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New - and Controversial - Perspectives on the Elderly


By Richard A. Posner

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University of Chicago Press

363 pp., $29.95

American society is growing older every year. What increasing ranks of elderly people should do and what society should do for them in terms of Social Security, Medicare, and even assisted suicide have become huge issues. The effort to bring such issues into focus for policymakers is extremely difficult and almost always controversial.

"Aging and Old Age," by Richard A. Posner, chief justice of the Seventh US Court of Appeals, is one important attempt at such clarification, despite the fact that many will not agree with a number of his premises. Judge Posner brings extraordinary range to his subject. He is a seminal if controversial thinker on legal matters because of his sometimes single-minded economic analysis of the law. His reputation for looking imaginatively and originally at societal issues increasingly coming before the courts is substantiated by this book.

As if rotating a crystal, Posner takes aging and looks at it from every secular angle. Starting with Aristotle, he brings to his subject philosophy, economics, history, literature, social sciences, medicine, and the law. Posner clearly states his premises then methodically constructs his arguments, turning his observations round and round until each facet has an encapsulating paragraph.

The writing is not terribly technical, but it is dry. Readers will be impressed with the author's judicial thoroughness. One learns small facts. The suicide rate of older Americans grew in the 1980s even as their prosperity grew. Seniors are more likely to vote, but they are also more likely to avoid jury duty.

One also learns broad concepts. More stable societies tend to venerate the old more since their knowledge is more relevant to current realities. The more financially emancipated old people are, the less parents instill filial devotion in their children, and the less the grown children want their parents living with them. And there is much more, gleaned from everything from monographs to newspapers.

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Posner threads his ranging book together with economics. To each topic the author brings the idea of "human capital" and rational decisions made on the basis of its gains and losses. The effectiveness of this approach is uneven. His economic touch is light and deft when discussing familiar issues of law, but heavy and clumsy when discussing health care.

At the center of the book are sections on euthanasia and health research, which some people might find offensive or simplistic. (He favors doctor-assisted suicide.) The author's schemes are devoid of either humanistic or religious perspective.

Posner is taken with the idea that individuals at different ages have not only different abilities, but also different perspectives. He argues that a person when young and when old can be considered two distinct individuals. The idea has merit for certain economic choices, but at times, the author gets carried away.

He comes close to saying that for the young man, the old man does not exist; once the old man arrives, the young man is no more. Therefore one cannot expect the young man to insure for the needs of the old man, and perhaps one should not condemn a man to prison for life for the sins of the young man.

Posner agrees with Aristotle that both young and old have virtues. Yet, since experience is undervalued in a rapidly changing society, Americans put their growing ranks of elderly aside, albeit in relative comfort. Unfortunately, Posner does not consider how much longer we can afford to do this, nor does he suggest how society can better use the attributes of aging Americans.

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