David R. Henderson  

Orszag on Inequality in Life Expectancy

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Few would deny that a few additional years of life would be more precious to most Americans than the extra money they might receive from government transfers. If inequality in things that matter is important, there is a basic inequality that the worriers about inequality should be paying attention to: the inequality in life expectancy between men and women.
So writes Peter Orszag. Oops, he didn't write that. Dwight Lee wrote that. Here's what Orszag wrote:
A longer-term worry is that the new technologies may widen gaps in life expectancy. Americans are living longer than ever -- but, as documented in a recent National Academy of Sciences report ("Explaining Divergent Levels of Longevity in High-Income Countries"), people with more education and income are enjoying much more rapid increases in longevity than others are.
Why is that a "worry?" He's not saying that life expectancy for less-educated and/or lower-income people is falling. I think it's not, although I stand to be corrected. He's saying simply that inequality in life expectancy is growing. He never tells us why that's a worry. I would be interested in seeing his reasoning.

And once I see his reasoning, I would be interested in seeing whether he's worried about the higher life expectancy of women. I'm not sure the gap between men's and women's life expectancy is growing, and so it's not completely analogous. Still, Orszag seems to see differences in life expectancy as a problem per se.

HT to Greg Mankiw.


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COMMENTS (9 to date)
nazgulnarsil writes:

why are you holding the idiot ball on this one? clearly anything educated wealthy people pay more/work harder to get that isn't freely available to the uneducated poor is pure evil.

KPres writes:

"Few would deny that a few additional years of life would be more precious to most Americans than the extra money they might receive from government transfers."

Huh? Adding a couple of years to my dotage is hardly important to me at all. The quality of life I live for the 80-82 years that came before is vastly more important than that.

David C writes:

Here is some data. A few counties saw their life expectancy drop. The main determinants of life expectancy are diet, exercise, and smoking. So this is mostly a matter of some people choosing to shorten their lifespans. It's likely poor, dumb people don't understand how important those three things are. It's unlikely that they don't know they're important.

Jamie_NYC writes:

David, I doubt that you'll ever get a straight answer from Orszag, but I would go along the lines of Robin Hanson, and point to relative status of various groups that you mentioned: current conventional thinking (even if only implied) is that we need to lower the status of (rich) white males and increase the status of women, minorities and the poor (probably in that order).

Therefore, all indicators that point in the direction opposite of the above intention, are labeled as problematic. It is not a problem if women live longer than men. It is, however, a problem if rich white folks extend their lead in life expectancy over the minorities and the poor, even if the minorities and the poor live longer than in the past.

Makes sense? I'm not dogmatic - I'd love to hear a clear, parsimonious explanation that would be different from the above.

frankcross writes:

Well, it's a problem because people are not taking advantage of valuable opportunities. If the rich are living longer, that means that they are able to do something to live longer. Presumably, the poor could do something of the sort, but they are not. But that's a problem, because they are not taking advantage of their opportunities.

Or, if they do not truly have these opportunities, that's a different sort of problem. Wouldn't we want to try to give them such opportunities.

D writes:

2nd leading risk factor for heart attack after smoking = low IQ.

Evan writes:
It's likely poor, dumb people don't understand how important those three things are. It's unlikely that they don't know they're important.
2nd leading risk factor for heart attack after smoking = low IQ.
It seems like one of the best ways to lengthen poor people's lifespans would be to plow as much money as we can into finding a cure for low IQ.

Curing low conscientiousness might help too. We've already made a little progress in that direction with adderall and other such drugs, but they have annoying side effects and don't always work reliably.

I think conscientiousness is probably worth more work than IQ. The reason short-lifespan shows up as an IQ-related problem is likely because a person with a high IQ but low conscientiousness can use their IQ as a substitute, and deduce from pure reason that they should do the things that a conscientious person does through instinct alone.

Babinich writes:

Orszag says:
people with more education and income are enjoying much more rapid increases in longevity than others are.

People living longer is a longer-term worry?
Well, we'll have to put a stop to that won't we?

Mark Brady writes:

"Why is that a "worry?" He's not saying that life expectancy for less-educated and/or lower-income people is falling. I think it's not, although I stand to be corrected."

It does seem that life expectancy is falling. "Life expectancy of U.S. women slips in some regions", reports the Los Angeles Times.

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