Econ of Longer Lives

I’m a little late to the party, but in December’s Cato Unbound debate, Aubrey de Grey and Ronald Bailey argued that much longer healthy lifespans would be good, while Diana Schaub and Daniel Callahan had doubts.  Some samples:

Daniel Callahan: My standing complaint against de Grey and his enthusiastic colleagues is that they defend themselves by hypothesizing a variety of changes in our present way of life that would make our extended lives a kind of heaven on earth. We would be so healthy and energetic we would want to keep working indefinitely. We could start new careers, new families, new ways of life. That we might get tired of it all, or bored, is not allowed into their calculations. Nor is any imaginative effort to imagine the deleterious social effects allowed.

Ronald Bailey: So what about the social consequences of radically longer and healthier lives? In that regard, Diana Schaub in her reaction essay raises many questions for reflection about those consequences, but curiously she fails to actually reflect on them.  Schaub … simply recapitulates the standard issue pro-mortalist rhetorical technique of asking allegedly "unnerving questions" and then allowing them to "fester in the mind." Sadly, all too many bioethicists think they’ve done real philosophic work by posing "hard" questions, then sitting back with steepled hands and a grave look on their countenances.

This issue has sparked many debates, conferences etc. over the last few years.  The invited participants have naturally been intellectuals who have published on the topic recently, mainly activists and bioethicists.  We economists have not published on this topic, and so have not been included.  But this is not because we have nothing to say.  Instead, no economist has anything special to say.  We can all easily see that standard economic theory seems to say longer healthy lives are a good thing.  So none of us thinks any of us should get precious academic publication credit for saying such an obvious thing.  As a result, life extension debates ignore economic theory. 

Of course appearances may be deceiving, so perhaps there are good economic theory reasons against longer healthy lives.  And perhaps economists would typically let their "judgment" overrule economic theory on this issue.  But it still seems to me a shame that observers of this debate can remain unaware of what standard economic theory seems to say on this subject. 

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  • Transhumanism: Too Obvious To Be Worth A Publication Credit

    I can only speak for all transhumanists everywhere, but I think this is worth an article on the standard economic theory.

    Just find somewhere to publish it that isn’t an economics journal, and you’ll sound brilliant.

    I forget where I heard this, but isn’t that the usual trick – Econ 101 is so rarely understood that you can sound like a wild-eyed revolutionary by explaining the standard theory?

  • Carl Shulman

    It would be helpful for economists to estimate the messy empirical consequences of life extension:

    1. The fiscal impacts from variable responses in work, marriage, retirement, etc, have huge policy relevance.
    2. Cost-benefit analysis versus treatment of malaria, tuberculosis, HIV, etc, with different discount rates, etc. There are quite a lot of publications and projects by the WHO and others doing this sort of thing in other areas.
    3. How would this affect growth rates in developing countries that are thought to otherwise face demographic troubles of growing old before growing rich?

  • Carl, sure estimating the detailed consequences of a particular pattern of life extension is something economists would publish, if they thought that pattern likely. But the debate here is was about “radical” life extension.

    Eliezer, unfortunately most non-econ journals have their own hard-to-achieve standards for what counts as a valuable contribution, standards that most economists do not know how to meet. And of course those publications won’t “count” for economists.

  • April

    Why bother? The pragmatist in me sees no point in improving the quality of this debate. The anti-longer/healthier lives position would seem to be easy to argue against on a number of grounds. But, why waste your time? Is there any evidence at all that they have influence on any policies? On the allocation of any resources or decision-making anywhere?

    Go for empirical, rather than theoretical. If someone is going to pick up the gauntlet, I second Carl’s suggestion to focus on empirical grounds rather than theoretical. I’ve been involved in policymaking for 15 years, and have observed that the former is almost always more convincing and influential than the latter.

    Despite my reservations about the value of “elevating” this debate, there is much in the Callahan essay that could be disputed by simply comparing the statements with observable facts. One of the arguments he posits against extending/ improving life is that our society couldn’t deal with this demographic shift. Here is Callahan, quoting, sadly, an economist….

    The late economist Kenneth Boulding once argued that “any major expansion of the span of active human life would create a crisis for the human race almost beyond imagining.”

    Uh, well, Callahan may not have noticed, but life spans have doubled in the past 150 years or so. And I don’t see any major (demographic-related) crisis.

  • Carl Shulman


    Much of the rise in life expectancy has been driven by huge falls in infant and child mortality, as well as infectious diseases affecting adults.

  • Jordan Bassior

    I don’t see any _long-term_ economic problem with long life, emmortality, or even true immortality. Assuming that the longer life is with reasonable good health, the elderly long-lived are as able to work productively as is anyone else, so they are not a burden on the younger.

    In the short term, of course, all sorts of economic problems are possible, mostly in the nature of transitioning from pension systems that assume short, ill old ages and that would now be providing benefits to the majority of the population. Due to the distributed nature of the costs and the concentrated nature of the benefits, _at least initially_ (when the anagathic technology is new), such systems will be _politically_ difficult to terminate.

  • April, you raise an interesting possibility, that even relatively high profile debates cannot be trusted to reveal the best arguments because those who really know say to themselves “why bother to enter this debate, as it hasn’t had much policy influence.”

  • michael vassar

    Carl: Much is due to child mortality, infectious disease, and infant mortality, but far from all of it. Most of that effect had already taken place by the 1950s.

  • anonymous

    Is there any evidence at all that [the aging debate] ha[s] influence on any policies? On the allocation of any resources or decision-making anywhere?

    To put it clearly, yes. The fields of gerontology and geriatrics are undergoing a potential paradigm shift, but there are strong incentive effects who affect any career scientist who might want to get involved in radical life-extension research. Please see:

    To this day, the FDA will not approve a treatment for biological senescence. Something has got to change if we’re going to see any real results – this is the real point of the debate.

  • Chris

    April :
    “I don’t see any major (demographic-related) crisis.”

    Dear April, try putting your telescope to the eye that isn’t blind. We are living in the best of all possible worlds. There are no crises nor problems. Not a single one of today’s, nor tomorrow’s, nor the day after’s news items has anything to do with demographics. Oh well.

  • Tom Breton

    It seems extraordinary to doubt that much longer healthy lifespans would be good. Extraordinary claims – even extraordinary claims in the form of doubts – require extraordinary evidence. The lifespan critics don’t appear to have presented any extraordinary evidence.

    Daniel Callahan has something of a point in calling for “imaginative effort to imagine the deleterious social effects”, but IMO it doesn’t rise to the level of a solid counterpoint, much less an extraordinary one. I don’t think he has a good point in “That we might get tired of it all [ie, of living], or bored”.

    I love Ronald Bailey’s description of the “standard issue pro-mortalist rhetorical technique”.

  • Julian Morrison

    De Grey puts it succinctly: “if your objection is not strong enough to persuade me that we shouldn’t save 30 (bleep)ing World trade centers every (bleep)ing day, don’t waste my time. It’s a sense of proportion thing.”*

    (*paraphrased from memory)

  • Considering how the current crop of Economists appear to adhere to the inhumane ideology of “productivity above all else”, I consider it a blessing, rather than a “shame” that they are excluded from this discussion – despite the fact that the point of view which you offered is one that I happen to subscribe to.

    Croyincs and Transhumanists appear to care about human beings or the future evolution of whatever human beings turn into. In our majority and at our most practical level our concern is not for the continued existence of our galaxy, our solar system, Gaia or magnesium. Our concerns are for the life and happiness of humans (or, again, the “descendants” of humans, so to speak). The only “economics” we’ve heard from you and your oft-quoted friends however is aimed at an interest in Productivity. What will create faster and cheaper cellphones with less resources? The question of whether faster and cheaper cellphones are good or bad for the happiness of human beings is not a concerns of yours. Nor is the question of the toll that is taken upon human beings as these cellphones are created by “better managed” “manpower”. All of which being the case, why should your brand of right-wing economists be invited to the table when your goals are so often at odds with the humanistic goals that transhumanists are generally interested in?


    P.S. Robin, I’ve only found you to censor my comments when they insult friends of yours by name, for which reason I’m generally confident, and slightly impressed by the fact, that you won’t be censoring this comment. I should note however that I do believe that the comment which you have censored were not demonstrative of bias overcome. My main postscripted interest here however is for Leizer and other transhumanists who may be interested in rushing to their friend’s defense: When you come to contradict my accounts of transhumanists’ goals on account of your friend-Bias and your interest in alliance-building-with-a-popular-writer-Bias, (as-well-as-joining-a-crowd-by-mocking-the troublemaker-Bias) it would be best if you do so without offering readers the authority-Bias for evidence.

  • Mnuez, if you think economists prefer cell phones over people, you have no idea what economists think. Try reading a standard intro econ textbook.

  • Even before I started reading Overcoming Bias I was aware of the common rhetorical attempts at inducing bias through the usage of Strawmen and Ad-Hominem.

    Robin, I like your writing and I respect your intelligence and humanity so it brings me no joy to be attacking your economic weltanschauung but the fact is that you know damn good and well that the economic policies that you advocate are to the detriment of the vast majority of human beings, yet you advocate them nonetheless. You repeatedly put forth the idea (which I certainly don’t buy) that economists’ ought all to support free-markets, lower-taxes, massive immigration, anti-protectionist policies, etc. because this best for ‘economic growth’ or, put another way, faster cellphones being produced more cheaply. Now, Robin, you know that these policies will lessen the end-product of human happiness. Heck, look at what you’ve written even within the past month Too Mujch Hope and Heroic Job Bias. It isn’t for want of enlightenment that you support the policies that you support. You know that their end result is less human happiness overall yet you appear to believe what you now say that you don’t:That as an Economist, your job is to study and advocate the policies that support the greatest economic growth.

    So, in my opinion, you have every right to have an interest in greater Production for the sake of production (regardless of the human cost that results or the human cost that is required in order to create that production) but you can’t expect to be invited to conferences of Humanists. Their goals are at variance to what you portray as your own.


  • Cato Unbound debates are less than satisfying–probably because the choice of debaters is typically unbalanced. The reason for that would be that the personnel at Cato Unbound who choose the debaters are not themselves qualified to consider the issues being debated. That is a very serious shortcoming.

    Neither Schaub nor Callahan seem to have understood de Grey’s approach to gerontological engineering. Schaub’s demographic argument ignores the biggest demographic dilemma being faced by the western world–the aging workforce at the top of an inverted pyramid supported by smaller and smaller birth cohorts.

    Realistically, gerontological engineering would begin in the developed world, where it can be best afforded and best utilised. The developing world is far more in need of clean drinking water, alternatives to deforestation, more empowerment of women, less violent religions, and less corrupt governments.

  • Some economists have picked up the baton and written about the value of life extension, at least of the longevity gains over the past hundred years. See Murphy & Topel:

    and Nordhaus:

    I would like to see economists being more frequently invited to participate in debates on the value of life extension, particularly since objections based on alleged consequences for the economy are often raised in such debates (by folks who are obviously ignorant of even the basics of economic theory). I would also like to see more economists take it upon themselves to contribute commentaries on this topic as a public service, even if it doesn’t help them in their career.

    How much such debates influence policy is difficult to estimate, but one should not be too quick to conclude that their influence is negligible. For example, it might be the case that a new idea needs first achieve a certain degree of respectability and familiarity in the academic/think tank/public intellectuals realm in order to even gain entry onto the agendas of top policy makers and to affect research funding priorities.

  • Nick, sure most people favor the status quo, presuming that whatever got us here must be good. I very much doubt Schaub or Callahan would argue otherwise. But further future changes in the same direction, well that’s a whole different story.

  • Caledonian

    “if your objection is not strong enough to persuade me that we shouldn’t save 30 (bleep)ing World trade centers every (bleep)ing day, don’t waste my time.

    Argument from emotion. The only reason to mention the WTC bombing is to draw attention away from the merits of the argument and toward our emotional associations.

  • Daniel Merritt

    Longer healthy lives seems like an unquestionably good thing. To be blunt, it’s much easier to personally end your life (which doesn’t have to be as dramatic as a suicide; presumably you could simply choose not to use whatever procedures extend that life) than it is to personally extend it. So to not develop/offer a longer/healthier life is to deny choices, while (unless it was mandated by the government) longer lives would only be an option.

    What I worry much more about is longer UNhealthy lives, or at least unproductive lives. We end up devoting massive amounts of resources to the ‘past’ and diverting them from the future. If everyone still retired in their 60s but lived until their 120s, it would be utterly unsustainable. Already the U.S. spends vast amounts of money on extending senior citizens’ lives via Medicare, which in turn leads to more Medicare and Social Security spending, while draining money from both private (via taxes) and public (budget priorities shift away from education, infrastructure) investment in the future.

  • Daniel Merritt

    To clarify, there would be no problem if we extended all portions of human life by an equal amount. But if we only increase the length of the productive portion of human life by 20%, and we extend the “on the dole” portion by 300%, that’s trouble. And even if we increase the number of working years, it’s going to be very difficult politically to raise the retirement age…

  • Caledonian said:

    “if your objection is not strong enough to persuade me that we shouldn’t save 30 (bleep)ing World trade centers every (bleep)ing day, don’t waste my time.

    Argument from emotion. The only reason to mention the WTC bombing is to draw attention away from the merits of the argument and toward our emotional associations.

    This is not just an emotional argument; it is a logical argument contained in an emotional wrapper. The fact that he is having a strong emotional reaction doesn’t invalidate his point, which is that for an objection to be valid, it must show that the costs of radical life extension outweighs the benefits of saving lives. For example, the undesirability of possible boredom, or of troubles with monogamy, are not strong enough objections to outweigh saving people’s lives. People who can’t see this have their priorities in the wrong place, and consequently deserve DeGrey’s rebuke.

  • J Thomas

    If it turns out that people don’t *enjoy* living longer healthy lives, they have an easy way out. Give them the choice and they get to make the choice. As it is, they don’t have the choice, they can’t have longer healthy lives.

    If there are problems they would come from people wanting longer healthy lives which are somehow not good for society even though the people who get to choose do choose them. People who’re against the idea ought to be making those arguments.

    For example, what if it turned into long lives for rich people only? Rich people get the advantages, they get to have a longer perspective that helps them stay rich and get richer, while poor people can’t possibly compete. Like the song goes. “If life were a thing that money could buyyyyyy….. the rich would live, and the poor would diiiiieeeee….” Would that make more resentment, would society get less stable as the underclasses got angrier?

    Callahan saying we might get tired of living or bored with living, that’s a stupid argument. The people who suffer need to be different from the people who choose.

  • Caledonian

    People get a lot more stubborn and inflexible as they age. This is probably a result of neural-net overlearning, in addition to the loss of computational flexibility as damage accumulates.

    I will also point out that it’s a lot easier to make people live longer than to live longer and healthier. Thus far, we’ve only managed to accomplish the first. A lot of people have very miserable last decades.

  • Julian Morrison

    Caledonian: the WTC was just an approximate unit of death: 0.03 megadeaths, more or less.

    The argument was simply to enunciate the high hurdle that any merits of the anti-longevity case must leap. Mere problems aren’t enough. They have to be problems so stupendously huge that they could morally turn us aside from saving a hundred thousand perfectly savable people per day. (Or putting it another way, problems so huge we would willingly truck 100,000 people up a volcano, per day, and toss them in).


    “People get a lot more stubborn and inflexible as they age”

    … is a version of the “Tithonus error”. That’s a symptom. A fix for aging will cure it with the rest of the symptoms.

  • Julian Morrison

    (Oops, I mean 0.003 megadeaths. I shouldn’t post while sleepy!)

  • Unknown

    A fix for aging might very well NOT cure growth in stubbornness and inflexibility. Evidence for this is the fact that young people are often stubborn and inflexible due to the fact that they haven’t seen yet that there are any alternatives. Old people are often stubborn and inflexible because they are convinced that they have considered all the alternatives and already rejected them. A person who is 500 years old, even if he has a biological age of 25, might well be extremely stubborn and inflexible for this reason.

  • Caledonian

    That’s a symptom. A fix for aging will cure it with the rest of the symptoms.

    It’s this sort of arrogant dismissal of problems that makes argument futile. You ask us to imagine a case where something is changed without any negative side effects, and when we question the validity of this assumption, you claim that we’re ignoring your premise.

    We’re not. It’s just a stupid premise.