Dianne Feinstein and the Dangers of Gerontocracy
If you ever feel like politics is stuck in the past, consider the ages of who is involved at the highest levels.
President Joe Biden is currently 79; he's the oldest person to have ever assumed the office of the presidency. His 2020 presidential opponent (and possible 2024 GOP nominee) Donald Trump is currently 75. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.) is 82. At 71, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.) is practically a spring chicken. When the 117th Congress began last year, the average age of a House member was 58; the average senator was 64. Over time, the average age of a member of Congress has gotten older. America is being ruled by a gerontocracy.
Some of this is just a result of longer lifespans and longer working lives. And some of it is a byproduct of the graying of America, which has grown older in the years past the baby boom.
But inevitably, it's led to concerns about the ability of our nation's governing class to perform their jobs—hence stories like the one published by the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday, which came with the strikingly blunt headline: "Colleagues worry Dianne Feinstein is now mentally unfit to serve, citing recent interactions."
Feinstein, a Democrat, is 88 years old. She's also the senior senator from California, the most populous state in the nation. That's a big responsibility with a lot of power.
Yet the Chronicle report suggests she can't even remember whether she's met someone a mere hour beforehand. The piece opens with the following story of her forgetfulness:
When a California Democrat in Congress recently engaged in an extended conversation with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, they prepared for a rigorous policy discussion like those they'd had with her many times over the last 15 years.
Instead, the lawmaker said, they had to reintroduce themselves to Feinstein multiple times during an interaction that lasted several hours.
The report relies on sources who wouldn't be named, but it goes on to cite four senators, three of whom are Democrats, plus multiple members of Feinstein's staff and a Democratic member of California's legislature who say, in the Chronicle's summary, that "her memory is rapidly deteriorating" and that "it appears she can no longer fulfill her job duties without her staff doing much of the work required to represent the nearly 40 million people of California." On her worst days, the report says, she doesn't even consistently recognize colleagues she's worked with for years.
Remember, most of the sources for the Chronicle's report are professional Democrats. This isn't partisan sour grapes.
Obviously, Feinstein's reported mental lapses are both quite sad on a personal level and concerning on a practical level.
But the overall graying of America's political class has other effects, too, independent of mental fitness.
Our lawmakers are increasingly out of touch when it comes to technology, even as tech law and regulation have taken center stage. Remember when former Iowa GOP Rep. Steve King (currently 72) got mad at the CEO of a major tech company at a congressional hearing because of something on his granddaughter's iPhone? The CEO was Sundar Pichai of Google, which doesn't make iPhones. This is an extreme example, but lawmaker cluelessness is depressingly common when it comes to tech policy.
The effects of an elderly Congress go beyond dumb questions at show hearings. It's not an accident that the two biggest spending programs for the 2022 fiscal year are Social Security ($1.196 trillion) and Medicare ($766 billion)—entitlements for seniors, both of which are on track to insolvency in the coming years. America's senior benefits are the biggest drivers of long-term debt.
And then there's just the general lack of fresh thinking in politics. When someone has been in the same role for decades, they tend to fall back on old habits, and it shows. Biden first entered the Senate in 1973. Nancy Pelosi has been in Congress since 1987. There's a reason that American politics today feels so bereft of new ideas: Too many of the people at the top pretty clearly haven't had one in a very long time.
"More than 200 longtime Wikipedia editors have requested that the Wikimedia Foundation stop accepting cryptocurrency donations," reports Wired. Crypto donations make up just 0.1 percent of the Foundation's total annual fundraising, but the group of editors are concerned about the environmental impact of bitcoin mining. It's an odd demand since, as Wired notes, declining to accept donations in crypto wouldn't actually reduce bitcoin's electricity use.
Twitter's board is considering measures to thwart Elon Musk's attempt to purchase the company. The company's "directors are weighing whether to move ahead with the poison pill—formally called a shareholder rights plan—that would limit the ability of a single shareholder, like Mr. Musk, to acquire a critical mass of shares in the open market and force the company into a sale," reports The New York Times. According to The Wall Street Journal, Twitter's board may use Musk's offer to buy the company to try to lure in another investor.
At a TED conference this week, Musk seemed to suggest the platform needed more speech, not more content moderation: "If in doubt, let the speech, let it exist," he said. "If it's a gray area, I would say let the tweet exist."
• Former Disney chief Bob Iger is making big moves in the metaverse.
• Will crime spikes thwart criminal justice reform legislation?
• The Republican National Committee just voted to end GOP participation in the Commission on Presidential Debates, saying that the Commission is "biased and has refused to enact simple and commonsense reforms to help ensure fair debates including hosting debates before voting begins and selecting moderators who have never worked for candidates on the debate stage."
• Biden's job approval rating just hit a new low.
• Biden will give Ukraine another $800 million in military aid.
- COVID-19 cases are rising again, but hospitalizations haven't surged.