Will forty-five years of work and then centuries of leisure one day become the norm? Will we face mass unemployment, mass leisure or overpopulation? Sharing insights from his upcoming book Future Imperfect at the 6th Alcor Conference in Scottsdale, Arizona, Dr. David Friedman navigated through the many potential consequences of an extended lifespan.
The following transcript of David Friedman’s 2006 Alcor conference presentation “If Life Were A Lot Longer: An Economist’s View” has not been approved by the author. DVD sets of the 6th Alcor conference and 7th Alcor conference are available for purchase at the Alcor website.
If Life Were A Lot Longer
I wanted to talk about the possible implications of life extension, which is one of the things that interests me. If I have time, I also have a few things to say relevant to cryonic suspension as well. I’m going to start out with a very simple set of questions. If we solve the aging problem what will the next century be like? The reason I am limiting it to a century is that I think even that far predictions are very uncertain, beyond a century my crystal ball goes to mist. If you read Future Imperfect, a draft of which is linked to my website, you will see some of the reasons for that.
If we solve aging, it seems to me that there are three issues that are likely to come up. One of them which many people raise is “Will the supposedly dreadful overpopulation problem become still more dreadful because nobody is dying anymore, at least of old age?” The second one is “If we have a future where we can live for two hundred or five hundred years, what lives would we choose to live?” How would changing our options change our choices? The third question related to that is “What alternatives will we actually have?” After all, I might choose to live a certain kind of life but if we all decide to retire it is not entirely clear who is going to pick up the garbage.
So let me start with the population issue, which is probably the easiest. I am going to take a very simple model. I am going to assume that before we end aging the world has a stable population of about 10 billion people. From my arithmetic I assume that a life expectancy of 50 years because that makes the arithmetic easy, but the details don’t much matter. Roughly speaking we are moving towards about a stable population of ten billion. It might keep going up, it might start going down, no one really knows. Each generation reproduces itself and dies. Now we make one small change in this world, people stop dying.
Then, the first big question is “What happens to reproduction?” Do people say, “Having two kids was really neat but on the other hand it was an awful lot of work and I can have the fun next time with my grandkids and the kids will do all the work.” So do you end up with a world where people, roughly speaking, are reproducing themselves? Or do you have a world where people say, “I’ve had time to recover from the experience of having kids. It was a lot of fun last time, let’s try again.” Those give you rather different extrapolations.
Let’s start with the simple assumption that each couple continues to have only one pair of kids. It gives you about 200 million people in each year cohort. To make life simple, they have a pair of twins at age 20. That gives you a birthrate of 200 million per year forever. So population growth is linear and at the end of my century world population is up to 30 billion. My view at least is that with a century of technological progress and capital accumulation, we ought to be able to have a pretty nice world with 30 billion people. That is still, I am sure, well below the population density of Japan, Western Europe, or any of the other relatively crowded parts of the world. The U.S. as you probably know is empty. We are all an experimental error. There is nobody here.
If people want to argue about the view that we can manage 30 billion, we can discuss that perhaps in the question period. Now let’s take the other and less clear case. Let us suppose that the pattern we decide on is to start a family at 20, in another twenty years the kids are out of the house, another twenty years to recover from the experience, wash and repeat. Now, if you work through the arithmetic of that, population expands at about 2.5% a year. Not all that huge, but given a century, it gets you up to about 120 billion people. As a technological optimist, I would like to say that we can manage 120 billion people comfortably, but that really is getting up to pretty high population densities, even by the standards of places like Belgium, England and Japan. Perhaps not undoable, but harder.
On the other hand, there is a lot of space in space. So if one of things we can manage to buy with that hundred years of technology and capital accumulation is the ability to cheaply build space colonies and settle asteroids, presumably if we are clever we are not going to fall into any more gravity wells, one of them is enough. We will leave Mars and Jupiter to float along. But out in space there is all that nice sunlight and pieces of rock floating around, all sorts of good stuff. That is at least the optimistic view of how you handle 120 billion.
For those who like graphs, I graphed it out. There is the linear story, which gets you to about 30 billion. The exponential story gets you to about 120 billion. That is sort of the first issue, which is what happens to population in a world like that.
The second issue, and the one I find the most intriguing, is what kind of a life you would choose for yourself. If they tell you tomorrow, “Death and taxes, we still have taxes unfortunately, but we’ve at least solved one of them.” How would you then choose to live your life? You might start by thinking about careers, professions, which are a fair part of most people’s lives. You are a doctor, lawyer or a professor and you are successful in that career, do you keep that career forever? Do you say, “I’ll use these skills, maybe have some hobbies as well, 200 years is not too long”? If you do, that raises the very interesting question of whether there will be any room at the bottom for new doctors, lawyers and physicians. What I mean by “any room at the bottom” is will the new person in the career know that he is going to be a fifth rate practitioner for at least the first forty or fifty years, because there are all these people out there who have been doing it for fifty years. That’s an interesting question.
Of course, the counter-argument is to observe that in at least some fields of human endeavor the really good stuff gets done by people at the beginning of their careers before they have gotten brainwashed into whatever the mistakes are that everyone else is making. This raises the interesting question of whether experience is a feature or a bug. The answer is probably going to turn out to be different in different fields. I suspect there will be some fields where the young boot out the old fogeys, and there will be other fields in which the young find out that they have a very long apprenticeship before they deserve to be taken seriously. That is one possibility.
Another possibility, and one which I find intriguing, perhaps given my particular life history, is that maybe we will change professions every fifty years. One of the people who encouraged me when I wrote my novel was my father. When I told him that I was doing it he basically said it doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be as good as you can do it. Then he read it and his response was, “Sorry to lose you to economics.” So, I’ve done a fair number of different things. I was a physicist rather briefly early in my life. I then became an economic imperialist, trying to use economics to make sense of things like the size of nations and why the world changed when Rome fell, neat stuff like that. I went from that to trying to make sense of law. Currently I’ve got one seminar I teach on legal issues of the 21st century and one on legal systems very different from ours, in which we look at ancient Greeks and imperial China, and try to understand how different people run their legal systems.
The third option is you retire at 75, forever. You accumulate enough capital assets so you can live on the interest essentially and you then see whether maybe you want to devote your time to what you feel like doing rather than what you get paid for doing. A whole lot of people might end up in that pattern. That has other interesting social implications. If you think about things like open source software where you have fairly substantial real-world projects being done by volunteers, if 75% of the population consists of educated, trained people who don’t have to work for a living, you might get a lot more of that stuff. That’s an interesting thought.
Another possibility, which in some ways I also find attractive, is that you don’t exactly stop working, you just stop doing any jobs you don’t want to do. You get very picky, because you know you can take ten or fifteen years off. I have a son who works for Google. He graduated from Harvey Mudd. He commented a year or two back that he in his generation tend not to think in terms of careers but of projects. Especially in a world where a large part of the population has got the capital assets so that they won’t go hungry if they don’t work, but they will be a little better off if they do work, you might have a lot more of that.
Of course there is more to life than just work. Consider marriage. “Til death do us part” just got a lot longer. It raises a very interesting question, to which I don’t know the answer. Would the best thing be to stay happily married to this person essentially forever or would you want some change. So, we came pack to the same question we came to a moment ago. Is experience a bug or a feature?
Some of these decisions will interact with each other. For example, if you do have a new wife every fifty years, you might decide you want a new family. If so, that is going to get you back to exponential population growth. On the other hand, it might go in the other direction. It might be that if you plan to live to 200, there is a general rule in economics that the longer the period during which you get a return from an investment, the more you are willing to pay for the investment. If the investment to finding the right woman to spend the rest of your life with gives you five hundred years instead of fifty years it might be worth spending fifty years finding her. Perhaps in the world with life extension we will end up with more stable marriages with people taking longer to get married but ending up with more successful marriages.
There are a couple other elements to that. There are a couple of reasons why you have children when you are twenty. One of them is that when you are fifty your wife can’t have children if she is fifty, too. Another is that you start worrying that you are going to die. Some of those incentives might go down a lot if you are not planning to die anytime soon. Maybe what will happen is the birthrate will go way down. Having children, as some of you may have noticed, is an awful lot of work. I think the rewards are even larger than the costs, but there might be a noticeable number of people who would decide to procrastinate for awhile. In any case, you could imagine that as the pressure of mortality goes down, some of the incentives for having children go down as well. Maybe the birthrate will go down, I don’t know. I’m not doing a whole lot of predicting. Here I want to explore what seem to me some of the interesting possibilities.
What this leads into is what courtship looks like in this world. Do you have to tell her on the first date with this young lady that even though you look 25, you are actually 130? Of course, there might be things she is not telling you. With a century to search maybe more of us will find our true love, and then, what next? A fifty year contract? On the other hand, I’m not sure I want to be back on the market. It’s nice to daydream about chasing all those beautiful young ladies, but it is also awful nice to have somebody who you love and who you can trust. I don’t know which choice it will be. But it is fun to play with the idea that maybe what we will have is a lifetime marriage with vacations of a decade or so.
So far, I have been looking at what choices people would make, not at what options will be available to them. Then the next question is “What choices can we make?” Whether you can switch every fifty years gets us back to this question of whether experience is a bug or a feature. Of course, if everybody is switching every fifty years, there’s no problem, because there aren’t any old fogeys in the field. They are all off in a new field. But if you have a situation where some people say, “I’m going to get better and better at the field,” then you may have a problem.
Now, I don’t want to overstate it, because as an economist I really want to think in terms of absolute, not relative, abilities. Even if the old fogey produces ten times what I do, if the amount I produce is enough to give me a good income then that’s pretty good. On the other hand, it is an uncomfortable fact about human beings that relative status matters. If you actually look around you at how people behave, they don’t only care about their absolute income. They also care about how important they are relative to other people. We can fix some of that by each one picking the pond that we are a big frog in. Whether we have got the option to change and not end up at the bottom for a long time is going to depend on what other people do, and the relative advantages of experience.
Whether you can retire forever depends on two quite different questions. One of them is whether everyone else wants to do it too. If everybody else does it too, we then have the question of whether the world can function with almost nobody working. It’s not clear they will. There are going to be some people who like working, for whom their job is the most interesting thing in their life. They can get an extra mansion if they want to, but they aren’t going to quit. There might also be people who never accumulate that capital stake. There is a science fiction story somewhere about a natural immortal. I think he’s a Neanderthal. At least, he is a very primitive man who is still around. Somebody figures out who he is and starts talking with him. He has been keeping a low profile because he does not want to be a circus show. The guy says, “Look, you’ve been around for thousands of years. Why didn’t you just put the equivalent of a hundred dollars in a bank $400 years ago? Now you’d be rich.” And he says, “Are you crazy? People like me don’t put a hundred dollars in a bank and leave it there.” And of course he’s right. There are people like that.
So maybe what happens is that the people who are willing to save and have things they would rather do than work, work to age 75 and then retire for 200 years, while the people who either like the job or don’t have the discipline to save end up making the world run. But it’s not clear that we can’t all retire. This goes back to some of the earlier talks. The real issue here, from an economist’s standpoint, is how well capital substitutes for labor. What I’m doing during the 45 years I am working is accumulating capital, that capital is getting invested in discovering nanotech, building machines, or space exploration. If it turns out that the way technology goes is that you can run the world with only ten percent of the population working because the accumulated capital goods are producing for the other 90%. That’s certainly possible. That’s the way the trend has been running for the last 200 years.
In any case, my guess is that we are going to have an interesting century. I figured that since I am talking at an Alcor conference that I should say something or other about cryonic suspension. I didn’t have forty minutes worth to say, so this is a five minute talk tacked on the end of my half hour talk. I want to speak about cryonic suspension as an economist because I don’t really have any expert knowledge on the rest of the stuff. The fundamental economic problem is making it in somebody else’s interest to keep you frozen, to revive you, and if you are really lucky, to give you your stuff back.
This is not a new problem. This is essentially the same problem that Ford and Rockefeller faced. They weren’t planning to get their bodies back, but they had a whole stack of money and they wanted to have the kinds of things they liked being done being done with that money. They problem is that by the time stuff was being done at the Ford and Rockefeller Foundation, Ford and Rockefeller were dead. They were not around to keep an eye on it. I haven’t inspected any of their graves for signs of rotation, but I strongly suspect that neither of those gentlemen would approve of quite a large fraction of the projects that the money they left is being spent on. They are not around to keep an eye on how their money is spent and neither are you going to be. People who are frozen don’t get to file lawsuits. They don’t get to lobby or bribe people. You have to worry about how you make sure that other human beings do the things for you you want done.
As I understand the Alcor solution, it is basically the combination of contract law, the fact that they are contractually obliged to their patients in various ways, plus an organization which is run by enthusiasts who want to keep the organization working so it will be around for them. The basic argument is that if the people now running Alcor default, if they find some way of pocketing your money and running, then it is a good deal less likely that when they get diagnosed with terminal cancer there will be some way for them to arrange to be frozen. That’s not a bad scheme. But it’s not good for a century, I don’t think. If things move fast, it works. Over fifty and a hundred years, legal rules are going to change. Those of you in the room who are lawyers can think about how many things you could get sued for and lose today where the mere rule of privity, which an ironclad rule one hundred years ago, would have kept it out of the court.
Legal rules change, social norms change, I don’t know how many of the people on the Alcor board are still going to be around in fifty years. I don’t know how good a job they will do of choosing their successors. But what I do know is that if Alcor works, it becomes very vulnerable, because if you go from having eighty patients to having 10,000 patients, and for each of those patients you have $30,000 of their money, that is a $300 million pot sitting there. That is a pretty strong incentive for someone to figure out how to steal it. That is, some way of either taking over the organization and breaking the contracts or of getting some outside force such as the government to seize the organization. The basic point is that yes, there are scientific uncertainties with regard to suspension, but you ought to be thinking about the economic uncertainties which basically come down to how you make it in other people’s interests to behave in the way in which you want them to behave. That is not a trivial problem.
There is an old solution to this problem. It used to be the solution to being old and weak, which isn’t quite as bad as being frozen, but also makes it hard for you to do much. It might be a solution to being temporarily dead. That is to have children who love you. If you are planning to wait more than 25 years, maybe you had better have some grandchildren who love you, too. If you are planning fifty or one hundred years out, one solution is to be famous enough so that fifty years from now there will be a noticeable number of people that want you back so that they can argue with you. Or have children who live a very long time, which brings us back to the topic of my main talk, namely life extension. Because if life extension works, then even if I get an incurable disease in five years, I will figure that a hundred years from now my son, who will surely be a Google millionaire, will be happy to make sure that they bring me back. That is mostly what I have to say.