Tag Archives: Death

More Inequality, Merited

Consider two plausible assumptions:

  1. Within a few centuries, “immortality” goes on sale. That is, if you pay enough, and your body is of a convenient type (e.g., android), then you can buy backups and replacement parts, and keep functioning indefinitely. (At least until correlated failures hit all your backups at once). Most folks, however, may be unable to afford the price.
  2. At this time, there will still be a capitalist world economy with not-overwhelming taxes on the rich. So individuals can still accumulate wealth over a lifetime, as they have done for millennia.

Today, as in the past, wealth levels tend to diverge over individual lifetimes, and then converge over many generations. People born with similar initial wealth often have quite different wealth at life’s end. They also tend to give different amounts to their children. Yet over many generations, distant descendants tend to have similar wealth. (At least if they live in the same nation; see Greg Clark.) Children often lack their parents’ drive or abilities, and prefer to spend their inherited wealth. “Rags to rags in three generations,” the saying goes.

But given the above assumptions, in the future able driven folks can continue to accumulate wealth indefinitely, allowing the usual within-lifetime wealth divergence to last far longer. Maybe eventually these old dogs couldn’t learn new tricks, but we should still expect to see far more wealth divergence in this future. Quick: does this sound like a good or a bad thing?

Now consider: in this future, wealth should depend less on parental luck, and more on personal merit, such as drive and ability. (Other kinds of luck matter too of course, but not obviously more than before.) Isn’t it good if personal wealth depends more on personal merit?

If you still find this scenario horrifying, that suggests your dislike of wealth inequality isn’t based so much on it being undeserved, but is more against the very idea of inequality. Perhaps you are horrified by such huge inequality because it shows raw luck imposing unnecessary harmful risk, which you want to cure via redistribution. But if so, it should be enough to offer folks wealth insurance. If you are horrified by a future where enough able driven folks knowingly reject wealth insurance, allowing some to become fantastically rich, then again your objection seems to be to inequality itself.

Btw, Tyler says:

When will the world have its first trillionaire? In real terms I say never, marginal tax rates will rise to capture the rents, one way or another.

This seems remarkably pessimistic about future world wealth or world-wide tax rates. Today’s richest man has $74B, which is probably ~$50B after correcting for “marginal tax rates.” So proportional growth of the world and the richest by a factor of twenty, roughly what we achieved in the twentieth century, would create a trillionaire.

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Downturn Cuts Exercise

It turns out that death rates fall during recessions. I posted in January on how some had speculated that people eat better during recessions, but in fact people seem to eat worse food. Now I can report that people also get less exercise during recessions:

Recreational exercise tends to increase as employment decreases. In addition, we also find that individuals substitute into television watching, sleeping, childcare, and housework. However, this increase in exercise as well as other activities does not compensate for the decrease in work-related exertion due to job-loss. Thus total physical exertion, which prior studies have not analyzed, declines. These behavioral effects are strongest among low-educated males. (more)

The healthy-recession puzzle deepens.

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Forget 9/11

Opening my Sunday comics this morning I see half are not-funny 9/11 memorials. Half of media commentary also seems on 9/11, and is largely uninformative.

In the decade since 9/11 over half a billion people have died worldwide. A great many choices could have delayed such deaths, including personal choices to smoke less or exercise more, and collective choices like allowing more immigration. And cryonics might have saved most of them.

Yet, to show solidarity with these three thousand victims, we have pissed away three trillion dollars ($1 billion per victim), and trashed long-standing legal principles. And now we’ll waste a day remembering them, instead of thinking seriously about how to save billions of others. I would rather we just forgot 9/11.

Do I sound insensitive? If so, good — 9/11 deaths were less than one part in a hundred thousand of deaths since then, and don’t deserve to be sensed much more than that fraction. If your feelings say otherwise, that just shows how full fricking far your mind has gone.

Added: Similar views here.

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Against Terror

You might have thought that terror was a bad thing, especially terror of death, which is why a war on terror would be a good thing (if it worked). But in today’s NYT, Stephen Cave praises terror:

[In] the TV series “Torchwood: Miracle Day,” … the “miracle” of the title is that no one dies anymore, but it proves to be a curse as overpopulation soon threatens. … [This] is right to be pessimistic about what would happen if this dream were fulfilled — but for the wrong reasons. Materially, we could cope with the arrival of the elixir. But, psychologically, immortality would be the end of us.

The problem is that our culture is based on our striving for immortality. … It has inspired us to found religions, write poems and build cities. If we were all immortal, the motor of civilization would sputter and stop. …

Asked to rule on a hypothetical case of prostitution, … judges who had first been reminded of their mortality set a bond nine times higher than those who hadn’t. …
In more than 400 experiments, … results consistently support … Terror Management Theory — that particular aspects of our outlook are governed by our need to manage our fear of death. In other words, our cultural, philosophical and religious systems exist to promise us immortality.

Such systems … are embodied in the pyramids of Egypt, the cathedrals of Europe and even the skyscrapers of modern cities. … We also find the promise of deathlessness … in the accumulation of wealth; … [and in] immersion in a greater whole, whether a nation or a football team; or even in the pursuit of scientific research, with its claim to enduring truth.

… All our death-defying systems, if there were no more death, … would be superfluous. We would have no need for progress or art, faith or fame. … Action would lose its purpose and time its value. This is the true awfulness of immortality. Let us be grateful that the elixir continues to elude us — and toast instead our finitude. (more)

So we want something so desperately that we delude ourselves to imagine that we’ll get it, and that makes it bad if we actually get it, because then we wouldn’t delude ourselves?! This seems another bout of insanity triggered by the word “immortality.” Once again, with feeling:

A big part of the problem, I think, is that talk of “immortality” invokes an extremely far view. But finite increases in lifespan really have little to do with immortality. Immortality means you never die, ever. But forever is a really really long time! In fact, nothing you can imagine is remotely as long. … A thousand year lifespan would be fantastic, relative to our lifespan. I want it! But it is nothing like immortality. It would have clear stages, and a very real end to anticipate. (more)

True immortality isn’t remotely an option anytime soon. What might be an option is a dramatic increase in lifespan. But death would remain, and with it a terror of death, and the cultural achievements such terror may inspire.  And if less terror leads to fewer cultural achievements, surely that seems be a price well worth paying!

P.S. Today is my birthday, which I like to call not-dead-yet day.

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Live Long Or Wide?

One of my favorite science fiction novels is Kiln People, by David Brin in 2003. Not so much for its characters or plot, but because it takes an interesting future/tech scenario seriously. Most fiction with artificial intelligence describes a world with only a few of them, yet one of AI’s most important features is its easy of copying.

In Kiln People, Brin takes seriously this idea of cheaply copying intelligent agents. The key assumption is that in a few minutes and for a modest cost one can copy a person’s mind into a new clay body that lasts about a day. That copy’s memories of its day can also be added back into the original at the day’s end. Brin imagines many details of how this would change society. While he gets some things wrong, and an economist would get more right, Brin does far better than most science fiction.

Assume for the sake of argument that you came to accept that such clay copies really were “you.” So that if on Monday you made six copies and merged them all back in at the end of Monday, and then you slept the rest of the week, you would have lived just as much as an ordinary person in a normal week. You’d remember having lived for seven days that week.

Now imagine that this copy technology is improved let copies last ten years. Then compare two ways to stretch your life:

  • Time Stretched Life: You are able to live for another 110 years before dying.
  • Space Stretched Life: You make nine copies now, and the ten of you live for ten years. Then you merge the memories of all these copies back together, and live for another ten years before dying.

I suspect most people would admire the life stretched across time more than the life stretched across space, similar to the way most people admire a time stretched civilization more than a space stretched one, and to the way they accept time genocide more than space genocide. I again attribute this to the future seeming more far:

The far future seems more far … than situations far away in space, or in the far past. The near/far distinction was first noticed in how people treated the future differently, and our knowing especially little detail about the future makes it especially easy to slip into abstract thought about the future. … We are less practical, more idealistic, and more uncompromising in far mode.

Added 8a:  The time stretched life lets you see more of human history, but the space stretched life lets you help yourself more (e.g., the ten of you could start a business together), is better able to prevent your death, and trades later for earlier decades of your life cycle. As most people seem to discount the future and to prefer earlier life decades, these factors seem to favor space-stretching overall.

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Is Time Us, Space Them?

(This post co-authored by Robin Hanson and Katja Grace.)

In the Battlestar Galactica TV series, religious rituals often repeated the phrase, “All this has happened before, and all this will happen again.” It was apparently comforting to imagine being part of a grand cycle of time. It seems less comforting to say “Similar conflicts happen out there now in distant galaxies.” Why?

Consider two possible civilizations, stretched either across time or space:

  • Time: A mere hundred thousand people live sustainably for a billion generations before finally going extinct.
  • Space: A trillion people spread across a thousand planets live for only a hundred generations, then go extinct.

Even though both civilizations support the same total number of lives, most observers probably find the time-stretched civilization more admirable and morally worthy. It is “sustainable,” and in “harmony” with its environment. The space-stretched civilization, in contrast, seems “aggressively” expanding and risks being an obese “repugnant conclusion” scenario. Why?

Finally, consider that people who think they are smart are often jealous to hear a contemporary described as “very smart,” but are much happier to praise the genius of a Newton, Einstein, etc. We are far less jealous of richer descendants than of richer contemporaries. And there is far more sibling rivalry than rivalry with grandparents or grandkids. Why?

There seems an obvious evolutionary reason – sibling rivalry makes a lot more evolutionary sense. We compete genetically with siblings and contemporaries far more than with grandparents or grandkids. It seems that humans naturally evolved to see their distant descendants and ancestors as allies, while seeing their contemporaries more as competitors. So a time-stretched world seems choc-full of allies, while a space-stretched one seems instead full of potential rivals, making the first world seem far more comforting.

Having identified a common human instinct about what to admire, and a plausible evolutionary origin for it, we now face the hard question: do we embrace this instinct as revealing a deep moral truth, or do we reject it as a morally irrelevant accident of our origins? The two of us (Robin and Katja) are inclined more to reject it, but your mileage may vary.

(This is cross-posted at Meteuphoric.)

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No Generic City Effect

This is my last post on results from Ken Lee’s excellent thesis.

People who in rural areas die consistently less than others, even after controlling for other death predictors. To study this effect, Lee tried interacting urbanity with many other predictors, including geography. That is, Lee looked at all combinations of whether someone lived in a city, suburb, or rural area, and in which of nine regions of the US they lived.

After controlling for his other usual predictors (age, race, gender, married, education, income), Lee found that eleven of the 26 interaction ratios were 5% significant, and six were 1% significant. It seems that there is just no such thing as a generic effect of living in a city, suburb or rural area, nor a generic effect of living in each region. Instead, each of the 27 different place combinations has its own distinct influence on health. Put another way, each of the nine US region has a different city, suburb, or rural effect. Here are the estimated death ratios of each place (relative to Middle Atlantic cities):


It is West North Central, New England, and Mountain rural areas that are good for health (adding a year or so of life), and it is South Atlantic cities that are the worst for health (cutting ~1.5 years of life).

FYI, these are the ratios and significance from Lee’s table 17: Continue reading "No Generic City Effect" »

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Jobs Kill, BIG Time

I’ve saved the most interesting result in Ken Lee’s thesis till today. The subject is how death rates vary with jobs. The big result: death rates depend on job details more than on race, gender, marriage status, rural vs. urban, education, and income combined! Now for the details.

The US Department of Labor has described each of 807 occupations with over 200 detailed features on how jobs are done, skills required, etc.. Lee looked at seven domains of such features, each containing 16 to 57 features, and for each domain Lee did a factor analysis of those features to find the top 2-4 factors. This gave Lee a total of 22 domain factors. Lee also found four overall factors to describe his total set of 225 job and 9 demographic features. (These four factors explain 32%, 15%, 7%, and 4% of total variance.)

Lee then tried to use these 26 job factors, along with his other standard predictors (age, race, gender, married, rural, education, income) to predict deaths in the 302,890 people for whom he had job data. Lee found that his standard predictors didn’t change much, and found these job factor risk ratios (Table 34, column 2):


Ten of the 26 estimates are 5% significant, and five are 1% significant – this isn’t random noise (*** p<0.01, ** p<0.05, * p<0.1). Each factor is scaled to range in value from 0 to 1 across the 806 occupations; its risk ratio is an estimated ratio of death rates when that factor has its max value of one, relative to death rates when that factor has its min value of zero. And these are huge risk ratios!

If you take all of Lee’s standard non-age predictors (race, gender, married, rural, education, income), and multiply together their risk ratios, you’ll find that a poor badly-schooled unmarried urban black male dies 17.7 times as often as a rich well-educated married rural asian woman (of the same age), with a lifespan roughly thirty years shorter on average. (A risk ratio of 1.57 costs roughly five years of life.)

Yet big as this effect is, the top five job factor risk ratios give a total ratio of 19.7, bigger that all the other non-age effects put together! And the top ten job factor ratios give a total risk ratio of over 100!  (All twenty six factors together give a total risk ratio of 563.) Jobs are clearly a huge and neglected influence on who lives and who dies.

If you cared about preventing death, rather than just signaling your concern, these results suggest you stop wasting your efforts on tiny effects like medical insurance, auto accidents, crime, recreational drugs, radiation, or food safety, and focus on: jobs. Yes a lot of job-death variation must come from different types of people doing different types of jobs, but a great deal of this variation is also likely causal – some jobs kill folks much more than others.

At the very least we should try to tell people about the huge life and death consequences of their job choices. Then workers could demand higher wages for more deadly jobs, which should induce employers to seek ways to substitute less deadly for more deadly jobs. Alas I suspect most folks will just shrug their shoulders – these sort of effects seem too abstract to elicit much concern. If you look at a person doing a job they don’t look like they are dying. Not like if snakes were killing people on planes …

FYI, here are some sample jobs rated high and low on the four overall job factors (from Table 49): Continue reading "Jobs Kill, BIG Time" »

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Death Cause Correlates

Over the years I’ve seen many studies correlating overall death rates with other features, and also seen studies on correlates of particular causes of death, but until Ken Lee’s thesis I’d never seen how death correlates change with broad categories of death causes. Yesterday I pointed to one disturbing correlate: more med spending correlates with more cancer deaths, but not with more deaths from other causes.

That data also found injury deaths increasing more with alcohol use, which makes sense. While no population density estimates were significant, density’s most positive correlation with death was for “other” deaths, which contains most known contagious conditions. This also makes sense, as density increases contagion.

That was all from Lee’s chapter 2, where he looks at 50 states over 28 years. In chapter 3 Lee turns to a much larger data set, 367,101 adults from the National Longitudinal Mortality Study, followed over 11 years during which 9.1% of them died. Here are a few selections from Lee’s Table 14, where he breaks down deaths into cancer, heart attack, injury, and other:


If docs are especially bad at treating cancer, then we should expect those who use docs more to do worse at cancer. And in fact women, the rich, and the well educated do worse at cancer. Since there are many more dangerous objects in rural and poor lives, it also makes sense that such folks suffer injury deaths more.

If the main reason rural folks die less is that lower density reduces contagion, we’d expect the rural effect to be largest for “other” deaths, and that is what we find. Interestingly, that is also the kind of death which marriage best prevents – does married life prevent contagion compared with single life?

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What Is Em “Death”?

Yesterday I talked about one big change with ems (future whole  brain emulation robots) – they’d mostly be workaholics. Another other big change with ems, I think, is their concept of and attitude toward “death.” Ems would often agree to make copies of themselves, copies which they expected would only last for a limited time, such as one year. But they’d mostly be fine with this. Let me explain.

Imagine that you have lost all memories of some period of your life, say a period one year long. You still have pictures, letters, a diary, some video, memories in others you can talk to, etc. But while it all sounds like the sort of thing you might have done, you don’t additionally recall doing any of it. How much would this memory loss degrade the value of your overall life? I’d say it would be far worse to have not lived that year at all, say being put in suspended animation, than to merely have lost the memory of that year.

Now imagine that, because you had access to a time machine, this lost year happened at the same time as one of your other years. During 2006, for example, you were off experiencing 2005 all over again, but in another place, and then you forgot it all, expect for the pictures, etc. For me, this would not much degrade the overall value of my life. It would again be a bit sad not to remember that year, but its not a big deal when it happened.

Now imagine that you could use this time machine to both experience 2005 twice, forgetting one of the parts, and also to experience 2006 as usual. Here you’d be adding one more year onto your life, which I’d consider great. If the cost of having one more year of life were that you don’t fully remember that year, to me that would be a small price to pay.

For an em who shared my attitudes here, the option to spawn a new copy who only lasted a year would be much like the option to live another year longer, but without remembering it. Mostly a good deal, at least if you liked your life during that time. Yes the copy might be sad when his year came to an end, knowing his detailed memories of that year would not last. But he’d usually expect that “he” would continue to exist through other copies. He wouldn’t consider this harm to be remotely as large as what we call “death” — the end of anyone who remembers our life in some detail.

Ems would start as scans of humans, but not of random humans – the humans would be chose for their productivity and their acceptance of the em patterns of life, and “death.” As a result, ems would mostly be fantastically-capable workaholics who were not greatly bothered by “death” given the existence of other close copies. Since they seem to me quite “human” with lives well worth living, I consider the em revolution to be far more glorious than horrifying.

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