs that have never been instituted in America, like Medicare for All.
On the flip side, it's hard not to see championing of socialism, a societal approach that most people associate with failed 20th century policies as a somewhat quixotic throwback – even if Sanders always tries to differentiate his socialism as something more modern (or Scandinavian).
4. Inability to accept change
Much of Trump's presidency seems like a throwback to ideas that were socially relevant at least six or seven decades ago if not all the way back to 1800s. Change, especially change in society, is not the domain you want to explore more with age. But change is also paramount for the health of a democracy.
"Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched," wrote Thomas Jefferson. "But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.
5. Being out of step with technology
Technology changes happen too quickly nowadays for older people to keep up. Yet tech is a defining feature of our life, influencing all aspects. How can a grandfather president who doesn't know and understand new technologies have anything meaningful to say about them?
This is not just about the latest smartphones. What about our country's security? As the current president showed, who was elected in part courtesy of Internet-related fraud, an older leader may not understand or even care to understand how to keep our country safe in the cyber world.
A great illustration of the tech knowledge gap exhibited by the political leaders came during the infamous exchange between Senator Orrin Hatch and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg. Hatch seemed to have little idea how Facebook worked.
6. Being out of step with culture
While a rapping grandma makes for funny scenes in Adam Sandler movies, you don't look to senior citizens for what's hot on the street. It would be hard to top the cultural connection President Obama, elected when he was 47, had with the nation. You may think it's unnecessary to know how and why the country expresses itself through its arts and culture. That's how we get documents like the 2019 Trump budget, which seeks to eliminate funding for the arts, public television and libraries.
7. Reverse age discrimination
Older people tend to stick with other older people and look down upon those who are younger as lacking experience or (their) common sense. Case in point, Trump's attacks on AOC and other members of the "Squad". He not only doesn't like their ideas and uses their likes to excite his conflict-hungry base, Trump represents the "Squad" as being silly and impractical and not knowing how the world works.
8. The president won’t survive the term
In a country where the average life expectancy is stuck at 78 (dropping for the third year in a row), the chances are high enough that a president who is elected while already being 70 is not going to survive the term. Why knowingly put the country through such drama?
9. Nostalgia results in stagnation
Older candidates tend to invoke nostalgia, an emotion we enjoy but also should be wary of.
"Make America great again," proclaimed Trump's main slogan, harkening back to some mythical time when America was supposedly "great". It's again as much as saying "I remember, back in my day" while wagging your finger at the whippersnappers on the lawn.
Of course, no such time really existed. And if your standard of progress is some fictional time in the past, it's likely you'll end up with a country tearing itself apart at the seems. It naturally lurches forward, moved by its youth, resourcefulness and the indomitable American spirit. And it shakes and rattles back, like a wounded Godzilla, restrained by the champions of yesteryear.
10. It’s unfair
Older people tend to have an unfair societal advantage. We generally respect the elders. We want to hear their stories, to learn from them. We just don't have to be ruled by them.
While representing just 14.9% of the general population, presidents who are seniors cannot possibly be responsive to everyone's interests. In fact, chances are they care more about the interests of their own segment of the country. It's not rocket science to understand why a person of retirement age would support policies that are aimed at maintaining the status quo and against people and ideas they don't feel comfortable with.
And if you're still afraid that any kind of limit is making ageist assumptions, do away with one altogether. Of course, none of these points matter at the moment, as the Congress full of much older people isn't going to change its laws to allow younger ones more influence. It's notable that the current Congress is one of the oldest Congresses ever, with an average age of 59 (and most leaders in the 70s and 80s).
You might debate whether the U.S., is a true democracy, ruled by elites or secret interests, but it's certainly a gerontocracy. You can ask a person over 60 what that means.
When the president gets his primary information from talking heads on cable TV rather than intelligence briefings, we have a problem.
Until now, the relationship of the President of the United States to the TV had been predictable. The President made news, and satirists made fun of the President. The President did not watch the satirists because he had, um, more important things to do. Well, life comes at you fast. Today, perhaps the most reliable way to communicate with the President is to appear on a cable news show. The poor quality of these programs — especially their habit of featuring unqualified opinion in the interest of balanced reporting — has made maintaining an informed national conversation very difficult. And that was before the President was citing Joe Schmucko from Illinois! Adam Mansbach's most recent book (co-authored with Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel) is For This We Left Egypt?.
Bill Nye, CEO of The Planetary Society, offers an important 5-point plan for President Trump on space exploration and NASA's budget.
As the CEO of The Planetary Society, Bill Nye has written an open letter to President Trump, highlighting the need for prioritizing space research, and for supporting NASA's space exploration efforts in particular. Bill Nye offers the president a comprehensive five-point plan for steering NASA's objectives and orientation during his tenure:
1. Keep Mars as the Goal
Mars became the central objective of NASA's efforts during the previous administration, and Bill Nye urges a continued focus on the same path. It is also important to insist on Mars because there are voices in the Trump administration that want to divert resources away from the Red Planet and focus on exploration of the moon. A vocal example of this is Newt Gingrich who has advocated "a permanent moon base". For Bill Nye and The Planetary Society, a diversion of efforts to the moon would mean that a manned mission to Mars might be delayed by a generation.
2. Orbit Mars First
This point has emerged from earlier work at The Planetary Society, such as workshops on solving problems of inhabiting Mars, which have found that orbital engagement should precede a full landing on the Red Planet. This was the original strategy for the moon landing, where Apollo VIII orbited the moon and Apollo XI landed on it. The Planetary Society has suggested that in an orbital-first strategy, humans can be stationed in Mars' orbit by 2033, and thereafter landed on the Mars surface by 2039.
3. Expand NASA's Scientific Programs
Bill Nye draws attention to the 'jobs' element of NASA's contribution, pointing out that there are tens of thousands of high-skilled jobs in engineering, manufacturing, and the pure sciences, that exist specifically thanks to NASA's scientific programs. The report recommends that "at least 30 percent of NASA’s total budget be committed to its Science Mission Directorate," and that we don't forget two things: our curiosity and safety. A budget commitment to the science mission "will help humanity better understand its origins, protect us from solar storms, search for life beyond Earth, as well as understand our changing climate," says the report. NASA's acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, has already stated that because of Trump's proposed budget, the agency “will not pursue the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).” Here's why that matters. Trump signed the 'NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017' on March 21, which seems to favor stability over progress, leaving one person pretty unhappy: Elon Musk.
4. Embrace the Commercial Space Industry
The private sector's role in space exploration has grown enormously over the past decade, Bill Nye notes, and fostering continued entrepreneurial energy and private initiative is a sign of a healthy space industry. Thus Nye advocates continued cooperation between the government and the private sector in the name of science, and again the report strikes on Trump's passion area: American jobs. "NASA already supports some 17,000 civil servants and tens of thousands of private-sector contractors throughout the country. An agency focused on exploring Mars in partnership with a vibrant commercial sector has the potential to engage many more of our citizens in a 21st-century workforce."
5. Modestly Increase the Budget, Five-Over-Five
Bill Nye lays emphasis on the fact that NASA does not require a significant amount of money to make the tremendous strides that it does. Nye suggests a fiscal outlay of "five-over-five", meaning a +5% annual increase in the budget for each of the next five fiscal years. He suggests that such an investment would go a long way in helping NASA to continue its momentum in space exploration.
In his video, Bill Nye urges the president to pay careful attention to these recommendations, noting that the president has the "opportunity to provide clear direction to our nation's space program," and that "advances made on [Trump's] watch could be historic."
The video component should be seen in the context of a 16-page report produced by The Planetary Society titled "Opportunities for NASA and the New Administration" which was submitted to the NASA transition team before Trump took office. This report elaborates on many of the points articulated in Bill Nye's video, and highlighted many of the same concerns.
The Planetary Society has been keeping a close eye on the Trump administration's budget implications for NASA. According to summary analysis posted on their website, the Planetary Society notes that many important changes are already being stipulated or mulled, and further fiscal discussions over the year will have significant consequences for NASA.
As Nye verbalizes, the Trump administration "has the opportunity to lead, by taking this critical first step," and, in a meeting we'd love to see happen, Nye offers to discuss these points with the president in person.
What if the vision wasn't just to have politicians who are science literate, but actual scientists running the joint – would it be any better than it is now?
Politicians aren’t too popular, and yet we keep voting them into the top offices. Would the world be a better place if it were run by scientists and engineers? As an engineer himself, having spent his career in the company of rocket scientists and Nobel laureates, Bill Nye has a firm answer to this week’s question. Nye's most recent book is Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World.
Bill Nye's most recent book is Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World.
America has a split personality, and the country it wants to be is constantly being foiled by the country that it is. In an ideal world, says Jelani Cobb, there is a way of using power that does not entail the oppression and exploitation of other people. But how do we get there?
America operates on two kinds of power: moral authority – through which citizens and members of the international community invest in the United States’ message of a better future – and military might – the stark opposite of morality, whereby presidents overreach their authority and breach sovereign territory to meet their own objectives. Barack Obama represented the tension between these ideals, espousing morality in speech while engaging the US’s military might in action. The country America wants to be is constantly being foiled by the country that America is. Journalist Jelani Cobbs asks: can America have it both ways? Is it noble to try, or merely hypocritical? Jelani Cobb is a staff writer at The New Yorker. His latest book is The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress.
Jelani Cobb is a staff writer at The New Yorker. His latest book is The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress.