David Brooks / Syndicated columnist
Facing death, confronting national bankruptcy
This fiscal crisis is about many things, but it's largely driven by health-care costs, writes David Brooks. A key factor is our inability to face death — our willingness to spend our nation into bankruptcy to extend life for a few more sickly months.
I hope you had the chance to read and reread Dud-ley Clendinen's splendid essay, "The Good Short Life," in The New York Times' Sunday Review section. Clendinen is dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. If he uses all the available medical technology, it will leave him, in a few years' time, "a conscious but motionless, mute, withered, incontinent mummy of my former self."
Instead of choosing that long, dehumanizing, expensive course, Clendinen has decided to face death as one of life's "most absorbing thrills and challenges." He concludes: "When the music stops — when I can't tie my bow tie, tell a funny story, walk my dog, talk with Whitney, kiss someone special, or tap out lines like this — I'll know that Life is over. It's time to be gone."
Clendinen's article is worth reading for the way he defines what life is. Life is not just breathing and existing as a self-enclosed skin bag. It's doing the activities with others you were put on earth to do.
But it's also valuable as a backdrop to the current budget mess. This fiscal crisis is about many things, but one of them is our inability to face death — our willingness to spend our nation into bankruptcy to extend life for a few more sickly months.
The fiscal crisis is driven largely by health-care costs. We have the illusion that in spending so much on health care we are radically improving the quality of our lives. We have the illusion that through advances in medical research we are in the process of eradicating deadly diseases. We have the barely suppressed hope that someday all this spending and innovation will produce something close to immortality.
But that's not actually what we are buying. As Daniel Callahan and Sherwin B. Nuland point out in an essay in The New Republic called "The Quagmire," our health-care spending and innovation are not leading us toward a limitless extension of a good life.
Callahan, a co-founder of the Hastings Center, the bioethics research institution, and Nuland, a retired clinical professor of surgery at Yale, point out that more than a generation after Richard Nixon declared the "War on Cancer" in 1971, we remain far from a cure. Despite recent gains, there is no cure on the horizon for heart disease or stroke. A panel at the National Institutes of Health recently concluded that little progress had been made toward finding ways to delay Alzheimer's disease.
Years ago, people hoped that science could delay the onset of morbidity. We would live longer, healthier lives and then die quickly. This is not happening. Most of us will still suffer from chronic diseases for years near the end of life, and then die slowly.
S. Jay Olshansky, one of the leading experts on aging, argues that life expectancy is now leveling off. "We have arrived at a moment," Callahan and Nuland conclude, "where we are making little headway in defeating various kinds of diseases. Instead, our main achievements today consist of devising ways to marginally extend the lives of the very sick."
Others disagree with this pessimistic view of medical progress. But that phrase, "marginally extend the lives of the very sick," should ring in the ears. Many of our budget problems spring from our quest to do that.
The fiscal implications are all around. A large share of our health-care spending is devoted to ill patients in the last phases of life. This sort of spending is growing fast. Americans spent $91 billion caring for Alzheimer's patients in 2005. By 2015, according to Callahan and Nuland, the cost of Alzheimer's will rise to $189 billion and by 2050 it is projected to rise to $1 trillion annually — double what Medicare costs right now.
Obviously, we are never going to cut off Alzheimer's patients and leave them out on a hillside. We are never coercively going to give up on the old and ailing. But it is hard to see us reducing health-care inflation seriously unless people and their families are willing to do what Clendinen is doing — confront death and their obligations to the living.
There are many ways to think about the finitude of life. For years, Callahan has been writing about the social solidarity model — in which death is accepted as a normal part of the human condition and caring is emphasized as much as curing.
My only point today is that we think the budget mess is a squabble between partisans in Washington. But in large measure it's about our inability to face death and our willingness as a nation to spend whatever it takes to push it just slightly over the horizon.
David Brooks is a regular columnist for The New York Times.
Dive into history in Now & Then