Bryan Caplan  

Life Extension: Economists vs. the Public

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Earlier this year, Pew surveyed Americans' beliefs about life extension.  I was appalled by their nihilistic responses.  Worst of the bunch:
Asked about the consequences for society if new medical treatments could "slow the aging process and allow the average person to live decades longer, to at least 120 years old," about half of U.S. adults (51%) say the treatments would be a bad thing for society, while 41% say they would be a good thing.
Americans' awful answers made me wonder: Are economists any better?  Tim Kane's latest survey of leading econ bloggers has some answers.  Prompt:
Currently, the average life expectancy in the U.S. is about 80 years old. Some people think new medical treatments will slow the aging process and will, for the first time, allow the average person to live decades longer, to at least 120 years old. Please check each item if you agree or disagree with the following statements about these potential life-extending medical treatments:

As you can see, a supermajority of economists accepts the truism that longer, healthier lives are "a good thing for society."  True, 10% of economists appear to be fans of death and misery.  But by and large, ours is a life-affirming profession.

What about the other questions? 

  • There's a moderate gap on "Most people would want these treatments" - 68/27 for the public, versus about 77/3 for economists. 
  • There's a similar gap on the "Economy would be more productive" question.  The public breakdown is 44/53, versus roughly 48/33 for economists.
  • There's a substantial gap for "Only wealthy people would have access."  Public breakdown: 66/33.  Economists' breakdown: roughly 34/35.
  • There's a huge gap on the natural resources issue.  Public: 66/33.  Economists: Roughly 27/55.

As usual, my fellow economists aren't perfect.  How could any economically literate person deny that the "economy would be more productive"?  The hypothetical specifically states that we don't just keep people alive longer; we actually "slow the aging process."  Under what scenarios does the implied fall in the dependency ratio fail to raise living standards?  I can think of a few, but none are plausible.

As usual, economists have much to learn.  Yet compared to the U.S. public, economists once again prove themselves to be an island of common sense in a sea of misanthropic folly.  I don't expect many of us will live to 120.  But if will obviously be a glorious thing if we do.

If I'm still alive in 2091, party at my house.  Hope to see each and every one of you there, fit as fiddles!

COMMENTS (32 to date)
Frank Howland writes:

You raise an interesting issue. It is by no means clear that increasing good health and longevity in the older population will result in a declining dependency ratio. How will the age distribution evolve over time evolve? How much of increased years lived after aged 65 be spent working, how much retired? Are current projections of increases in the dependency ratio based on the existence of an aging baby boom generation rather than a change in the steady-state dependency ratio? Are the projections ignoring compensating responses by older people working longer?

Tom West writes:

The hypothetical specifically states that we don't just keep people alive longer; we actually "slow the aging process."

I suspect less than 30% actually took the hypothetical literally. If my experience with these sorts of things is any guide, people quickly got the gist of the question with a quick scan: "people live to 120" and then answered questions based on a scenario created by them that which probably didn't involve significantly slowing down aging.

Learned this from, of all things, a paper IBM published on technical documentation. They had people think out loud as they operated a machine with the manual beside them. They constantly ignored the details of what was written. Instead, as above, they gathered a very brief gist, and then invented the details to follow that gist.

That was 30 years ago, and I've been watching people do *exactly* that for the next 30 years. The moral of the story is if your details vary from people's automatic assumptions, you have to have it in bold face, and repeated at least three times.

Fazal Majid writes:

There is physiological aging and age-related decline in mental plasticity, a.k.a. mental rutting, which does not seem to be a physiological process as much as too much experience causing people to get conservative. If slowing aging causes older, more conservative, risk-averse and set-in-their-ways people to stay longer in positions of power in corporate hierarchy, it would have a massive sclerosing effect on established corporations.

When combined with delayed intergenerational wealth transfers, you could argue it would reduce capital available to entrepreneurship, and slow down the process of creative destruction capitalism depends on for long-term growth. If the effect is large enough, it could outweigh the added working years. For a science-fictional description of such a world where a reactionary gerontocracy stifle youth and entrepreneurship, see Bruce Sterling's book "Holy Fire".

Ken P writes:

Yes, yes, yes, no, no.

So, 60 years from now I can buy a couple bottles of wine that will be 20 yrs old in time for the party. That would be awesome!

Brian writes:

All other things being equal, a large extension of healthy life expectancy is a wildly good thing, but since all other things are not equal, it's hard to see what negative effects might follow and how bad they might be.

Fazal Majid's point is relevant. I too would wonder about innovation and risk taking. A related issue would be the effect on childbearing. Would the presence of an especially large mature population reduce birth rates?

Even in the face of these uncertainties I still see increased longevity as a net positive, but I'm not sure it justifies an overwhelmingly positive evaluation (as implied by the economist's percentages).

Matt writes:

I think "slowing the aging process and allow the average person to live decades longer" is way to broad and overwhelming change to make any prediction about. Honestly, what happens here? How do politics go? The work force? Raising children/grandchildren? Fertility in general (especially male/female relations)? And if the elder stay in the workforce longer,and greater economic progress continues, how do they handle job force turnover?

Honestly,I'd like to see more people answering "not sure" to most of these questions.

Radford Neal writes:

One simple explanation is that most of the 56% of the non-economists who say they don't want to live to 120 are lying.

They may have somehow decided that that was the "right" answer, and so gave it. Perhaps they thought it sounded arrogant to say that you want to live to 120. Perhaps they thought it was oh so more sophisticated to answer that way. Whatever. I don't believe them.

Andre Mouton writes:
But by and large, ours is a life-affirming profession.

Whose life are you affirming? If everyone were to live forever, what would it mean for future generations? For evolution and progress? Your life is every day affirmed by the fact that old, malfunctioning cells die; when they fail to do this, we call it cancer. And the there's the old saying, that science advances one death at a time...

JVM writes:

I think there's an assumption here Bryan is making that the additional decades would be of high quality. Since the question doesn't explicitly specify what the treatment really provides: What does it mean to "slow the aging process?" I think it's a pretty reasonable interpretation that the treatments might simply protect vital organs from failure, resulting in decades of low-quality life as an elderly person with low mobility and declining cognitive capacity. In that case the win is a lot less clear.

If only the poll question had clarified :-)

Matt nailed it. A "not sure" is the honest answer for some of the questions, given all the uncertainties involved. Slower aging for example does not guarantee unreduced productivity.

BC writes:

I don't think the public's ambivalence about increased life expectancy reflects misanthropy as much as fear of the unknown. I suspect that most people would agree that increasing life expectancy by 1.5 times from 53 in the past to 80 now has been an unambiguously good thing. They would very much oppose efforts that rolled back these gains. They are less enthusiastic about increasing life expectancy another 1.5 times because they haven't yet seen what that world looks like.

I agree, though, that slowing the (adult) aging process would be "glorious" and probably the single greatest technology that we could develop; much better than Twitter! Again, for those that have doubts, consider whether we would be better off today if life expectancy were only 53 or if the average 53-year-old's physical condition was like that of a current 80-year-old's.

Shane L writes:

More people alive at a given moment means a higher demand for food. I'm surprised nobody has mentioned this. I'm not an economist and perhaps you will find my concern uninteresting because you may know something I don't know, but:

More people alive means we need to grow more food, or organise food distribution more efficiently. In some places expanding agriculture has been unsustainable, prompting erosion, salination, extinctions, etc. What am I missing? It depends how quickly and widespread the change in life expectancies would be, but a sudden bulge in world population could cause long-term environmental problems or short term famines as food prices soar faster than output can be increased to match the rising demand.


I still think it would be awesome! But I'm surprised nobody has mentioned that.

liberty writes:

Shane L -

I think it's because mostly people here are unambiguously anti-Malthusian, and also aware of the incredible overproduction of food in industrialized nations, and believe in innovation and technological change, and so not really concerned that an increase in population would be very dangerous our ability to meet to food production needs.

Rob writes:
True, 10% of economists appear to be fans of death and misery.
Death is not the same thing as misery. Hypothetically, low life-expectancy is compatible with high average quality of life and high resource efficiency.

High dependency ratios could also be fine if automation substitutes labor. Logan's Run was a utopia of this sort, if I remember correctly.

Steve Brown writes:

I don't doubt that the resource problem could be solved by technological advancements and free markets. However, I think that many/most people are comfortable with the idea of living a 'natural' lifespan, and find off-putting the thought of a world populated overwhelmingly by the superannuated. It seems intuitive that the human psyche's ability to tolerate 'un-natural' environments, conditions, etc. is limited, and that human happiness is at least partially contingent upon the presence of 'natural' conditions. I for one have no desire to live to be 120, and cringe at the notion of a world in which the young, vibrant and beautiful are a relative rarity. Also, think about the political implications - the elderly already reap massive rents from the youthful. A doubling-down on the existing demographic tilt will only make that worse.

CC writes:

Do all these anti-life-extenders also oppose cancer research? Or heart disease treatments?

Rob writes:

@Steve Brown

It seems intuitive that [...] human happiness is at least partially contingent upon the presence of 'natural' conditions.
Despite its intuitive appeal, I would bet money that this hypothesis is false and that te science of how to make people happy can provide robust solutions in highly 'unnatural' conditions.
Bostonian writes:

What if you were given the option to die peacefully in your sleep soon after your 90th birthday (assuming you live that long)? If you choose this now, the knowledge of having done so is erased from your mind.

I would go for this, and I think many other people would too. I'm in my 40s.

Rob writes:


Nice idea, but sci-fi techniques like these are ultimately unnecessary. End the ban on voluntary euthanasia, and you're half way there.

Medical science has known for a long time how to give people the option to die peacefully in their sleep, and cheaply so. It is the fault of government violence that life is not freely disposable in this way.

Thomas DeMeo writes:

One possible reason for pessimism is that our society appears to be badly unprepared for today's reality: successive generations aging into their mid 80's, as we are just starting to see now. Until we successfully deal with these issues, I can understand the fear.

Tom West writes:

End the ban on voluntary euthanasia, and you're half way there.

Bob, I disagree. There's always going to be the fear of death, and that will prevent most people from taking that step.

Recently I've twice heard "I've lived too long" from people who didn't want to die, but didn't want to keep living. A peaceful, *unanticipated* death in their sleep was what they wanted.

Bostonian has it right - except for the few percent chance that you indeed become one of those sprightly 90-year-olds who still deeply love life.

Roger Sweeny writes:

"Slow down the aging process" is subject to interpretation. If it meant proportionally stretching what now takes 80 years to 120, we would have 16 year old high school senior males who are five feet tall and have squeaky voices. College freshmen would be the mental and physical equivalent of today's 12 year olds. Male hormones wouldn't really calm down until one's thirties. A few professional athletes wouldn't retire until some time in their sixties. Menopause would be in the eighties for many women. I don't think that's what people imagine when they hear the question.

I suspect they largely hear it as "slow down the dying process." There will be a lot more years of decline and dementia.

Rob writes:

@Tom West:

There's always going to be the fear of death, and that will prevent most people from taking that step.

You are right, of course, that's why I wrote "half way". Nevertheless, compared to the status quo, liberalizing voluntary euthanasia would be a huge improvement in liberty.

You also should consider: It is far easier to reduce fear of death - e.g. by using anti-anxiety medication - than to selectively delete memories!

gwern writes:

Further discussion:

- Reason:

- "Fear of an Extended Old Age of Frailty and Decrepitude"
- "People Want the Better End of What Exists, But More Than That Isn't Within Their Horizons"
- "A Slightly Religious White Paper on Radical Life Extension"

Mark Bahner writes:
More people alive means we need to grow more food, or organise food distribution more efficiently. In some places expanding agriculture has been unsustainable, prompting erosion, salination, extinctions, etc. What am I missing?

You're missing that 2/3rds of the planet is covered by water, and that food from the sea (e.g., fish) generally promotes health more than food from the land (e.g. red meat and poultry).

Garrett M. Petersen writes:

I think BC has the right idea. We went from a life expectancy of 50 to 80 without serious negative consequences, so why should the change from 80 to 120 be different? When we find ways to increase our longevity we will also find ways to innovate around our new lifespans, so I seriously doubt that long life will have a negative net effect on society even if there are some negative consequences.

Even "I don't know" is a pretty bad answer to this question. The first-order effect (longer lives) is a massive and unambiguous good, so to even be uncertain one has to put a lot of weight on the possibility of catastrophically negative second-order effects.

Geoffrey writes:


Can you be a little more specific on the date of the party in 2091.

My calendar is really booked that year..

Paul Crowley writes:

I sincerely hope to hold you to that. See you there!

Roger Sweeny writes:

Following up on my previous comment, people know that life expectancy has increased a lot in the last few centuries. They also know that it has largely been a matter of preventing things that cause death, not proportionally stretching 50 years into 80. So I think there's a mental template that "slowing the aging process" means "old people staying alive longer."

"Aging" in America has a connotation of decline. People don't speak of, say, puberty as part of the "aging process."

It would be fascinating to see how answers differ if the question weren't subject to interpretation. How would people answer if the hypothetical were, people age to 30 like today and then stay there for 40 years; they then age from 70 to 120 like we age from 30 to 80? I'll bet there would be a lot more positive answers.

Richard writes:

On what basis could economists answer the question of whether only wealthy people would have access to the treatment? That obviously depends on the nature of the technology and the framing of the issue does not give one any coherent way of answering the question.

nl7 writes:

To Fazal's point that longer longetivity may mean more conservative and hierarchical ways, my questions are: 1) if we could reduce the human lifespan (but retain the proportions allocated to adolescence, senescence, etc.) would we expect it to increase overall wealth of the economy? and 2) what lifespan or career length average is optimal for the economy? My inclination to both is that a somewhat longer lifespan is a boon to the economy.

I have a more basic approach: the source of wealth is trade and cooperation. If people are smarter and active for longer, then it's equivalent to adding more people. And those people will have more experience and more personal knowledge, so they may be better at their jobs. We could even see people having two full 30-year careers in their lives, so industries could benefit from crossover knowledge and perspective.

We might think long-lived people would invest less, but it's also possible they would invest more in risk. The prevailing financial advisor position is to be risk-hungry when you have more time until retirement.

I guess I also see younger people being more willing to strike out on their own, if in fact old people are blocking their promotion.

NZ writes:

My sheer guess is that most people tend to want to live longer themselves, but don't necessarily want everyone else to live longer too. If everyone's living longer, living longer is less valuable. I.e. the unusualness and the sense of accomplishment of living so long is a big part of what makes it appealing.

If there was hypothetically a plan to build a climate-controlled cable lift up to the top of Mt. Everest, I suspect many would strongly oppose it, because it would cheapen the view from the summit.

On the other hand I haven't heard people oppose commercial space flight on these grounds, so maybe I'm wrong.

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