Reply To Karl Smith

On Friday I wrote:

[Imagine] a fountain of youth pill … [that had] to be … given to everyone over thirty … [and] required dosage doubled every decade [of age]. … Eventually we’d run out of money to pay for these pills; we’d have to say no to some people, and then they’d quickly die. And the longer we waited before admitting to ourselves that we couldn’t afford to give effective treatments to everyone, no matter what the cost, the worse it would be.

Karl Smith replied:

Why would it be worse the longer we lived in self-deception? That really needs to be spelled out because off the top it sounds like Robin is describing a scenario in which we maximize the the total amount of human life we can support. We are also doing this without implicitly valuing anyone’s life over anyone else’s. We save everyone we can, as long as we can, until we hit capacity. This could easily be a utopian scenario.

Again, its probably not the scenario I prefer but one has to be explicit about exactly why throwing everything we have at an extremely effective method of preserving enormous amounts of human life is bad idea. It seems like something the average person would regard as a great idea.

Well first we might not smoothly transition to a maximal sustainable state, but instead borrow too much, fail to maintain infrastructure, etc. Second, the steady state might have a pretty low quality of life, from spending everything possible on pills. Third, we could support much more human life by having new young kids who wouldn’t need any pills for another thirty years. If the choice is between a million folks kept to age 200 or a billion folks keep to age 100, I’ll take the billion any day.

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  • Vaniver

    >If the choice is between a million folks kept to age 200 or a billion folks keep to age 100, I’ll take the billion any day.

    I don’t know, your 100th birthday might induce some belief change 😛

  • Sister Y

    Second, the steady state might have a pretty low quality of life, from spending everything possible on pills.

    If the choice is between a million folks kept to age 200 or a billion folks keep to age 100, I’ll take the billion any day.

    Your scenario boils down to the question of whether it’s morally better to make new people or take care of existing ones. Previously, you have said that “poor folks do smile” as an argument that there’s nothing wrong with creating new lives that seem miserable to us, because subjectively, they are perceived as okay to the people who live them. But I think this must apply equally to creating a new life or continuing an old one – old, sick people still smile.

    It’s like you want nonexistent people to have a “vote” on the distribution of resources, but the only vote you find imaginable is “I want to be born at any cost, no matter how miserable my life is” – and you find this imaginary “vote” to be more persuasive than the claims of existing people for better quality of life.

    A million 200-year-olds, in your scenario, means 900 million people who never suffer or even perceive their non-existence. You seem to be making the quantitative claim that 900 million people coming into existence is better than a million people living an extra 100 years each. That only makes sense with a “one person OR possible person, one vote” principle, which seems as strange to me as the idea that maximizing the number of human lives is a good public policy goal.

  • dave

    You lose the war for scarce resources with the country that kills off its old.

    /end thread

    • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

      dave, and you lose the war for scarce resources to the country that kills off those unwilling to work for subsistence wages.

      • dave

        False. It takes above substinance level wages to produce the most productive individuals. As long as you produce enough to justify it, you can enjoy any living standard.

        The problem is when a society has a large group of people who are net consumers of other peoples productivity. Such a society will drag down its most productive individuals, who will be unable to compete with a society where its most productive are not being dragged down.

      • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

        Slave labor has been employed to do lots of things. Are the slave masters “productive” or “non-productive”?

        A team of slaves with a slave master skilled at using a bull whip will be more “productive” than a team of slaves without such a slave master.

        Who is “productive”? The slave master or the slaves?

        Does the society that outlaws the use of bull whips “drag down” those most skilled at using them?

        The question of “productivity” hinges on who benefits from the value added by that productivity. In the case of slaves, their productivity only benefits their owner. Who benefits when the value added chain is controlled by a monopoly choke-point? It is the owner of that monopoly choke-point.

        Does the society that outlaws monopoly choke-points “drag down” those most skilled at using them? Or does a society that allows monopoly choke-points “drag down” everyone else?

      • dave

        “Slave labor has been employed to do lots of things.”

        Wake me up when slave labor starts designing power plants and making the next generation of micro processors.

        The west got rich by letting people keep some of their efforts, and people can produce orders of magnitude more when they have the time, motivation, and resources to utilize their minds.

        The rest of your reply is neither here nor there. The issue at hand is whether society should devote ever increasing shares of its real resources to declining assets, the elderly, who are often net negatives for society (consume more then they produce). To me the only justification of diverting real resources to the elderly is if doing so creates a credible commitment among the young to save (i.e. reduce consumption and invest in real capital) in the understanding that doing so will lead to a comfortable retirement. Such capital formation can raise the whole societies standard of living. When entitlements are not tied to capital formation they merely represent parasitic drain.

        In a conflict between two societies of scarce resources then most efficient one will win. If one society decides to devote ever increasing shares of its real resources to the maintenance of rapidly declining assets (old people) while another invests its real resources in appreciating assets (young people, infrastructure) then the latter society will eventually win the war for scarce resources.

  • Doug

    What about a million people living for a million years, or a trillion people living for one year?

    (Pretty much irrelevant to the this particular discussion, but I wanted to get your take on whether life expectancy has diminishing marginal utility)

  • Josh Burroughs

    > Third, we could support much more human life by having new young kids who wouldn’t need any pills for another thirty years.

    It’s pretty expensive to produce an adult this way. If the dosage for a 30-year-old is not too expensive, it would likely be cheaper (per person-year of adult life expectancy gained) to give the drug to them than to invest in the care, feeding, and education of child:

    If it costs about $200K to raise a child to age 18 (http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/Publications/News-Media/News3-24-08.pdf) plus, say, $50K for college, and on average you expect 50 working years after that, a new child costs $5K per productive year.

    If the pills cost $1 apiece, and you must take 1 a day to start, giving the drug to adults would be more cost effective than having new children until the adults get into their 70s (I’m assuming that the pills essentially halt aging as long as you take them, with aging resuming normally afterwards). That’s not counting the somewhat harder-to-value benefits of experience and longer outlook.

  • Abelard Lindsey

    This is off-topic, but I suggest the following poll:

    Which would you prefer:

    Option A: $10 million in cash and being in a position (CEO, politician, etc.) where you have authority over thousands of people.

    Option B: $100 million in cash and in a position (say, a hedge fund manager) where you do not have direct authority over thousands of other people.

    The purpose of the poll is to determine which people prefer more, money or power, and how much money people are willing to sacrifice for power over others.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    ” If the choice is between a million folks kept to age 200 or a billion folks keep to age 100, I’ll take the billion any day.”

    Well, that’s an “I’m dead in the long run” dilemma. Throw in that one is attempting to maximize probabilities of innovating lifespan extension and the calculation gets trickier. In which scenario do I have a better chance at catching an innovation wave to functional immortality? That would be my decision criteria.

  • http://theviewfromhell.blogspot.com Sister Y

    Elsewhere you state that a being should come into existence if it wishes to do so and can pay for its own existence, including net externalities. If we have a trade-off like the one in your scenario, would the extra people need to compensate the few who would have otherwise gotten to live a hundred extra years?

    Requiring entities to pay for their own existence seems to imply a priority of property rights for already-existing entities. Do you think there is such a priority, or am I misinterpreting? It seems strange to have a society in which the many must support the few based on something as morally irrelevant as date of birth, but inequality is often based on factors at least as irrelevant, such as parentage. It seems at least as strange to say that the million folks who could have lived to 200 are not harmed on net by the trade-off you propose; why shouldn’t this harm be compensable?

  • Eric Yu

    Given the simple and unrealistic assumption that per capita income is constant, regardless of the size of the population, it becomes a question of how much people value income vs. length of life – spending more on pills does not change the maximum possible population.

    Another scenario that would justify consuming lots of pills is if the size of the population is overwhelmingly constrained by the amount of land available. (Suppose that on a world capable of supporting 1 billion people, it only takes 10,000 people to farm all the land, and any additional labor would not increase food production significantly.) If the population is already at its maximum level, spending more on pills would not reduce the amount of food available, and the tradeoff between longevity and income again becomes the only factor.