STUMP » Articles » Political mortality: on old people in the Senate and death probabilities » 17 February 2022, 19:53

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Political mortality: on old people in the Senate and death probabilities  

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17 February 2022, 19:53

Let me break into my series on external causes of death into a political aspect of mortality.

A year ago, I pointed out that the Senate was an old folks’ home in more ways than one.

The Senate is based on the Roman Senate, which is based on the Latin term for old people — senex. But it just so happens that it really does have a lot of old people in it, and quite a few have died in office, partly in relation to a lot of senators actually being quite old for their time.

In some cases, that has made a political difference.

We are coming up on an election this November, but before that election, we’re expecting a nomination of a Supreme Court justice. As someone remarked on a story of the nomination:

“Why is it going to take over a month to make a choice? Six of the senate votes on the Democrat side are octogenarians – we’re one heartbeat away from another stolen seat.”

Um, yes.

So mortality may make a difference on all sorts of things in the Senate. One is that nomination, and one is the upcoming election… there are all sorts of matters in between, but that seems to limn the time period of interest.

Age distribution in the Senate

Grabbing the list of current senators, we can get the age distribution of both Democrats and Republicans. Yes, there are two Independents, but as they caucus with the Democrats, I will throw them in with the Democrats.

I will not count the Vice President, official tie-breaker, for anything right now. Sex is important for mortality, but I will not mark it in this graph. I just want to note this for generational issues.

Yes, I know the generational markers are somewhat bullshit and are mainly used for marketing, but it’s not totally bullshit.

It does actually line up with aspects of the U.S. population pretty well.

Let me give you the U.S. population over the age of 30, which is the population eligible to be a U.S. Senator:

The pre-Boomers and Boomers are, essentially, dying off. Because they’re old. The youngest Boomers are over 60, the oldest over 75.

Gen X are fewer than Millennials not because we’re dying off in considerable numbers (yet), but because fewer of us were born. Originally, we were called the Baby Bust to contrast to the Baby Boom. But that’s not quite a catchy marketing term for when they kinda tried to sell stuff to us.

(But then the marketers never really got around to trying to sell stuff to us. Because there were more Boomers and Millennials. Whatever, dude.)

Death probabilities for six months

So, similar to approaches I took for SCOTUS probabilities, which involved only 9 people, I’ve decided to just project out 6 months in probabilities. I used the 2019 Social Security Life Table, which yeah, doesn’t include any COVID mortality, but also doesn’t include the likely better mortality the Senators have being generally rich folks with all the medical treatment they could want. The main thing I want is capturing the sex and age differential of mortality risk.

I am not interested in doing age nearest birthday and fractional years and all sorts of adjustments in life insurance… let’s make this simple.

I am using age last birthday (which is the social way we quote age as adults, not as kids), and just assuming we care about a time horizon of six months, and uniform distribution of death.

These are all simplifications, because we’re just trying to get at order of magnitude effects. Precision is just an illusion here.

Also, we really don’t care what’s going on with the Republican side in this. I will focus on the 50 Senators who are Democrats or caucus with the Dems.

First pass — there’s a 61% chance that none of them die! Whee!

Yeah, that’s not a very high probability, is it.

The oldest Democratic (and Independent) Senators

It’s because of the oldest of them. Here are the oldest of them, with the highest probability of death:

  • Dianne Feinstein, 88
  • Patrick Leahy, 81
  • Bernie Sanders, 80
  • Ben Cardin, 78
  • Dick Durbin, 77
  • Angus King, 77

I can talk about the probabilities here.

Starting with Sen Feinstein — for the Social Security life tables, an 88-year-old female has a mortality rate of about 10% for a full year.

Yes, that’s a high mortality rate.

For most ages, before one hits the “really old” level, the reason we quote death rates in the per 100,000 level instead of percentages is because we have to push those percentages out too many digits.

That’s not true once you get old.

Men exceed annual mortality rates of 1% at about age 60. They exceed 10% at age 86.

Women exceed annual mortality rates of 1% at age 66. They exceed 10% at age 88.

Sen. Feinstein is 88. Should she die, nobody is expecting her to get replaced by a Republican, whether she’s replaced via appointment by the governor or by special election. But it might take some delay.

Leahy and Sanders are both from Vermont, and interestingly, the governor in that state is a Republican. I don’t know what the process would be if either of them needed to be replaced. Special election? Appointment?

In any case, I calculate there is an approximately 30% chance of one of the Democratic senators dying in the next six months, and of course, this is heavily influenced by the very high number of senators over age 70 — of the 50 Democratic (or Dem-caucusing Independent) Senators, 19 are age 70 or older.

I did one further step to see probabilities of two senators dying in 2 months, and that was 7% (this was assuming independence of deaths, plus the earlier assumptions), and given all the probabilities calculated thus far covered 98.8% of the total probability, I considered that was close enough to 100% to stop.

Bernie Sanders has been in the Senate since 2007, but before that in the House of Reps since 1991. Pat Leahy has been in the Senate since 1975. At least Leahy has finally announced he’s not running again this election. Maybe he’ll let a Boomer in. Let a youngster sit in the seat for a while.

Biden, please just nominate somebody

To be sure, Republican senators may very well vote to approve of Biden’s nomination to the Supreme Court, as some Republicans have voted for some legislation and other nominations. It need not be dependent on any particular Democrat.

As amusing as I find calculating various mortality probabilities, it’s never fun when a decision-making process is becoming dependent on whether somebody may die. That’s one of the reasons I left academia.

I’m not sure what the supposed hold-up on the SCOTUS nomination is, though I am obviously well aware of the hold-ups on legislation that failed to pass last year. That stuff is unlikely to be helped by anybody dying. I hope.

Related posts:

Just trust me on that last one — it’s related.


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