Better Call Mailbag
Retirement, Raiders, euthanasia and more
I know there’s been a lot of airline chaos recently, but our family took two trips recently with no incidence worse than a single half-hour departure delay that was partially recouped while the plane was in the air. So I thought that in virtue of our good fortune, I’d like to thank all the hardworking people who’ve been doing their jobs this summer under stressful and short-staffed conditions.
lindamc: What are your thoughts on retirement? Does the mid-20th century model of aspiring to retire early and move to the Villages/play golf/go out on your boat even make sense at this point, financially or culturally, for people who are otherwise healthy and engaged and fortunate enough to continue doing some kind of work?
The prompt for this question was a selection of the comments discussion about dentists Bob and Jim in the tax post today, but it's something I think about a lot. After seeing my father's drift following an early, comfortable corporate retirement, and the unappealing lifestyles of early median voter retirees in western Michigan during my temporary pandemic move, this kind of retirement has absolutely no appeal for me.
Since I am obviously not a representative person, I wanted to get a sense of what the research says on this. It also seemed like a good opportunity to try out a new resource that I recently got beta access to, Consensus, which uses a large language model to help extract conclusions from the published literature. So, do people have a blast in retirement, or do they generally end up adrift with too much idle time on their hands?
There are a bunch of papers arguing that retirement leads to bad health outcomes, but Philip Hessel’s research points out that this can be reverse causation, as unhealthy people retire early. He says, looking at European data, that actually health improves when people retire. Some Finnish researchers looking at people in Finland find that retirement reduces antidepressant use, especially for women and for men with manual jobs. There are some other papers like this, some of which find that the benefits phase out after a few years.
Now on the other hand, some Belgian researchers using what look to be solid methods find that in both the U.S. and Europe, retiring earlier accelerates cognitive decline. So it’s possible that retiring makes people both happier and dumber. Or that you should make a real effort to retire early if you’re depressed, but consider continuing to work if you’re not. That doesn’t seem like standard retirement advice, but reading it over again, it seems like common sense. Retirement is a big disruptive change in your life. If you are depressed, making a big disruptive change seems like a good idea with a high upside. But if you’re happy with the way things are going, making a big disruptive change on the off-chance that you end up even happier seems like a more questionable bet.
EJ: Now that we are a couple weeks out, do you have any takes on the abortion referendum in Kansas? What should we make of the high turnout numbers? And why do progressive ballot measures so consistently outperform Democratic candidates?
I don’t think it’s true that progressive ballot measures consistently outperform Democratic candidates. They do on a few issues, like Medicare and minimum wage, but gun control ballot measures tend to underperform. In Kansas, the good guys ran a very smart campaign led by a very smart advocate, Ashley All, who I believe is going to be taking her experience national as these fights start playing out in other states.
Broadly speaking, I think there are two big takeaways from the win:
The power of the status quo is real. Kansans for Constitutional Freedom were able to mobilize alarm about the potentially extreme consequences of losing the vote because they were defending a status quo situation. Most Americans are mostly satisfied with things, and if you can paint the other side as scary, you can win.
I don’t quite know how else to say this but they played to win. They ran an ad of a white male doctor talking about his need to be able to use his best medical judgment, rather than wringing their hands over whether that was a patronizing and paternalistic message. They tried to appeal to people who are queasy or uncertain about abortion by invoking libertarian and anti-government tropes. A lot of the time, progressives only want to run with messages that they feel good about, rather than messages that are calibrated to win.
Bo: Thoughts on the Better Call Saul ending? Will VG let someone else take the reigns of the BB universe now that he said he’s stepping away to work on non-bb things?
It’s just an exceptionally crafted show on an episode-by-episode, scene-by-scene, shot-by-shot level, and that continued to be the case through to the final seconds of the show.
But for me, the whole multi-episode final arc didn’t work structurally in the context of the whole series. Not to be too much of a simpleton about it, but you have nearly 60 episodes worth of a prequel series set in Albuquerque, New Mexico in the years before the events of “Breaking Bad.” Those episodes do brief flash-forwards to the post-BB life of Jimmy McGill, but the vast majority of the screen time is the prequel. And the prequel braids together a Jimmy-focused story set in the Albuquerque legal community with a Mike-focused cartel plot line. These stories happen on mostly separate paths but they do intersect, time and again, and they are supposed to be telling the story of how Jimmy and Mike and Gus Fring came to be the people who they are when we meet them in “Breaking Bad.”
The final few episodes basically default on this premise and give us a show that’s essentially a sequel to both “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul.” It’s a show that I think frankly isn’t as good as BB or BCS because it’s so incredibly abbreviated and its story has very little time to breathe. And at the same time, they never actually wrapped up the prequeling business. We don’t actually see Jimmy-as-Saul building the apparently successful but unscrupulous legal practice that was in place the day Walter walked into his office. I also just didn’t find the final courtroom drama psychologically or thematically convincing. And it’s not really clear to me how we’re supposed to understand the actual situation facing Jimmy in the prison at the end.
It’s hard to do a fully satisfying end to a long-running series (shout-out to “The Americans,” though) so I don’t hold this too strongly against the show. But it didn’t work for me.
Simon_Dinosaur: Recently started a diet and browsing healthy eating articles (as well as watching that charlatan ‘Dr Oz’ humiliate himself against Fetterman in PA) has got me thinking about the uneven quality of ‘healthy lifestyle’ media. The US media too often seems to amplify fad diets and quacks like Dr Oz. You've written alot lately about government public health shortfalls but how do you rate the media on educating the public on how to live healthy? Have you been personally influenced at all by any good food/lifestyle journalism?
This subject is a good microcosm of a lot of my frustration about misinformation discourse.
Here are three things that I all think are true:
There is tons of woefully bad journalism on health, lifestyle, and nutrition topics with quacks and dumb fads getting far more hype and attention than they deserve.
There are a lot of genuinely hard scientific and medical questions about optimal diet and exercise, and given the strong level of genuine uncertainty, it is understandable that a lot of media coverage just doesn’t give people the kind of clear answers they would like.
Notwithstanding (2), it’s pretty clear that in practice, the overwhelming majority of Americans could significantly improve their public health by curtailing our consumption of sweets and processed snacks and by doing some kind of regular exercise. And notwithstanding (1), I think the vast majority of people know this. I ate some sour peach gummies before I wrote this answer, and I was not unaware that it would be healthier and more commensurate with my diet goals to not eat the sour peach gummies. And yet I ate them.
So I think the coverage is genuinely bad, but also that fixing the coverage is unlikely to be the solution here.
James Schapiro: I saw your Letterboxd review of Raiders of the Lost Ark — what are your expectations, and how optimistic are you, for Indians Jones 5?
My expectations are not particularly high. Indiana Jones 4 was garbage, and the days when a studio might hesitate to degrade the value of its IP by greenlighting more garbage sequels are long past us. And while the franchise has given us two excellent movies and one okay one, it’s not like the Indiana Jones Expanded Universe is inherently fascinating. Harrison Ford is now very old and I just don’t know that we need this.
Now that being said, the Butterworth brothers have written some good screenplays in the past, and James Mangold has directed some good films. So it’s certainly not out of the question that they’ll come up with something interesting.
Sravan Bhamidipati: This could probably use a full-length post: what are your thoughts on euthanasia rates, laws, and cultures, across the world, especially Canada and Scandinavia?
I don’t think euthanasia is allowed in Scandinavia. It is in Canada, and in Belgium, and the Netherlands.
I’m a bit of two minds here. Imagine a situation where there’s a terminally ill and suffering patient who discretely asks his doctor for help ending his life. After a few conversations, the doctor is convinced that the patient is serious and has thought this through and he quietly does it under the table. But somehow word gets out, and the doctor gets arrested. I would be really reluctant to see someone in this situation do jail time or be otherwise punished — on some fundamental level, I wouldn’t really feel like he’d done anything wrong at all.
At the same time, in practice, there are a lot of problems with legal euthanasia. Elderly and disabled people can be a big drain on resources, and it would be convenient for many stakeholders for them to decide to kill themselves. As this AP investigation makes clear, there are real signs of abuses happening in Canada, basically just as a way for providers to save money. I’m not deeply informed on this question and am open to revising my view, but I’m inclined to say the best approach is for euthanasia to be illegal while also allowing for a fair amount of hypocrisy, lax enforcement, and unasked questions.
Tiger Lava Lamp: With your column on Switzerland this week, what can be done to make US government do the things that it wants to do better? Do we need better laws from Congress? Do we need better people working in agencies doing the implementation? What's the big difference between now when California can't build a high speed rail route and mid 20th century when Interstate Highways were constructed?
My first thought on this is that it’s a mistake to think of a lump of government that either works well or doesn’t. Some parts of the American government work extremely well — we’ve got a great navy. Public sector performance is surprisingly piecemeal. In D.C. where I live, the part of the Department of Public Works that runs the garbage dump is really good and full of helpful people. But the part of the Department of Public Works that picks up residential garbage is so-so. And the part of DPW that distributes residential garbage bins is awful. So fixing things is genuinely a matter of rolling up sleeves and fixing them.
But in a big picture sense, I think one of the real lessons from Switzerland is that for politicians to make things work well, they need to prioritize that to some degree over other objectives. And for that to work, the voters need to want them to do that. If I think about the 2020 Democratic primary, the candidates spent a lot of time arguing about exactly what health care plan they would magically cause Congress to enact and zero time arguing about different ideas for improving the functioning of executive branch agencies.
Making things even worse, the vast majority of front-line governing is done by state and local governments. And in those elections, people mostly don’t pay attention to anything at all — they just vote based on their feelings about national politics.
Sean: Should the federal or state governments do anything to rein in "overhead" costs for government-funded scientific research at universities? In many cases, universities take a greater than 50% cut of research grants from the NSF, NIH, DOE, etc., which means about a third of all grant money doesn't go toward scientific research.
I don’t really know anything about this so I hesitate to venture a specific opinion.
What most strikes me about the NSF/NIH process as being in need of reform is that given the very large amount of money in play, they should try more different grant models. One I’d like to see is instead of trying to pick “the best” proposals, set some kind of bar for “good enough” and then use a lottery to decide which “good enough” proposals get the money.
Michael Adelman: I wonder if you agree that the future of religious pluralism in America looks pretty bleak. SCOTUS has started interpreting the Free Exercise Clause to basically require favoritism of (certain kinds of) Christianity while de-emphasizing the Establishment Clause altogether. The emboldened conservative legal movement has started floating arguments like “only conservative religions are sufficiently genuine and sincere to make Free Exercise claims,” “maybe the Establishment Clause doesn't apply to the states,” “anti-blasphemy laws would be good,” etc. And (as it is with many culture-war issues) the liberal pro-pluralism position seems to be bad politics — school prayer polls really well, and Trump (not to mention Órban, Modi, etc.) have demonstrated that bashing religious minorities is a political winner. As a good Slow Boring reader, I understand the need to give ground on social issues, both to protect important priorities like the welfare state and to ensure that SOME form of liberalism remains electorally viable. But my wife and I are also about to bring a Reform Jewish child into the world, and it makes me sad that she's likely to be coerced into Christian prayer during her time in public school. Your thoughts?
I went to an Episcopal school for K-8 and sat through a lot of Christian prayers (grace before lunch, weekly Bible classes, weekly chapel ceremonies) without experiencing any real harm, so I tend to think the formal rules around school prayer probably don’t matter all that much.
At the same time, this was an Episcopal school in Greenwich Village, so even though there were few Jewish families there, it was all things considered a very liberal-minded and tolerant group of adults. And for members of minority groups, that’s probably what actually matters most: to what extent is the majority composed of sensitive, tolerant people vs. assholes? Because assholes have lots of ways of making you feel uncomfortable regardless of the rules, and kind people can make everyone feel included, even if there are crucifixes on the wall.
Stepping back, it’s worth emphasizing that church attendance is falling in the United States pretty rapidly, and it’s very unlikely that a Christian theocracy is lurking around the corner. On the other hand, what’s interesting is that dropping out of the actual practice of evangelical Christianity seems to have less impact than you might think. As Daniel Williams writes in Christianity Today, “in short, the white Protestants in the South who don’t attend church anymore haven’t changed their politics or most of their religious beliefs. They’re still generally fundamentalistic when it comes to the Bible, and they’re still strong law-and-order, pro-military Republicans who believe in a Southern civil religion where people are free to pray in schools but not get abortions."
That doesn’t seem great. On the other hand, if you want to be more optimistic, consider that the Trump Movement seems very comfortable embracing figures like Jared Kushner, who is Jewish, and Mehmet Oz who, if he wins, will be the first-ever Muslim senator. Big win for tolerance. More pessimistically, those dudes are both charlatans and scammers. But it’s a big, pluralistic tent of charlatans and scammers.
City of Trees: In last week's mailbag, you likened Facebook to consuming junk food. How far across social media would you take this analogy? Would you apply it to all Meta properties (Instagram et al)? Would you apply it to all of social media — even Twitter, where you're a quite prominent user?
I think of Twitter as more like the automobile: incredibly useful but also incredibly destructive.
WhatsApp seems like a very useful tool. But, yeah, Instagram is very similar to Facebook. Or I’ll maybe tweak the analogy a little bit away from junk food. Gambling in a casino can be fun. I’ve had fun doing it, lots of people have fun doing it. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But if your life’s work is tweaking and optimizing the design of slot machines and slot machine rooms in order to get people to keep feeding the beast with more and more chips, then you are doing something with your time that is not very worthwhile. We all know that there are people who get carried away with the scrolling to a point where it’s bad for them, and the reality of Instagram is those are the company’s best customers.
Brian T: You complained earlier about the sophistry of policy discussions in elite media. Could you expand more on this? How much is just due to polarization by education?
I don’t think polarization has anything to do with it because I’ve read news coverage of policy debates in the 1980s and 1990s, and it was much worse.
I really do think there’s just a kind of entrenched fandom aspect to American political culture. The bulk of the coverage centers on concepts like “X is a win for Joe Biden” or “Y is a setback for Biden” rather than trying to describe what’s happening or what the real arguments about it are. And I don’t think that’s just because the reporters are bad or the media is bad, it’s genuinely what people mostly want.
James B: You've written repeatedly that Democrats should characterize their legislative accomplishments as “modest” and “incremental” because the prospect of “sweeping” change turns off swing voters. While I certainly agree that the median voter isn't very enthralled by the prospect of big change, I'm not sure they are necessarily repelled by it either. It seems to me that the specifics of the change and whether those changes affect them personally matters more than whether the change is characterized in the media as “big” or “small.” The strongest midterms backlashes in recent decades have all come after attempted overhauls of the healthcare system, a uniquely personal issue where voters have developed a high level of loss aversion. Is the median voter automatically against the government making big changes in general, or are they simply against changes where they fear they will be worse off afterwards?
I think that’s mostly right, I’m just hung up on this because it’s a very consistent tic. Safe seat Democrats (which are most of them) and their staff clearly want, at the margin, to see their accomplishments described in the most grandiose possible terms. But to the extent that this matters at all politically (which might be not very much), they ought to want the opposite — to get media coverage that emphasizes that they are acting in a prudent and cautious way.
One place where I think everyone gets this is that if the bill is bipartisan, it’s good to talk a lot about how it’s bipartisan, because almost regardless of the contents, people generally figure that a bipartisan idea can’t be too crazy. If you pass a bill on a party-line vote, the fear is you couldn’t persuade anyone to cross the aisle because it’s too extreme. You want to really emphasize to people that while this bill involves large sums of money, it’s reducing the deficit and taking a very balanced approach to the climate issue.
If euthanasia is illegal, access will be difficult. My grandmother was blind and in excruciating pain during her final months. She wanted to die. I wanted to help her but didn’t want to risk prison. Her doctors were just as afraid of prison and even less inclined to help her. She suffered needlessly.
Don’t ask don’t tell doesn’t work for end of life decisions for the same reason it doesn’t work for abortions. This isn’t like prostitution or pot where s conviction would be a misdemeanor and illegality can chill excesses without ruining any one’s life. If someone chooses to prosecute, you are at risk of years or decades in prison. If doctors aren’t willing to break abortion laws to help sympathetic young women, why would they break laws with even stricter penalties to help old people?
It occurs to me that you're not taking your own advice when it comes to popularism in your TV reviewing. If you want to effect change in real America you have to be suggesting improvements in the story telling of Yellowstone.