December 18, 2011
What do you get when you combine longer lives with a lower birthrate? What do you get when you combine longer live with an exploding birthrate?
Revolution is what you will you get. What that looks like has yet to be determined but society, politics and culture as we know it today will change dramatically.
And that change won’t come easily.
Live long and prosper? You bet. Americans’ rising longevity threatens fiscal calamity and generational warfare. But we have reason to think a grayer society is a richer society.
It’s noontime on a Wednesday at the town dump in this small (population: 6,600), middle-class community 30 miles south of Boston. This means that Bill Weleck, a 64-year-old retired mail carrier, is due for his four-and-a-half-hour work shift. He bicycles in, as usual, and dons a town-issued, fluorescent-green vest and a pair of gloves, then starts sorting through bags of plastic bottles in search of recyclables. The air is a tad pungent, but that doesn’t bother Weleck, who looks forward to the work. As he puts it, “What would I be doing at home? This gets me out into the community.”
Weleck isn’t working for wages. He is compensated for his time by an abatement on his property taxes worth up to $750 per year. The state’s “senior property tax work-off program” is popular with fiscally strapped Massachusetts towns that can’t afford to pay union-scale wages for needed work. Some 30 residents in West Bridgewater, ranging in age from their mid-60s to mid-80s, can be found not only at the dump (a much-desired worksite among the men) but also at the library, the forestry and maintenance departments, and the warrens of town hall. “The girls I have–and I call them girls–want to learn,” said Karen Lavin, a Building Department supervisor for a rotating crew of seniors who greet customers at the window, answer the phones, and help to process permits. “In my opinion, they’re worth every penny.”
Americans, it’s no secret, are living longer than ever. Life expectancy at birth, currently about 78 years, is increasing at the rate of roughly 1.5 years per decade. Baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, are turning 65 at the rate of 10,000 per day. The number of Americans age 65 or older, a mere 20 million in 1970, is on track to rise from about 40 million today to some 70 million by 2030. The share of seniors in the population, now about 13 percent, will reach 18 percent by 2030. The ranks of Americans who survive into their 90s are expected to soar from 1.9 million in 2010 to 9 million in 2050.
Long life may well be a blessing for the individual. But is it also a blessing for society? The fashionable answer is an increasingly anxious no. Choose your apocalyptic metaphor. The aging of America represents a “financial time bomb,” The New York Times has proclaimed–with the solvency of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid (the last in line for nursing-home payments for patients who have depleted their assets) all at risk. Foreign Policy magazine has warned that a “gray tsunami is sweeping the planet,” the United States included.
And yet the forecast that Americans’ increased longevity is a collective downer for the nation ain’t necessarily so. The fiscal threat, while real, provides too narrow a prism for understanding a question so complex. History suggests that the size of the total economic pie tends to grow larger as life expectancy rises. From 1950 to 2010, Americans’ life expectancy at birth grew by 15 percent and, at age 65, by more than 30 percent–even as household incomes and the gross domestic product increased sixfold.
So, as counterintuitive as this may sound, it is possible, even likely–listen up, worrywarts!–for Americans to live longer and grow richer.
Everything depends on two variables. The first is the health of older Americans, now and in decades to come. Will we have a population of bedridden elders subsisting in nursing homes as wards of the state, or will seniors be relatively able-bodied contributors to the economy, whether by working or by spending money on golf outings or gifts for the grandchildren? The difference for society is huge.
The second crucial factor is public policy. Will government take an imaginative and flexible approach to contributions that seniors can make–as exemplified by West Bridgewater’s tax work-off program? Will Washington relieve the fiscal stress on entitlement programs by, perhaps, raising the age of eligibility for Social Security and Medicare commensurate with the increase in life expectancy?
Nobody can say. But experts cite grounds for optimism, especially in regard to improvements in health. Medical advances make it likelier that seniors will spend a diminishing portion of their remaining days in pricy nursing homes. “People are staying healthier longer–we’re not producing a generation of really sick old people,” said David Canning, a professor of population science, economics, and international health at Harvard’s School of Public Health. “From the individual’s point of view, this is good news. From society’s perspective, this is also good news.”
“NEVER ACT YOUR AGE”
The fancy term for what Canning described is “compression of morbidity” the squeezing of serious illness, of all “morbid” conditions that cause death, into as short a time as possible at life’s end. Maximize the living, minimize the suffering, is one way to think about it. A personification of this principle is 106-year-old Signy Moen of West Barnstable on Cape Cod. Born in 1905, she tells of a childhood on a Norwegian farm with no electricity, of hopping on a ship to America by herself at age 18 (“I wanted to go places”), and of working as a Rosie the Riveter in a factory in Chicago making airplanes during World War II. And she recounts stories of her husband, who died in 1974“a good man; I miss him,” she says, gently rocking in a parlor chair, a red blanket on her lap.
A wonderful life. But from society’s point of view, maybe the most remarkable thing about it is how slight a financial burden Signy Moen represents. She lives not in a nursing home but in a house on grounds that her family owns. She doesn’t take any prescription medicines–”I don’t have any pains.” (Her drug of choice is a nip of Baileys Irish Cream at day’s end.) She fixes her own peanut butter and jelly sandwich for breakfast.
The future promises more of these healthy, vibrant centenarians, according to Thomas T. Perls, a geriatric physician at Boston University’s medical school and the director of the New England Centenarian Survey, the world’s largest such database (which includes Signy Moen). The number of centenarians in the U.S. grew from 2,300 in 1950 to 79,000 in 2010–and may top 600,000 by 2050. Research could spur a new wave of age-delaying drugs; scientists are experimenting on removing “senescent cells,” believed to accelerate the aging process, from mice.
Already, the United States is undergoing a sort of cultural revolution on aging–60 is the new 40, and all of that. The subject has spurred a burgeoning literature, stocked with recent titles such as 100: How the Coming Age of Longevity Will Change Everything, From Careers and Relationships to Family and Faith by Sonia Arrison (really, everything?) and Susan Jacoby’s Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age.
Proselytizing for the revolution are the likes of “Dr. Roger”–Roger Landry, a physician who promotes “a culture of successful aging” in rousing speeches at senior centers nationwide. “Never act your age,” he told a recent gathering at the Chatham Senior Center on Cape Cod. Why? “When you buy into that, it is buying into age as decline.” The good news, Landry went on, is: “Your purpose doesn’t end after you retire, your kids are gone, and the dog dies. You are now at a point of being unencumbered.” Check any thoughts of moving in with the obliging daughter or son: “You never want to live with your kids,” Dr. Roger advised, because “they want to make your life risk-free.” On the slide screen flashed a quotation from the 19th-century novelist George Eliot: “It’s never too late to become what you might have been.”
Asked afterward if he agreed with this inspirational message, 76-year-old Stu Tuchinsky shot his questioner an even look and replied, “I live it.” Mary Chesnut, 77, said of Dr. Roger, “He was right on.” Two years a widow, she has joined a group of “wild women” who regularly play canasta and the like. (American women at 65 are apt to live an average of about 20 more years, nearly three years longer than men of that certain age–although this gender gap is narrowing.) Opinion polls suggest that baby boomers, ages 47 to 65, are receptive to an anthem of independence. A recent survey by the Associated Press/LifeGoesStrong.com found that 73 percent of them expect to continue to work past age 65…
Auf Wiedersehen to European Unity: In the aftermath of the Brussels summit, the continent is more divided than ever
December 18, 2011
The recent failure of European Union members to come to term on a common economic strategy (as opposed to a common fiscal strategy) begs the question- What is a common Europe, really? Is it about an economic trade zone to challenge America and China, is it about preserving common cultures or is it about an ‘All for one, one for all’ economic an cultural defense pact?
The Brits are being savaged in much of the European press but do they deserve that? Why should they climb onto what many consider a sinking ship? The Germans are being asked to bail out nations that have spent recklessly and who continue to resist meaningful reforms. Angela Merkel now has to deal with a population who are asking the same questions.
France’s Sarkozy is pushing every which way he can to get a deal to bail out Europe before he has to face voters who are demanding even more concessions from government and a greater social safety net. Sarkozy too, wants to get Germany committed (read: lined up) to help the French out when the time comes.
Europe has some real soul searching to do.
The conclusion of the Brussels summit seemed to bring the lingering crisis of the Euro and the European economies a big step closer toward a resolution. All the key players could declare victory: French President Nicolas Sarkozy has protected the large French banks from exposure to southern European sovereign debt; German Chancellor Angela Merkel has succeeded in establishing the expectation of disciplined budgeting; and even British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose principles or recalcitrance—depending on your perspective—has led to the United Kingdom’s isolation within Europe, was able to return to London to the applause of the many Euroskeptics in his party and the public at large.
Of course, in all countries, there are significant oppositional voices. The Brussels agreement has contributed to tensions within the German ruling coalition because of very realistic concerns that Germany will end up footing the bill for its spendthrift neighbors. The post-summit worries are surely most articulate in Britain, where critics fear that the UK is sliding out of the European community and toward international irrelevance.
Perhaps one should not make too much of those British worries: Anxieties about the strength of cross-channel ties are a long-standing part of British politics. Cameron’s refusal to sign on to the agreement is part of a tradition, which includes the refusal by his predecessor, Labor Prime Minister Gordon Brown, to support joining the Eurozone in 2008. Still, the dramatic divide that left Cameron alone in his opposition to the Brussels agreement has dominated the post-summit discussion. Is Britain genuinely moving out of Europe, and perhaps even toward a revised relationship with the United States? Only time will tell.
The summit also took on particular importance because of the financial turbulence in the lead-up to the gathering. It is worth reviewing the history of the current crisis to see how the fiscal issues have played out through competing visions of the shape of Europe. Debates over the European currency have been mediated by shifting perspectives on European geography.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the adoption of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, and the introduction of the euro in 2002 all pointed toward the establishment of a unified European space. Yet the ongoing fiscal crisis, beginning in 2008, has unleashed pressures that are eroding that European unity. The process began with the debt crisis in Greece, whose initial integration into the European Union had great symbolic value but whose economic health—had it been fully aired—would have probably disqualified it from joining the Eurozone.
Is the UK sliding out of the European community and toward international irrelevance?
Very quickly, similar concerns grew about the solvency of the southern European countries. Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain were attacked as corrupt and profligate spenders, and denounced with the unfortunate acronym, PIGS. Europe nearly split along north-south lines, and indeed one or more of the PIGS countries may yet leave the Euro and return to its devalued national currency.
Among the northern countries, the prospect that their strong economies might have to pick up the tab of the southern countries elicited opposition from budget hawks and from members of populist anti-tax parties in countries like Finland and Slovakia. But naturally, the key player was Germany, the continent’s largest economy. Under former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party, some significant reforms of the German welfare state had taken place, including reductions in unemployment benefits and a liberalization of the labor market, which made the German public even more reluctant to bankroll the generous welfare states in the south. That perceived parsimony in turn provoked anti-German hostility elsewhere. When the German Minister of the Economy, Phillip Rösler, visited Athens in October 2011 to firm up economic cooperation between the two countries, demonstrators greeted him carrying protest signs with Hitler images and swastikas on them.
Thus the initial contrast between northern and southern Europe gave way, in the course of 2011, to public concern about the emerging role of Germany. Merkel’s refusal to support proposals for “Eurobonds,” or other modalities to generalize southern European debt across Europe, encountered opposition, and not only in Greece. Commentators raised concerns about the growth of a German “hegemony,” responding to Merkel’s apparent tight-fistedness with references to World War II—as if Berlin’s refusal to assume the burden of others’ debts was somehow part of a historical strategy to take over Europe.
It’s important to understand what European leaders did not achieve at the summit.
Those history lessons, drawn from another era, were of course intended to put pressure on Berlin to use its resources to solve the Euro crisis. Within Germany, conflicting responses emerged. Fiscal hawks and economic nationalists resisted the call for Germany to bankroll Europe, and they could point out the absurdity of the insinuation that Germany wanted to dominate Europe precisely by refraining from getting involved in other nations’ budgets. At the same time, however, some politicians, including former Social Democratic Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, worried aloud that Germany had begun to appear as a threat to Europe and that Merkel, therefore, should take on more responsibility for Europe.
References to the dark German past provided a way, in the newspapers of London and Paris, to put pressure on Berlin to assume responsibility for solving the European debt crisis. Yet by late November, a new act began, marked by cooperation between Paris and Berlin, as Sarkozy and Merkel, acting in tandem as “Merkozy,” planned the Brussels summit on terms that, ultimately, engineered Cameron’s isolation. A process that began with the vilification of Greece and proceeded with angst over Germany ended with the exclusion of England. Was this the new shape of Europe? Perhaps, but it would be foolish to assume that the Euro crisis has come to an end simply due to the Brussels summit.
It’s important to understand what the European leaders did not achieve. There was no indication of a shared program to promote economic growth, ultimately the only way to get out of the crisis. There was no commitment to reduce expenditures. There was no clarification of the role that the European Central Bank should play. The main accomplishment in Brussels was a preliminary agreement to begin to pursue mechanisms to control debt. Yet these rules, including Merkel’s goal of an automatic Schuldenbremse—a brake on debts—have yet to be spelled out clearly and integrated into law. In most cases, they will be subject to review by national parliaments, and the approval process will not be quick, even though the sovereign debt crisis remains urgent and the viability of the Euro is by no means assured. Bond markets have signaled considerable doubt that the Brussels summit achieved much at all…
December 18, 2011
Do you think you know what you are looking at? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t!
Consider the exhibition of real and ‘fake’ Rembrandt works (some of which were produced in his atelier by apprentices and students).
Are responses to art conditioned? Is art ‘lesser’ if we find out it is not original?
In 1995, the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted a controversial exhibition entitled “Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt,” in which works considered to be genuine Rembrandts were displayed alongside those done by his students and admirers. (These lesser paintings are often dismissed as “the school of Rembrandt.”) The point of the exhibition was to reveal the fine line between genius and imitation, authenticity and fakery.
A hundred years ago, about 700 works were attributed to Rembrandt. Over the course of the 20th century, that number declined by 50 percent, as critics and historians began searching for those tell-tale marks that distinguish the old master from his young pupils. Such critical distinctions have massive financial consequences: While a painting by celebrated Rembrandt pupil William Drost might sell for a few hundred thousand dollars — his best canvases can go for a couple million — a genuine Rembrandt is worth many times more. In 2009, a lesser Rembrandt portrait sold for $33 million.
What accounts for this staggering difference in value? One possibility, of course, is that there’s something inherently special about a real Rembrandt, that the Dutch painter filled his art with discernible flourishes that can be detected by observers. Although we might not be able to explain these minor differences, we still appreciate them at an unconscious level, which is why we hang Rembrandts in the Met and consign his imitators to the basement. Great art is not an accident.
The second possibility is that our aesthetic judgements are really complicated. While Rembrandt was an astonishingly talented artist, our response to his art is conditioned by all sorts of variables that have nothing to do with oil paint. Many of these variables are capable of distorting our perceptions, so that we imagine differences that don’t actually exist; the verdict of art history warps what we see. The power of a Rembrandt, in other words, is inseparable from the fact that it’s a Rembrandt. The man is a potent brand.
To test these competing hypotheses, a team of researchers at Oxford University, including Mengfei Huang, Holly Bridge, Martin Kemp and Andrew Parker, set up a simple experiment. They recruited 14 volunteers who were familiar with Rembrandt but had no formal training in art history. The subjects were then put into an fMRI machine and given the following instructions:
In this experiment you will see a sequence of 50 Rembrandt paintings. Before each image appears, an audio prompt will announce whether the upcoming painting is ‘authentic’ or a ‘copy’ (Please see background for further information on copies). A blank screen will appear for a few seconds after each image to allow you to relax your gaze.
The paintings themselves were all portraits, equally divided between Rembrandt and “school of Rembrandt.” While the subjects were staring at the paintings — they were given 15 seconds to look — the scanner was recording changes in cortical blood flow. Here’s where things get tricky: The mischievous scientists reversed the attribution of the paintings, so that half of the subjects were told that the real Rembrandts were actually copies. In theory, this experimental design would allow the scientists to distinguish between the neural response to the art itself and the response generated by the attribution. In the figure below, for instance, Painting A is authentic, while Painting B is a copy…