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Paul Rosenzweig
Washington, DC

Paul Rosenzweig

I'm a former senior federal policy maker, with a wide-ranging knowledge of issues involving homeland security, national security, intelligence and law enforcement.

No wonder the French are crazy

Editor's note: The contestants were given free rein for their second post of the day. You can read Paul Rosenzweig's earlier post here.


We are now entering the second week of violent strikes in France (something most people in the US have barely noticed).   Petroleum production is especially hard hit and gas stations are running out of fuel.   The dispute is over reforms to the French pension system and, most particularly, over President Sarkozy's proposal to raise the retirement age (at which one becomes eligible for a significant pension) from 60 to 62.


Most of the arguments about the reform are tied, naturally, to economic considerations.  The origins of Sarkozy's proposal lie in the recent financial turmoil in Greece, Spain, Italy and other countries, where the scale of the welfare state is starting to exceed the capacity of the workforce to sustain.  I guess that like most Americans I'm pretty amused at the idea that retirement at 60 is a human right or a social welfare entitlement.


But the reports from France actually made me think of another report, one I read in the New York Times last week.   According to the Times a recent study in the Journal of Economic Perspectives reviewed data from the United States, Eng­land and 11 other Euro­pean coun­tries sug­gesting that the ear­lier peo­ple retire, the more quickly their mem­o­ries decline.  In other words, working longer is good for your brain - it keeps your cognitive faculties working.


The study relied on a standard test, administered in many countries around the world.  Men and women aged 60-65 are read a list of 10 nouns and asked to repeat them back to the reader twice - once immediately after the reading and then again 10 minutes later.  In theory a perfect score is "20" - getting every noun correct both times. 


In the United States, England and Denmark, where people retire later, 65 to 70 percent of men were still working when they were in their early 60s.  These countries have higher scores of 10-11 on the test.   In France and Italy, only 10 to 20 percent of adults in their early 60s are still working, and in Spain it is 38 percent.  Adults in those countries have lower cognitive scores (only 6-8 on the test).  In fact, the researchers have found a more or less straight line relationship between continuing to work and retaining a good memory.


All of which left me wondering whether President Sarkozy isn't making the wrong argument.  Working longer and fixing the pension system isn't just good for the economy, it's also essential for keeping the French mentally fit!


Read more entries from this challenge round. And come back Friday to vote.

By Paul Rosenzweig  |  October 20, 2010; 1:12 PM ET  | Category:  Blogging Challenge
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Big important subject with implications for the USA down the road - and you missed it. You found the You found the acorn but missed the steak.

Posted by: chucky-el | October 20, 2010 8:13 PM
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@walter, I haven't read that paper, but immediately wondered about cause and effect as I read this blogpost. Good catch on that and your other observations too.

I'm not sure whether the author is serious or ironic in his final para. Either way, it's not a particularly strong finish for me.

Posted by: MsJS | October 20, 2010 3:36 PM
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I've actually seen that paper and it is indeed interesting. But what you've done with it seems just like post-hoc rationalization for something you already believe.

If we think that it's economically unsustainable for people to retire at 60 rather than 65, it makes no difference whether they'll perform better on memory tests if they stay in the workforce. We'll decide on economic grounds that they can't retire at 60 with full benefits.

Likewise, if we think that changing the retirement age is a violation of the social contract for workers who began working 30 years ago with the understanding that they'd be able to retire at 60, who cares about the memory tests? Those who wish to retire can retire. Those who wish to continue in the workforce can do so too.

Plus, there's some pretty serious problems with the paper that you haven't noted here.

Cause and effect could be reversed (people with declining cognitive abilities are more likely to retire).

There's a lot more that's different about the countries in the study than their retirement ages.

Not everyone works a mentally stimulating job (it would be far more interesting to see a comparison of scores of professionals, whether retired or not, across countries).

Most importantly, there is little to NO evidence, that memory test scores are actually measuring cognitive ability.

PLEASE, pundits, be careful about using academic research in your arguments. Make sure you know what you're talking about first.

Posted by: waltersobchak2 | October 20, 2010 3:10 PM
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