February 22, 2023

Is It Time for a New Modest Proposal?

About three hundred years ago, the great Irish author of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, penned (and in those days, the verb was literally true) a wicked essay that over the years has been known as “A Modest Proposal.” In it, Swift offered a solution to the problem of poverty in Ireland. He suggested that the children of the poor Irish class should be butchered and then sold as food to the wealthy English landlords. 

Of course, Swift who was a savage satirist, was not really serious. His real intention was to rail against England’s exploitation of Ireland. Still, ever since, the idea of a modest proposal has continued to appeal to thinkers with an animus against certain demographic groups.

About three hundred years after Swift’s essay first appeared, another far less distinguished author whose name will probably be forgotten within five years of his death, namely, moi-même, articulated his own version of a modest proposal. It went as follows:

For years, I have joked about a new iteration of a modest proposal. My idea was that people would live under a definite death sentence. If they survived until they had reached their three score and ten, they would be given a pill that would painlessly ease them into death. This, it seems to me, would have many advantages. First of all, it would save billions of dollars since an enormous amount of money has to be spent in the last years of people’s lives on providing them health care and hospitalization. Second, it would free up a great deal of money for younger people since no more Social Security payments or pensions would be necessary after a person reached seventy. Third, most people’s productive years are over by the time they reach seventy; the rest is mostly just waiting to die and years of illness, decrepitude and senility in store.  

Is this any way to run a navy? Do you really want to spend your “senior years” shuffling to the shuffleboard area on yet another cruise with elderly folks like yourself or making a sorry spectacle of yourself with your potbelly and ridiculous-looking Bermuda shorts tottering around on some Floridian golf course? Or worse yet, did you ever dream when young of spending your last years languishing in a nursing home among the demented and utterly forlorn, the truly wretched of the earth? (If you have ever spent time visiting an ancient loved one in one of these places, you will know what I mean.) 

Really, when you consider all this, wouldn’t it make sense to spare old people this kind of fate? After all, we weren’t meant to live to such great ages. Evolutionarily, we were designed to live only so long as to procreate, pass along our genes, and then get off the stage. Dying in one’s forties would normally allow us to accomplish all these things. Now more and more of us just hang around, are burdens to our family, and merely take up space while exhausting limited financial resources. What is the point?   

Hell, if I had died when I was seventy, both the world and I would have been better off. I wouldn’t have had to suffer the deliberating effects of my spinal stenosis. My hearing would still have been good, my vision, good enough; I still would have been able to hike, to travel, make love, and enjoy life to the fullest. I wouldn’t have to spend days as I do now when I sometimes walk about the house like a wraith, exhausted and weary beyond belief, trapped in a seemingly interminable bardo of ennui hovering between life and death. Instead of often feeling like cashing in my chips, I would have still been in my chips.

Of course, I was not really proposing anything so monstrous as the institution of widespread mandated mercy killing. I am not a Nazi! What I wrote was written with my tongue firmly lodged into my cheek. True, I had a serious intent – I was ruefully considering the plight of the elderly in our society, but I certainly wasn’t suggesting we should bump them off, however humanely.

So, you can imagine how shocked I was recently to discover that someone had stolen my idea. And worse – he seems to be entirely serious. He wants the increasingly elderly population of Japan to consider mass suicide, or to use the Japanese term for ritual suicide, mass seppuku

And he’s no flake either. He’s on the Yale faculty, and though young himself, has already had a promising career as an economist. And, no surprise, Yusuke Narita is Japanese and apparently has swiftly become something of a cult figure there.

So, is this guy really serious, and, if he is, has he begun to have a significant impact on the conversation in Japan and in other countries that now find themselves burdened with a large surplus population of the elderly? Let’s find out. Who is this Yusuke Narita and how much influence has he already exerted with his provocative views?

First of all, at 37, Narita seems to be quite a character as well as a purveyor of radical views. You can tell that’s he’s cool, not only because of his attire, but by the spectacles he wears, as you can see from this excerpt from a recent piece in The New York Times about him.

Appearing frequently on Japanese online shows in T-shirts, hoodies or casual jackets, and wearing signature eyeglasses with one round and one square lens, Dr. Narita leans into his Ivy League pedigree as he fosters a nerdy shock jock impression. He is among a few Japanese provocateurs who have found an eager audience by gleefully breaching social taboos. His Twitter bio: “The things you’re told you’re not allowed to say are usually true.”

As for his “modest proposal,” here is what he said in a 2021 interview about the burden that an increasing number of elderly and often poor Japanese citizens is imposing on a younger generation: “I feel like the only solution is pretty clear. In the end, isn’t it mass suicide and mass ‘seppuku’ of the elderly?”

Of course, this shocking pronouncement – like those that our ex-President was wont to make on subjects like immigrants that no other politician would have dared to proclaim – soon caused a furor. Immediately, Narita had become a controversial figure in Japanese society and, naturally, he received a great deal of censure from the Japanese establishment. So much so that he was forced to “walk back” his statement a bit, as our own politicians like to say in order to blunt criticism of their latest gaffe. But apparently he has never actually retracted his views.  

In any case, although he is naturally reviled by many older Japanese, he has become something of a hero, even a kind of cult figure, to the younger generation of Japanese, as the Times article makes clear:

While he is virtually unknown even in academic circles in the United States, his extreme positions have helped him gain hundreds of thousands of followers on social media in Japan among frustrated youths who believe their economic progress has been held back by a gerontocratic society.

And he has already had an impact on thinking about public policy, since many lawmakers have begun to voice concern over the mounting costs required to provide pensions to the elderly and the growing number of older people now suffering from dementia.

Moreover, the culture of Japan, which traditionally venerated the old, seems to be changing. Even a decade ago, one prominent politician who is now a “power broker” in the governing Liberal party, suggested that “old people should hurry up and die.”

Also, according to the Times, last year there was a Japanese film called “Plan 75” that depicted “cheerful salespeople” wooing retirees into government-sponsored euthanasia programs.

It seems that, just as Trump was able to tap into long-suppressed resentments of various ethnic groups, Narita’s outspoken advocacy of mass suicide for the elderly reflects a simmering resentment toward Japan’s old folks who contribute little to society but drain financial resources in a country that now has one of the highest levels of public debt in the world.

The article in the Times sums things up this way:

Shocking or not, some lawmakers say Dr. Narita’s ideas are opening the door to much-needed political conversations about pension reform and changes to social welfare. “There is criticism that older people are receiving too much pension money and the young people are supporting all the old people, even those who are wealthy,” said Shun Otokita, 39, a member of the upper house of Parliament with Nippon Ishin no Kai, a right-leaning party.

In Japan, too, the times seem to be a-changing, and Narita is its Dylan.

But there is a curious coda to the Narita saga. It turns out that his mother developed an aneurism when he was nineteen. And even with insurance and government subsidy, his mother’s care took a big bite out of the apple of his own finances, to the tune of 100,000 yen a month – about $760.   

So, one wonders: Did Narita arrive at his views because he himself was resentful of how much his own mother was draining his income?

What all this brings up for me is the thought that perhaps it is indeed time to reconsider the idea of “a modest proposal” except this time for the elderly instead of poor Irish children. Perhaps when I penned (without a pen, of course) my own version of this idea, instead of thinking I was just trying to be amusing, I had proposed it seriously and then, like Narita, had used social media to broadcast it in the United States. Did I miss my chance to become a rock star for the generation of my grandchildren?


  1. Brian Anthony KraemerFebruary 22, 2023 at 8:26 AM

    I don't think it safe to even be joking about such a thing. The human animal is far less ethical, moral, altruistic, and just plain good than we have ever been able to face because we do not want to face the reality of our own selfishness, indifference, rage, and fear.

    Many years ago, when I was a second grade teacher, my students and I watched excitedly as over twenty baby chicks were pecking their way out of the confinement of their shells where they had gestated for the time nature required. The children wanted to "help" them emerge more quickly from their eggs. I told them, "We cannot rush this. We must let nature do things the way she does them. One cannot rush a butterfly in emerging from its chrysalis and one must not rush a baby chick emerging from its shell." There are reasons for everything and I personally find the idea of mass suicide for seniors repulsive and dangerous even in jest.

    We do not know the spiritual implications of rushing death. I personally do not want to know when I will die. I am confident I will handle it fine when I arrive to the destination, but I do not want to be given advanced notice of its arrival. There is one exception. I think it is natural and acceptable for a person to decide to stop eating and/or drinking when she or he is ready to make that transition into the next realm. This seems seems reasonable for an individual to decide for himself or herself if she or he wants to go on, but even this is difficult to know what to do when my parent has temporarily given up, but I know if provided rest and proper nutrition can recover to enjoy another day.

    One other thing I must say about seniors. I know I'm not one yet (only age 59), but I have visited seniors in retirement homes since I was seventeen and I have seen thousands of seniors in varying stages of their lives and varying losses of memory and control over their bodily functions, and I can say I'm surprised, not by the level of misery of these seniors, but the level of contentment, and I wonder whether our assessment of their "misery" might be more a projection of our own discomfort with their declining appearance, the smell of the facilities, and the constant care they require when we would like to be out having fun, making love, feeding our bodies and minds, and generally pursuing pleasure.

    All the known universe is born, has a lifespan, and transitions into something else. Everything participates in this process. Even galaxies are born, have a life cycle, and transition into something else. I wouldn't require aging galaxies to commit to an abrupt end. I wouldn't encourage planets to decide when it's time to be destroyed. I'm going to trust that this aging process, as uncomfortable, and perhaps even miserable for some that it might be, is not only natural, but the right thing to do. If the whole universe is aging and transitioning and constantly being born again, then it must be a very good thing to do.

    1. Here is a comment that Ken Ring emailed me concerning this article:

      "I think some of my readers have failed to see that my remarks were intended to be humorous, and that I wasn’t really advocating that our elderly should be dispatched before their time. I was only trying to suggest that in countries with a low birthrate and a high and increasing proportion of old and often demented people, sooner or later, there would have to be reckoning. And people should start thinking about how to deal with this problem now. No solution is easy."

  2. We are here on Earth a short time. Those of us who experienced childhood polio have only known life with pain. It hasn't stopped us from being contributing members of society and journeying on with love. We are grateful for the kindness and goodness of others that has enabled us to actualize our spiritual natures until death parts us from this world.

  3. Here's a better idea. It is not necessary to kill everyone who reaches 70, just the very wealthy, and redistribute their wealth to the common good.