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The Most Powerful Americans Over Age 80:

Slate has an interesting list. My thinking: Placing Justice Stevens at #1 reflects a common overestimation of the importance of the Supreme Court; though I'm no expert at all on business, my sense is that many of the top businesspeople on the list are easily much more powerful than Justice Stevens, if you define power as the ability to affect many people's lives in an important way. But I might be wrong; check out the list for yourselves.

iambatman:
Justice Stevens can vote anyway he wants.

Top businesspeople are pretty much hemmed into taking the optimal path to profits.
9.12.2008 12:57am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
"Powerful" is really the wrong word anyway, unless you want to define "power" in some way that includes authors. ("Unacknowledged legislators of the world"? Puh-leeze!)
9.12.2008 1:03am
David H (mail) (www):
I think their list is more of "areas of achievement and prestige" list than a real power list as such.

I would say that Supreme Court Justice is pretty high on the list in a lot of senses:

1) You have a tenured and essentially unchallengeable position of power. As long as your body is good, you will occupy that position.

2) You have access to very powerful networks of all kinds. The same can be said of extremely wealthy business men, but I think the diversity might be greater at the Supreme Court.

3) The changes you make are enforceable through State Force. Although I suppose the right business man could use Tony Soprano tactics to use violent force, it would not have the "legitimacy" of state mandated violence.

4) Changes are more resistant to change. Someone else can always take over old wealth, change your former businesses to have different missions and modes of operations. Descendants can squander your assets. Etc. Etc. But opinions can only be overturned by a handful of people and may simply become a permanent part of the way the nation operates.

Kissinger is a figure on the list that may rival him, but a lot of the CEOs are up there as well. Remember that businesses are subject to the framework of law, and while they can often influence policy, particular policies can be big question marks.

I think Power as the ability to affect peoples lives in an important way is a pretty decent operating definition. And when we take that, during life, extreme wealth and social ownership would put CEOs near the top.
9.12.2008 1:19am
Asher (mail):
Power is definitely the wrong word. What power does #76, Andrew Wyeth, have? I suppose he has the purchasing power to buy up large parts of Chester County if he cared to, but that's about it.
9.12.2008 1:24am
countertop (mail):
But is Chevron v NRDC really the most cited opinion in American Law???

West Key Cite is returning 49,187 citations. Miranda, by comparison, is cited 70,916 according to Key Cite.

I don't have access to Lexis/Shepards here - but I suspect the results would be similarly in favor of Miranda (is there another case which is cited more frequently???)
9.12.2008 1:29am
Dave N (mail):
I found the list puzzling, at best.

Please, explain, for example, why Elaine Stritch is #21 and John Dingell is #25? Among politicians, I would rank his current power over Jimmy Carter (#19) and probably just behind Robert Byrd (#6). And with all due respect to VC regular Roger Schlafly, I would rank him above Phyllis Schlafly (#15).

The list is actually 80 famous people over the age of 80 (and still living). But many of this people are, at this juncture, famous for being famous and things they did decades before (Daniel Schorr, Edgar Wayburn, Pinetop Perkins, to name 3). In fact, it seems that all of the names were tossed into a hat and pulled out at random.
9.12.2008 1:33am
theobromophile (www):
"Influential" may be a better word.

Ranking aside, it's certainly an interesting group of people. I was surprised to see that Mary Higgins Clark turned 80 - for some reason, I thought she was much younger.
9.12.2008 1:46am
Roger Schlafly (www):
I was surprised that Phyllis Schlafly ranked so high.
9.12.2008 2:00am
Dave N (mail):
Roger Schlafly,

I was too--and my point wasn't that she didn't deserve a high ranking but that by any objective measure John Dingell should rank higher (and so should Ted Stevens, despite his legal problems).
9.12.2008 2:08am
Malthus:
The sad fact is that only about 1 in 10 are women, even though there are about twice as many women than men in the cohort over 80. And who cares about Annenberg? She has a lot of money but has never distinguished herself in anything.

We men accomplished in math, physics, economics, chess, cabinetmaking and welding will go through life without women we can really talk to about what interests us most. It's a good thing Al Gore invented sex.

Male lawyers, doctors, English and history teachers, on the other hand, are surrounded by women who are their peers or better, probably because they can't do math.
9.12.2008 2:17am
Dave N (mail):
The sad fact is that only about 1 in 10 are women
That would be 10%.

There are 12 women listed, so it is actually 15% (12/80)
Male lawyers, doctors, English and history teachers, on the other hand, are surrounded by women who are their peers or better, probably because they can't do math.
As opposed to men like Maltus, who can't do arithmetic.
9.12.2008 2:32am
Dave N (mail):
Pardon the snark. It is late and I couldn't resist.
9.12.2008 2:33am
A. Zarkov (mail):
"We men accomplished in math, physics, economics, chess, cabinetmaking and welding will go through life without women we can really talk to about what interests us most."

If you're 80 that's true, so talk to younger women. Nowadays there plenty of women accomplished in those fields (maybe not welding) that you can talk to about what interests you.
9.12.2008 3:01am
A. Zarkov (mail):
"As opposed to men like Maltus, who can't do arithmetic."

Perhaps he's a welder.

BTW I know lots of mathematicians and physicists who are not very good at arithmetic. Some scientists even make careless errors, like Einstein.
9.12.2008 3:06am
Soronel Haetir (mail):
Given Palin's experience at commercial fishing it would not surprise me if she has done some welding. Probably not anything of beauty but that's not generally a requirement when the idea is to get something working again asap.

(Sorry, I just couldn't resist.)
9.12.2008 4:21am
Splunge:
There's an absence of scientists, engineers, and inventors, so I guess the focus is on cultural and social influence.

Ah, cultural influence. That and $5 will get you a nice coffee at Starbucks.
9.12.2008 4:44am
Brett Bellmore:
I've always thought the "power" of government officials was of a different nature than the "power" of people in the private sector. Take my boss: Nominally, he has a lot of power over me, but really, all he can do is offer to pay me to do something, or threaten to stop paying me to do something. At the outside, not say nice things about me if somebody asks.

He can't jail me. He can't execute me. He can't deprive me of a civil liberty. Not one cent he has previously paid me is within his reach. Essentially, he only has as much power over me as I want him to have.

Unless, of course, the government <i>lends</i> him some of it's power.

With a little help from 4 friends, Stevens can effectively amend the Constitution, repeal and enact laws... He has power of a completely different nature and scale from the head of a major corporation.

Oh, women welders? I've met 'em. As an engineer it was love at first sight, but only on my part, darn it.
9.12.2008 8:41am
Sagar (mail):
Justice Stevens is really the most powerful American over 80 right now and will be until he retires or passes away, unless there will be a president McCain's 2nd term:-)

How many people worry what will happen to the "country and our freedoms" if some 80+ year old business tycoon dies? Practically none. Half the country is invested in Stevens' reliably liberal vote in the SC. And that vote (when a part of the majority) has all the power of the US Govt behind it. Tough to beat that.
9.12.2008 9:14am
pluribus:
"Powerful" is a sexy word. (I remember years ago when Kissinger said that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.) Much more interesting than important, accomplished, or influential, but much less revealing.
9.12.2008 9:51am
Burgess Laughlin (mail) (www):
Power is the ability to make changes in one's world--despite opposition. Legislators have power--if others cooperate in enforcing the laws the legislators create. Property owners, in a free society, have power--over their own property. Power may be aggressive (Stalin) or peaceful (Carnegie).

Influence is the act of giving an idea to someone who wants that idea because he thinks it will help him reach a goal he has set for himself. Sculptors who teach, philosophers who write, politicians who speak--all can have influence, if anyone chooses to listen and wants the message. Influence is a kind of power.
9.12.2008 10:14am
Happyshooter:
Please, explain, for example, why Elaine Stritch is #21 and John Dingell is #25? Among politicians, I would rank his current power over Jimmy Carter (#19) and probably just behind Robert Byrd (#6).

Dingell is an old horse pulling a wagon down the same route the same way every single day.

I like the fact that he is pro-gun, which is my single issue, so I support him. Because he is so pro-gun, he is a constant rather than a player.

He has the same firm never wavering convictions on all his liberal issues, where he is far left and always there. He is firmly against forced bussing, and is always there (this and guns being his only 'right' stances) and never moves.

The only area where he waivers at all is abortion. He supports a right for 'standard' abortions--women who get pregnant and a few weeks later make it go away, but he seems to not like partial birth. This is the sole issue where he becomes a player.
9.12.2008 10:30am
Arkady:

BTW I know lots of mathematicians and physicists who are not very good at arithmetic. Some scientists even make careless errors, like Einstein.


Great story I once heard about Einstein. He played the violin, sort of, and was asked to play with the New York Philharmonic for a benefit, with Leopold Stokowski conducting. At the rehersal, Einstein kept coming in late for his part, then early, then late. This went on a bit. Finally, Stokowski threw done his baton in exasperation and yelled, "Goddamit Albert, can't you count?"
9.12.2008 10:32am
erics (mail):
Sagar hits the nail on the head. I suspect milliions of people absolutely despise McBama but will vote for one of them based solely on their views on abortion.
9.12.2008 10:36am
ChrisIowa (mail):
Dave N

But many of this people are, at this juncture, famous for being famous and things they did decades before (Daniel Schorr, Edgar Wayburn, Pinetop Perkins, to name 3).


Daniel Schorr is still very powerful. Every time he comes on the radio, he makes me turn it off.
9.12.2008 11:01am
tarheel:

How many people worry what will happen to the "country and our freedoms" if some 80+ year old business tycoon dies?

He's only 78, but if Warren Buffett died today the market would probably drop 300 points. Not quite "our freedoms," but it would matter to a lot of people.
9.12.2008 11:28am
Hoosier:
ChrisIowa

What amazes me is that he's still the political commentator on NPR. It's been a few years since his commentaries actually contained any "commentary." They are essentially summaries of some story that NPR has been covering. The "analysis" is limited to saying that "X will present the problem Y for group Z in the near future." But this was obvious already.

I like the idea of employing the wisdom that comes from experience. But Shorr just doesn't have anything left in the tank.
9.12.2008 11:48am
PLR:
Stevens as a #1 is a little crazy. How many Supreme Court lawyers really pitch the brief and the oral argument to Stevens? At least in civil liberties cases outside of the Sixth Amendment, you go after Justice Kennedy, and everything else should work itself out.
9.12.2008 12:23pm
BZ (mail):
I read the list a little differently. How many divisions has the Pope? asked Joseph Stalin.

Most of these are powerful for their ideas and expressions. Elaine Stritch, for example, moves Broadway and the New York cultural mafia. Phyllis Schlafly, with all due respect to my friend and colleague Roger, moves ideas in some circles (some positively, some negatively). John Dingell is feared, but his ideas are not as feared as his tactics; not the same as moving people with ideas. Businesspeople as a whole generally do not generate idea memes which move society, although there are exceptions (Apple, Google, Ebay, etc.).

And as for Justice Stevens? I pitched a brief directly at him in a very recent, high-profile case, in which he ended up writing the majority opinion. Voter I.D., remember? Kind of changed a bit of political landscape. He still has the power, though it remains the power of ideas.
9.12.2008 1:28pm
theobromophile (www):
We men accomplished in math, physics, economics, chess, cabinetmaking and welding will go through life without women we can really talk to about what interests us most. It's a good thing Al Gore invented sex.

Malthus, it's good to know I got a perfect score on the math portion of the SAT, went into engineering, and change my own brakes on my car because of that Y chromosome... oh, wait, I'm a girl.

Babe, if you're going through life without smart, accomplished women around you, it's because they are smart enough to flee. Intelligent women have better things to do with their time than listen to that crap.

Unlike Dave N., I can't blame my snark on the late hour. Malthus, however, has yet to even explain why, when touting his superiour mathematical and scientific ability, can't even put forth a hypothesis that is consistent with reality.
9.12.2008 2:32pm
Gregory Conen (mail):
@Happyshooter: Are you saying Dingell isn't powerful because he always exercises that power in the same way? Or because he usually disagrees with you?

The very fact that you care about his positions enough to know and comment on them reflects his power. If he changed his views, he could have a significant effect on policy. Therefore, he has power. However, his current exercise of power is balanced by other congressmen who disagree with him. If he were to die, the balance of power would change.
9.12.2008 3:47pm
BH:
Power is the ability to cause persons to act against their will, or irrespective of their will. Justice Stevens can do that. Business leaders can't. Justice Stevens can make me surrender my home to a developer; a developer can only try to persuade me to sell. It's coercion versus persuasion. Justice Stevens is truly powerful.

BH (Los Angeles)
9.12.2008 4:05pm
Alan Gunn (mail):
I doubt that there is any one thing that can sensibly be called "power." There are lots of different kinds of power, some of which have been mentioned above, but where is the common denominator? The pen, in the long run, may in some cases be mightier than the sword, but you wouldn't take a pen to a sword fight. I have a "power" (exercisable by writing a check) to get a new car if I want one; my local police officer may be too broke to do that, but he can stop me on the street and have me locked up, at least until my lawyer gets to the station. These aren't cases of "more vs. less" power, they're examples of powers to do different kinds of things. So lists like this one can always be made to seem silly. Probably rightly. "Most powerful" legislator, or judge, or reporter, or air force, or sumo wrestler--sure. "Most powerful octogenarian"--meaningless.
9.12.2008 4:07pm
LM (mail):
ChrisIowa:

Daniel Schorr is still very powerful. Every time he comes on the radio, he makes me turn it off.

He's also a uniter. I'm a liberal, and he has the same effect on me.


Hoosier:

I like the idea of employing the wisdom that comes from experience. But Shorr just doesn't have anything left in the tank.

If that were the extent of it, he'd be innocuous, making him no worse than most, and better than many. What gets on my nerves is that his inability to say anything insightful doesn't stop him from saying it with insufferable self-importance.


Splunge:

Ah, cultural influence. That and $5 will get you a nice coffee at Starbucks.

Bull.... The coffee isn't that good.
9.12.2008 4:41pm
Happyshooter:
Are you saying Dingell isn't powerful because he always exercises that power in the same way? Or because he usually disagrees with you?

No, I agree with his pro-gun position and thus support him as a congressman.

The reason he is not a player is that he always does exactly the same thing the same way. He is a vote for or against a proposal, always the same, and runs his committee for or against proposals, exactly the same way. This means there is no compromise with him, and many bills are steered to other committees. It also means he won't horse trade since his views on so many subjects are clear cut and set in stone.

He is very useful in the gun arena, however, because he is so pro-gun but otherwise so liberal that he is always in the middle of Washington Dem discussions and loud enoungh that he keeps the worst of the anti-gun stuff in congress at bay.
9.12.2008 4:44pm
theobromophile (www):

Ah, cultural influence. That and $5 will get you a nice coffee at Starbucks.
Bull.... The coffee isn't that good.

LM, maybe you should try their marble mocha macchiatos. (Just don't try to order one in the morning when you're sleep-deprived.)
9.12.2008 5:23pm
LM (mail):
theo,

Nah, they're coffee's fine. Seeing some of the names on this, it just occurred to me it's never too soon to start rehearsing my dotage.

But why aren't I surprised you'd be a fan of the marble mocha macchiatos? :)
9.12.2008 5:46pm
Brett Bellmore:

He is very useful in the gun arena, however, because he is so pro-gun


He's very useful when you don't desperately need him. I recall the last time we desperately needed his vote: We spent 10 years with a ban on so-called 'assault weapons' because he gave it to his party instead.
9.12.2008 7:43pm
Happyshooter:
He's very useful when you don't desperately need him. I recall the last time we desperately needed his vote: We spent 10 years with a ban on so-called 'assault weapons' because he gave it to his party instead.

The AWB was proposed and supported by NRA hero Bill Ruger, it wasn't really a big issue until people realized what it really did.
9.15.2008 5:00pm