2004 October 05 Tuesday
Retirement Of Baby Boomers To Bring Enormous Fiscal Crisis

USA Today has an excellent article on the approaching fiscal crisis that will happen when the baby boomers start to retire. (same article here)

A USA TODAY analysis found that the nation's hidden debt — Americans' obligation today as taxpayers — is more than five times the $9.5 trillion they owe on mortgages, car loans, credit cards and other personal debt.

This hidden debt equals $473,456 per household, dwarfing the $84,454 each household owes in personal debt.

The $53 trillion is what federal, state and local governments need immediately — stashed away, earning interest, beyond the $3 trillion in taxes collected last year — to repay debts and honor future benefits promised under Medicare, Social Security and government pensions. And like an unpaid credit card balance accumulating interest, the problem grows by more than $1 trillion every year that action to pay down the debt is delayed.

“As a nation, we may have already made promises to coming generations of retirees that we will be unable to fulfill,” Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan told the House Budget Committee last month.

The oldest baby boomers start qualifying for Social Security in 2008 and Medicare in 2011. The need to increase taxes and cut spending will grow very rapidly after that.

Comptroller General David Walker, the government's chief accountant, travels the nation warning of the impending crisis. “I am desperately trying to get people to understand the significance of this for our country, our children, our grandchildren,” Walker says. “How this is resolved could affect not only our economic security but our national security. We're heading to a future where we'll have to double federal taxes or cut federal spending by 50%.”

The sooner people are told they are going to have to delay their retirements the sooner they will be able to start trying to earn more and save more to prepare for delayed old age benefits. But today the emphasis in public discourse is still on how benefits ought to be extended even further. The irresponsibility and audacity of both the politicians and the old people who ask for increased benefits is thoroughly disgusting. Our supposedly Republican President supported the big Medicare drug benefit that now makes the unfunded liability about 15% larger than it otherwise would have been.

The article uses the term "Greatest Generation" in an extemely irritating way:

The heart of the problem is that the Greatest Generation and baby boomers have promised themselves retirement benefits so generous — and have contributed so little to financing them — that even the most prosperous economy in history cannot pay the bill.

Well, since the "Greatest Generation" have been fiscally irresponsible on such a massive scale how can they possibly be considered "Greatest"? Even most of those who served in WWII never came under enemy fire. The size ot the support units was far larger than the size of the front line units.

The old age retirement funding debacle underscores the problem with low skill and low wage immigrants (illegal or otherwise). Anyone who is not earning a very high salary is not paying enough into Social Security and Medicare to pay for their own retirement benefits. Many illegal immigrants even cost more than they pay in taxes while they are still working. So they don't even help to delay the old age funding crisis.

Politicians in Washington DC are going to continue to ignore the unfunded liabilities until an acute funding crisis is upon us. The Democrats will call the Republicans cold hearted meanies if the Republicans try to cut benefits and delay retirement. Old folks will ignore the crisis too and continue to demand more benefits.

So what to do about it? The most cost-effective policy I can see is to start working seriously on treatments to reverse aging. If people could stay younger and work decades longer then there'd be no financial crisis. See my FuturePundit Aging Reversal archive for more on the possibility that focused intense scientific research could save us from fiscal disaster while also making our lives richer, healthier, and longer.

Update: One other point: What is US foreign policy going to be like 5 and 10 years from now? Cheaper. We aren't going to have the money to fund invasions or occupations of countries. Expect to see an end to US support for Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and still other countries. The pressure to cut spending to pay for old folks benefits will be immense. Right now we are witnessing the high point of post-Cold War US power. A second Bush Administration might be able to pull off one more regime change. But I'm betting against it.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2004 October 05 03:41 AM  Economics Demographic

Patrick Hadley said at October 5, 2004 7:12 AM:

But Randall, if the "Greatest Generation" and the boomers are willing to engage in a systematic pillage of younger generations' futures today, why would they be willing to go back to work, even with their rejuvenated, re-energized bodies? Won't they just continue the same pattern of trans-generational larceny?

Dan said at October 5, 2004 7:53 AM:

One suggestion is too immediately rollback tax cuts and instead raise them, thie sooner the better, this will not totally solve the problem but will make a big dent in it. The american people must learn that their is no free lunch, if you want something you got to pay for it. I have no problem philosophically with the current system, its just that we got to pay for it. Things must be paid for either publically or privately, a good case can be made that it is more efiicent to do so publicaly. I think that this is a proper issue for political debate, but it must be understood that someone MUST pay.
Also on the issue of jobs there are not enough good paying jobs now, there will be fewer in the future, due to outsourcing and automation. This means that those fortunate enough to have a good paying job are going to have to pay for for those who dont. I see no sense in fighting these trends (outsourcing and automation) they are the future, My opinion is that we should just deal with them.

gcochran said at October 5, 2004 8:05 AM:

Look, the problem is a low birth rate more than anything else - which is something that happened with the Baby Boomers, not the WWII generation. Which is why we're going to face national bankruptcy ~20 years from now and aren't facing it this minute.

Go have a baby.

Kurt said at October 5, 2004 9:09 AM:

Randall, you're right. Age reversal technology is the only way out of this problem. Once people are ageless, the "gay" government ponzi schemes of social security and medicare can be deep-sixed. I forsaw this as a solution to the problem in the late 80's when I got interested in life-extension.

Dan, philosophically the current system sucks. Especially if you want to live autonomously from it and are willing to finance your own retirement. If taxes went up the way you suggest, I'll be on the first plane back to Asia (where I lived for 10 years) to set up my business there.

gcochran: screw having the baby when you can have rejuvenation and live the free and open life instead. I like the free and open life and I don't like kids. The problem is that the aging process causes dependency and, therefor, necessitates the ponzi schemes of social security and medicare. The obvious solution is to eliminate the dependency by eliminating the cause of dependency, wehich is a low-cost cure for aging. Why is this so difficult to understand?

The fact is that with an effective cure for aging, people can live autonously indefinitely. Any kind of technological development that increases freedom and individual autonomy should always be welcomed and promoted. Why is this such a difficult concept for some people to grasp?

Kurt said at October 5, 2004 9:13 AM:

Patrick, the rational for the "trans generational larceny" is that we believe that a civilized people take care of those who are weak and dependent (which I agree with). Once we have effective rejuventation, there will be no weak and dependent people. Hense, the moral rational for the "transgenerational larceny" will go away and the larceny itself will go away.

SilverLining said at October 5, 2004 10:09 AM:

The "transgenerational crisis" is not going to hit only the USA. The aging of other societies, also, will make this a worldwide economic crisis. If people are healthy enough to work, they will be saving their money to retire on. If people are not healthy, they will be dependent on pension funds, welfare etc. This includes the European economies, which are not that healthy even now.

Have a look for a book by Canadian financial advisor, Garth Turner, "2020". He predicts a (worldwide) stock market boom followed by a walk-off-the-cliff bear market, plus a deflationary real estate decline.

Lets not even factor into this the question of "peak oil" and whether North America will have managed to switch over to a hydrogen or renewable-sourced economy!

Anti-aging medicine advances might help, if they actually work. If not, the solution is to try * now * to reduce our expenses and get together some savings. Waiting until your doctor tells you that you can't work anymore? -- too late.

Brock said at October 5, 2004 10:19 AM:

For once I agree with Randall's pessimism. This is a major problem.

If there's any hope for the USA it's that Italy, Japan, France, etc. will go over the cliff first and that might shock some sense into us. SENS is progressing, but it won't be available to the masses in time to save us. We need good policies, not technological miracles.

Luke Lea said at October 5, 2004 10:37 AM:

Sorry, Randall, but your anti-aging shtick just makes you sound like a crank.

Randall Parker said at October 5, 2004 11:48 AM:


Have you done much reading on biology research relevant to anti-aging therapies? You ought to read thru my Aging Reversal archive and click thru and read some of the articles on SENS.

FWIW, GC, who knows more biology than either of us, agrees with Aubrey de Grey 100%.

Kurt said at October 5, 2004 11:54 AM:

Brock, you are correct that SENS is not a short-term solution to the problem. It will take 20-30 years to realize fruition. However, curing aging is the ONLY long term solution to the problem of age-based dependency and economic decline.

Unfortunately, I think America and Western Europe has to go through hell and high water before people accept this. There seems to be a sentiment in the U.S. that curing aging is politically incorrect. Perhaps it will take the destruction of the U.S. economy and Western Europe society in order for people to end their irrational aversion to curing age.

In the meantime, I'm working on a deal to watch it all from the sidelines in Asia.

Randall Parker said at October 5, 2004 11:58 AM:

BTW, there are other avenues we ought to be pursuing in trying to deal with the aging population financial crisis. Among those policy and research avenues:

1) Fund research into automation of old folks care. Develop devices that allow old folks to live on their own longer before needing to move to nursing homes. Develop devices that automate part of the labor done in nursing homes.

2) Fund research into comparisons between widely used more expensive therapies and less widely used but less expensive therapies. Look for existing treatments that cost less. The same holds for tests. Are there less expensive tests that predict, say, the course of a cancer than some more expensive tests currently used?

3) Fund research into reducing the cost of existing treatments. For example, how about more research on automating surgery?

5) Automate record handling and patient info processing. This will reduce clerical labor, increase doctor productivity, reduce errors, reduce illnesses and costs from incompatible drug combination side effects.

6) Fund research into more accurate prediction of longevity. People with longer longevity predictions should be expected to work longer.

7) Means test some forms of old age medical benefits.

Brock, SENS would progress a lot faster if it was targetted for research funding. Currently it only progresses as a side effect of funding pursuit of treatments for individual diseases. As a result there is just not much research into getting rid of intracellular or extracellular junk (with the exception of beta amyloid plaques for Alzheimers) and there is little research into cross-linkage breakers outside of Alteon's work. Nor is there much research into moving mtDNA into the nucleus.

Randall Parker said at October 5, 2004 12:04 PM:


One other point about SENS and long term solutions: I am reminded of my advocacy of energy research. The response I get most often is that it doesn't provide any immediate benefit. Well, the long term is going to get here after all. At that point the problem will be growing even larger. The funding shortfall will be larger 20 year from now than 10 years from now. It will be larger still 25 and 30 years from now.

The long term deserves a lot more attention than it gets. Some things can be done for the long term that would be really cheap to do if we started them now that would provide huge benefits 2 or 3 decades from now. Well, do you expect to be alive then? Do you want those benefits?

Look at the size of the funding shortfall for old age retirement. It is in the tens of trillions of dollars. Given the scale of the shortfall it makes sense to dedicate a one or two billions of dollars a year now for each of several different approaches that show promise of helping in the long term. The money spent would be incredibly small compared to the saving potentially gained and the expectation of gaining savings in the trillion dollar or above scale seems highly probable.

My point is that it is financially imprudent not to spend big on aging reversal research.

Lurker said at October 5, 2004 12:38 PM:

The anti-aging thing is like alot of technologies that is always just over the horizon. Even if it was here now, only the most wealthy and influential individuals would be able to obtain it. However, if it were to exist now and be generally available, it would cause much more problems than it would solve - the planet is already feeling the increasing strain of the current 6.5 billion people. Only by strictly restricting the reproductive abilities of longevitiy-enhanced individuals could you prevent an ecological collapse. That's not gonna happen in third-world countries.

As far as a solution to the baby-boomer retirement crisis. There is no rosy solution. I'm thinkin Logan's Run.

Randall Parker said at October 5, 2004 12:46 PM:


Before Orvill and Wilbur Wright made their famous flight would you have claimed that powered human flight was one of those things that were always just over the horizon? Back in the 1940s and into the mid 1950s would you have proclaimed that human space flight was always just over the horizon? I could go on and use examples from medicine, transportation, and other fields. But you get the idea.

We live in an age when the tools and techniques for doing biological science are becoming steadily more powerful. There are parallels between what is happening with biological instrumentation and what is happening with the rapid advances in the speed and capacity of electronic devices. The rate of progress in biomedical science is going to accelerate. Problems that have been unsolvable are going to become solvable. For a better idea of why I see it that way see my FuturePundit Biotech Advance Rates category archives.

Invisible Scientist said at October 5, 2004 12:59 PM:

IF the US financial system is seriously crippled in such a way that the US
cannot even afford to invade militarily weak countries in the future, then
it also follows that the foreign trade deficit will ALSO be impossible to continue.

During the last few years, the "rule" has been that the annual foreign trade deficit nearly
equals the government deficit spending of the year... For example, this year, this number
is going to be about $500 billion, (or approximately 5 % of the GDP.) I can give you
my complete assurance that the entire GDP growth of the Asian countries, and to some extent
even for EU countries, comes from the US trade deficit. The microsecond the US trade deficit
spending stops, these export-based economies will collapse like a house of cards. And at
that precise moment, there will be a fascist direction in many countries, similar to what
happened during the GD I ( Great Depression I ). Of course, if this happens, many
countries in the world, will have a hard time finding the funds to import raw materials,
and these countries will be inclined to attempt to "obtain" the necessary raw materials
without paying (i.e. by using kraft, which means "force" in German.)

Brock said at October 5, 2004 1:21 PM:

Ok, I think Randall in Kurt are just disagreeing with me out of habit or something. Either that or you're disagreeing with things I did not intend to imply.

My point was simply that SENS research is plodding along. It might go faster with research grants, but it proceeds apace nonetheless. Good government policies are something we could theoretically implement today. Even if SENS was ramped up a couple notches I still believe that the Boomer tidal wave would hit us before SENS could drive it back.

"However, curing aging is the ONLY long term solution to the problem of age-based dependency and economic decline. " - Kurt

No, having old people work at whatever their failing bodies can manage instead of retiring when they're fit and healthy is also an option. Remember, when Social Security was established in 1930 life expectancy was 60. 65 was OLD. SS would have to be set to 75-80 today to be comparable.

"In the meantime, I'm working on a deal to watch it all from the sidelines in Asia." - Kurt

Good luck with that. You think Asian nations will be able escape a US/EU collapse unscathed? The USA isn't called the engine of world growth for nothing.


Your list of labor-saving devices looks pretty good. You and I disagree however on how to best achieve their creation. Maybe you think a gov't funded Manhattan project/ Drive to the Moon would work, but the history of government successes is pretty slim - and long gone. We don't need gov't in a modern world with modern financial markets and near-zero communication costs. You can have NASA. I'll take Scaled Composites any day.

I rest easy because I know that markets don't really need to plan super-far in advance. They're giant, distributed, parallel-processing systems that way. When demand appears thousands of entrepreneurs dive into the breach. Dozens of them attack the problem from every angle you've thought of, an dozens more attack from every angle you haven't. Within a decade we go from text-based browsers to ... everything IT does today. You'll see.

Lurker said at October 5, 2004 1:25 PM:

I do not dispute the possibility. I am saying that I do not believe it would solve the baby-boomer retirement problem - too many political and sociological issues would come with the technology. I am personally all for longevity research...who wants to grow old? However, longevity won't solve the resource, environmental, and societal crises that will manifest this century.

Randall Parker said at October 5, 2004 1:29 PM:


I certainly favor the much wider spread use of prizes to speed the advance of science for targetted purposes. The X Prize should serve as a model. I promote the Methuselah Mouse Prize. We need orders of magnitude more money available as research prizes.

As for markets and health care: Well, the problem is that the government pays an increasing portion of medical costs. When government buys stuff there is less incentive to have services provided efficiently. Also, health care has other problems as a market. Buyers just do not have enough knowledge to make informed choices. People who have private insurance also have less incentive to look for bargains.

Kurt said at October 5, 2004 4:14 PM:

Brock, The Asian economies would certainly experience less growth if the boomer retirement problem stifles growth in the US/EU. My point was not about riding out any collapse. It was in reference to avoiding paying the increased taxes that Dan believes we should all pay to maintain the current system into the future. I don't like the current system and I feel that I can make it into the future on my own without it. If I have to live in Asia to do it, so be it.

Also, why do people think that anti-aging therapies will be so expensive that only the rich will be able to afford them. I think the opposite for several reasons. Biotechnology is a tool-driven industry. Tools continue to get cheaper and more powerful each year. Biological problems that appear to be unsolvable today will probably be trivially easy for someone to do in a cheap basement lab in 2020 or 2030. Secondly, everyone suffers from aging sooner of later. That means that there is a much bigger market to sell anti-aging therapies into as opposed to, say, a drug for MS. The cost of therapy development and regulatory approval can be written off by much larger sales volume.

Most significantly, aging is caused by a relatively small number of reaction mechanisms (seven) rather than the dozens of medical conditions that medicare pays for now. It would be less expensive on the societal level to finance and develop the SENS therapies, then subsidize SENS treatment of anyone who cannot afford them on their own, than it would be to maintain the current system as it is. In others words, immortality may end up being subsidized. How about that? Aubry de grey has written about this. There is also an article over on the betterhumans site about how a cure for aging would be very beneficial to the poor.

There is simply no legitimate argument against prolongevity what so ever. Any biomedical technology that frees large numbers of people from dependency and increases robustness and autonomy is going to be economically beneficial.

Kurt said at October 5, 2004 8:38 PM:

Those of you who believe that rejuvenation SENS style is impossible might want to note the Ansari X-prise posting over in Randall's other blog. The prize money was actually an insurance payout from a Bermuda company that was betting that the X-prise was not achievable by private parties. Since most people believe that SENS style amortality is impossible, most insurance companies may be willing to bet for small premiums that an X-prise for curing aging is not possible. This means that it should be relatively cheap to leverage a huge amount of prize money for the Methuselah Mouse Prize in the next few years.

I think the X-prise system is the best way to develop the cure for human aging. The benefits are that it is done completely privately without having to rely on government funding or waiting around for Congress or bureaucrats to support a program to cure aging.

NASA is starting to support the X-prise mechanism for space travel and development. Perhaps once SENS is accomplished in mice, it will be relatively easy to get the financing to develope the human therapies.

Also, considering the improvement in biotechnologic instrumentation and tools and the above financing techniques, I see no reason why universal rejuvenation cannot be a reality in the next 25 years or so. I think it will most likely occur in Asia, and the information will soon make its way onto the internet, which will make a government clampdown impossible.

Immortality is necessary to complete the revolution in individual freedom. Mike Darwin and others have called immortality the freedom's final frontier. Once you are free from the prospect of growing old and becoming dependent, you no longer need the social institutions (family, community, etc.) that have evolved in response to the aging process. This is the real reason why I want immortality to be developed, not just for me, but for everyone else as well. My dream society is that of ageless "young people" living the free and open life forever.

Believe me, I can handle living in such a society and would be much happier in it than in the society we have now. I know this in my heart because I have actually lived like this for 10 years (as a "unencumbered" expat in Asia). I really and truly despise the conventional life-cyle (growing up, getting married, having kids, growing old, and dying) as well as the conventional societies (both here and abroad) that are based on this life concept. I do believe that wide-spread rejuvenation will result in the dying out (pun intended) of the conventional life-cycle and associated cultures and the replacement with an ageless "tranhumanist" culture comprised mostly of "yuppies" and "slackers". This culture will be mostly made up of the West and East Asia and will eventually spread to the rest of the world (as well as space).

John S Bolton said at October 5, 2004 11:44 PM:

These projections also assume increasing life expectancy, which is not a given. If we throw them into homes, because their children won't look after them, they won't live longer than their parents. More likely, all the obesity and other unhealthy practices will mean continually declining life expectancies. Old people can be taxed more; how do you suppose public schools get their funding?

Invisible Scientist said at October 6, 2004 6:03 AM:

This message is for Randall and Kurt:

One problem with immortality in its initial form, is that it will make the human
capabilities stationary in the sense that evolution of the individual will initially be
stagnant... Maybe with much more advanced biology, immortal people will also biologically
evolve during the same incarnation, but at least for a long time, the first few generations
of immortals will start falling behind the mortals who are evolving in mental capacity.

The moral of the story is this: At Harvard University, the graduating students were asked in
a poll the following question: "When you graduate, you are given two options: The first option
is that we are going to double your salary, but you will move to a city where everyone else is
richer than you. The second option is that we are going to cut your salary in half, but you
are going to move to a city where everyone else will be poorer than you. Which one do you choose?"
Guess what: MOST Harvard students chose the second option in the poll.
This aspect of psychology also applies to immortality. Do you want to be immortal but
to remain the stupidest and the ugliest among a continually evolving society of mortals
who are surpassing you in all areas?

Brock said at October 6, 2004 7:43 AM:

Invisible Scientist -

I wouldn't worry too much about that. As Kurt keenly noted, biology is tool driven and greatly benefits from economies of scale. Imagine that 20 years from now we have both SENS and the ability to make genius-babies in vitro. Sure, we'll start having genius babies, but there will be 6-8 Billion 100 IQ-ers demanding an upgrade. A way will be found, and I bet the economies of scale will make it cheaper than any designer-baby techniques.

Randall -

Good point about gov't screwing with incentives and price signals in the healthcare market. Usually the editorial opinion of this site suggests a "bug push" mentality towards biotech research, so its good to hear you support Prizes as a superior option [other than the Mouse Prize - I've recognized your support for that for some time.]

Prizes may not be ideal for every type of government contracting (er, like Highway construction), but I think the NHS would see a lot more bang for their buck if they used them more often. Bill Gates will probably set up a Prize System through his foundation first however. Gov't is rarely an innovator.

Kurt -

I dunno. Every Asian nation is an export-led economy. Even "the rich guys" of Japan, Taiwan and South Korea have structured their economy to be export-led. It makes sense for them to do this in the present environment, but I don't think ANY Asian nation (with the possible exception of Singapore, but they're too small to matter) has a flexible enough economy to adjust to a shock the size of a US/EU implosion. They would have to completely re-tune their economy to a consumer-led, Asian-only Trade association within a couple years. I just don't think they have the mindset flexibility to handle that. Unless they develop that capability now, by the time of the Granny Boom, it will be too late.

China isn't the answer either. If you count their subsidized State Industries and regulations the Chinese economy is operating under almost as heavy a tax-burden as Western Europe. They're only growing because they're willing to accept a much lower standard of living in exchange for infrastructure investments. They'll have to be very lucky to "grow their way out of" their problem. It might happen, but I think their chances are no better (and possibly worse) than America's chances of surviving the Social Security meltdown. And we don't have the legacy of Mao's cultural revolution to shrug off.

On a purely personal note, it's too bad you don't enjoy children. They really are a joy, and quite rewarding in their own way. Of course, I can't stand Asian night-life, so to each his own. I do agree that immortality can only increase the choices people have, and support their right to make any (non-harmful-to-others) choices they want. As long as you're happy.


Luke Lea said at October 6, 2004 9:03 AM:


I am not trying to hurt your feelings. Only trying to be honest. You have a great blog, whose hallmark is an unblinking look at some of the scariest realities out there, to which you bring extraordinary intelligence and analytic powers, and a fine talent for articulation. But your human-all-too-human desire for, and belief in the possibility of, immortality detract from your otherwise outstanding blog. It is simply childish -- how old are you, btw? And the notion that advances in anti-aging technology may plausably impact the problems posed by the aging of the baby boomers is, well, . . . words fail me in describing how unlikely, not to say illogical, your suggestion is. Far more plausible is my own (crank?)idea of a return to the three-generation family homestead, in which children help take care of their aged parents and grandparents. Hard reality may force such a reversion, whether we like it or not.

P.S. Having children can cure the fear of death. Don't ask me why, but it is true. OTH, with black-strap molasses and wheat-germ bread, you may live so long you wish you were dead.

Kurt said at October 6, 2004 11:04 AM:

Luke Lea:

You misunderstand us. We are not driven by a fear of death. We are driven by the desire to live life on our own terms and noone elses. I am one of these people who expects to "make it". Barring that, i have cryonic suspension arrangments as Plan B. Never the less, some of us do engage in risky activities that the "inward-orriented" folk with their kids back home would never consider doing. For example, one of us "immortalists" (he was a member of CI, a cryonics organization) was bludgeoned to death in Mali (in the southern Sahara). You see, he liked adventure. This person went to all kinds of funky places that people like you only read about in National Geographic. He made videos and took photographs of his trips that he would sell to finance his adventures. He was well aware of the risks that he was taking and knew full well that he could be killed. He considered the trade off between risk of death and the joy of adventure to be worth it. This individual was as much of an "immortalist" as Randall and I.

Likewise, I have also been in places and situations that the "inward types" back in the states would never consider doing. We are proponents of SENS and prolongevity because we like life and adventure. We like the freedom to live life and to be autonomous, to do the things we enjoy doing for as long as we like. I might live for a thousand years or I could die on my next trip to Asia, or on the flight going there. I am not afraid of dying any more than most other people (perhaps, a little less). The point is that as long as I am alive, I want to live a life completely free of an limits or set horizon in my future. I want to live life on my terms and noone elses.

Don't ever insult us by suggesting that our desire for immortality is driven by a fear of death.

If the US goes through an "intergenerational" meltdown, I want no part of it and I sure as hell don't want to pay the taxes for it. Some of you say that the Asian economy will tank along with the U.S. This may well be. However, it a hell of alot cheaper to live on the beaches of Thailand or Philippines than it is to live anywhere in the U.S. You are correct, SENS is unlikel;y to be developed in time to save the boomers. However, I think it will definitely save the GenXers (not to mention the Gen Ys). For us, its only a matter of making it through the next 20-30 years with our physical and financial vitality intact in oder to benefit from SENS.

Lurker said at October 6, 2004 11:41 AM:

Industrialized civilization is going to need to find a way to extend its own longevity before it will be able to extend the longevity of its individuals. I am of the opinion that humanity as a whole will need to take a big step back before it can continue to take steps forward. If humanity could impose strong self-discipline, we could more effectively manage this transition. I want to be optimistic.

Randall Parker said at October 6, 2004 12:05 PM:

Luke, When I was born Ike was in the White House (and we were far better governed than we are today).

As for why you apparently do not think that aging will be reversed in the lifetimes of many people now alive: Well, you provide no argument for this belief of yours. So I see no reason to entertain your belief seriously.

As for my analytic powers and rejuvenation: I've been thinking about the problem since I was an undergrad in the late 70s studying biology. Professors I talked to about it then thought it an eventually solvable problem. Now the list of items that need to be solved to achieve it are pretty well identified. Many of them (e.g. gene therapy, cell therapy, tissue engineering) have a lot of people working on them already. Some of the others (e.g. advanced glycosylation end-products or AGEs, intracellular junk accumulation in lysosomes, mutations in mtDNA) do not have much effort going toward them. But they are all quite solvable and the amount of interest in solving them is obviously building.

As recently as 7 or 8 years ago people who thought it possible to reverse aging were considered cranks. But that attitude is rapidly changing. Whereas several years ago Aubrey de Grey was known only to some people at U Cambridge, some people who did work on mitochondrial metabolism, and some people such as me who were reading sci.life-extension he now gets quoted by media around the world including the NY Times (and I was instrumental in getting Reason mag to give prominent play to his ideas in an article by telling Nick Gillespie and Ron Bailey about him). Lots more articles are being written on it by a wider range of people. I promoted the idea to Nick Schulz who linked to me on it from TCS and that got Glenn Reynolds' attention and he has now written on it a few times. Us advocates are making headway in popularizing the idea.

You, Luke, are slow to change. But that is obvious. It has taken a couple of years of disaster in Iraq for you to begin to reexamine your beliefs about the universal appeal of democracy. I decided several months before the invasion that democracy was going to fail in Iraq due to consanguineous marriage, Islam, low IQs and other factors. You need to be less wed to liberalism and more wed to large quantities of empirical evidence.

Brock said at October 6, 2004 1:42 PM:

I wouldn't have derailed the thread earlier, but I think that everything has really been said on the Boomer issue. We all agree Boomers can't be supported by Social Security, even if we have different ideas on what to do about that fact ...

"I decided several months before the invasion that democracy was going to fail in Iraq due to consanguineous marriage, Islam, low IQs and other factors. You need to be less wed to liberalism and more wed to large quantities of empirical evidence." - Randall

I thought I'd get back in here and offer a few alternative hypotheses (sp?).

Islam --> see also, Turkey, India, Indonesia, Singapore. You can dismiss the Muslims of Britain and America if you want, and insist that they're too small a minority to rock the boat, but the list of nations have too many Muslims to be discounted. Indonesia is 88% Muslim. India is 12% (which is like 150 Million). Turkey, 99.8% Sunni Islam!! Sinagpore, 14%? Although their "success" as Democracies does not measure well vs. the USA or New Zealand, they are all moving away from "the Gap" and into "the Fold" of modern nations. They do no sponsor terrorism. Islam is not the problem.

Low IQ's --> My goodness Randall. The Arabs live in societies that is absolutely crushing on human development. They are absolutely responsible for their own governments, but they aren't stupid the way Forrest Gump is stupid. How many Arab doctors, engineers and lawyers do you have to meet to realize they have what it takes to be an informed citizenry?

Cousin Marriage/ Tribal Nepotism --> I'll grant you, if there's going to be a stumbling block (other than the continued existance of Iran and Suadi Arabia), this is it. May I propose an intermediate step between tribalism and modern civilization? What if we can get the heads of tribes to cooperate with each other? What if we give up on this "Everyone in Iraq is your peer" and go for the more limited "Every head-of-family is your peer"? If you think about it, that's not too far from where American and European culture was a couple hundred years ago. Women couldn't enter into contracts or politics, slaves were held, and yet we still managed to call ourselves a "Democracy." A perfect solution? No, but good enough.

Liberal Democracy is not the only form of government which can protect individual rights. If I'm a fan of it, it's because it's the government most suited to doing so. We don't have to get them to Lib-Dem in ten years - we just have to get them to realize that playing nice with the world is better than getting their asses handed to them in a nuclear war.

If you set the goalposts at Western style, liberal democracy, you're going to fall well short of the mark for several generations. If you put the goalposts at "functional, cooperates with the US, non-terror-supporting state", I think we do that.


Hey, here's a new problem with SENS. If we invent SENS before the Saudi Princes/ Mullahs/ Kim Jong Il, etc. die, they'll live forever. F**k.

Brock said at October 6, 2004 1:47 PM:

Another stumbling block --> the Face culture.

This is a problem. Here's a hopeful thought. We leave the Marines in charge of training the Iraqi army. The Marines beat it out of them one private at a time. Soldiers go on to successful carreers in business and civil service. Other Iraqis ask them why they're so damn successful. Human greed beats cultural heritage.

However, we don't need to go that far. We just need to make sure they don't sponsor terrorist training camps or give al Qaeda the bomb.

Randall Parker said at October 6, 2004 1:57 PM:


Anecdotes do not create averages.

The average Arab in the US who came here to go to school is much smarter than the average Arab in Arab countries.

In a lower IQ country the average doctor, lawyer, or engineer is going to be dumber than the average doctor, lawyer, or engineer in a high IQ country. The fact that someone is a doctor does not by itself give you a firm fix on his IQ.

Most people - and especially most voters - are not doctors, lawyers, or engineers. I'm willing to bet that among the insurgent fighters in Iraq few are doctors, lawyers, or engineers.

Many of your other arguments have been addressed by old posts of mine. I will not belabor those points here.

Luke Lea said at October 6, 2004 5:48 PM:

Kurt, O.K, you are not afraid of dying, just sickness, old age, and decay. Youth, on the other hand, considers itself invincible; I know I did when I hitchhiked around the world in my early twenties, with three hundred dollars in my pocket. I just knew that I would make it, being one of the few Westerners to see the inside of the holy Mosque in Meshed, to choose one example, and get out alive (or at least reputedly). Granted, I had been riding a motorcycle and hadn't had a bath in six weeks, so it was hard to tell my ethnicity. Still, when I yelled across the smoky room, "Hey, Frank, get a load of these cheap pieces of mirror glued all over the wall," the mullahs did approach me and ask, in English, "What country are you from?". I said Pakistan, and they kicked us out, but didn't lay a hand on us. Of course, in those days (1963)Americans were untouchable.

Randall, My father lived to ninety-six, fly fishing and driving a car to the very end. He died suddenly of a lung infection. If that is the kind of life you (and Kurt) are hoping to achieve for yourselves and everyone else, then I am all for it. So are most people. But when you seem to suggest you are hoping to completely conquer the grave -- "O Death, where is thy sting?" -- it is hard not to think of you in the same terms as a lot of Christian fundamentalists. OTH, I must admit I have always been scared shitless of dying. The idea of the annihilation of my soul, and of my non-existence for an eternity that is literally without end, makes me feel, well, like the title of one of those books by Kierkegaard. So I guess deep down I am hoping and praying for some kind of transcendant moment of ecstacy and enlightenment at the end -- something beyond time and space -- which is why I try so hard to be a good boy, that I might deserve such a thing! If only I weren't so weak and lazy. And God give me courage!

In other words, I am just as pitiful and needy as the next guy. Cheers, everybody!

Randall Parker said at October 6, 2004 5:58 PM:


We can conquer aging. We can not avoid death. Accidents and murders will get us eventually.

Lots of people's fathers and mothers die extremely painfully of bone cancer or slowly lose their identity from Alzheimers. Few are so lucky to die quickly and painlessly.

gene berman said at October 6, 2004 6:50 PM:


This is the first time that I've ever thought one of your opinions to border on ridiculous; I refer to the offered opinion that pursuit of longevity techniques or drugs offered the best chance for solution of the problem of the unfunded contingent liabilities in the SS system.

First, I have doubts as to whether and how soon effective measures of the sort you envision might be brought into existence. My doubts are not particularly informed and include no knowledge or expertise whatever in those life-extension or aging-reversal areas. It's far simpler.

For starters, the profit prospects for the successful introduction of such drugs or measures are of the most staggering magnitude ever contemplated, indicating, at least to me, that prospectively-viable ventures in that direction would command the capital capital and human resources necessary far more easily--and more quickly--in the private market as compared with the relatively cumbersome process by which a government program of research must be brought into existence through legislation (and the involvement of the partisan political process). Whether there's something on that horizon, I don't know but would presume we'd hear something about it long before (by at least a few years) before it became actual. That would just be the beginning of the "fun."

The largest (and most demanding, vociferous, financially-capable, and well-organized) of the demographic constituencies forming a potential market are the already-aged, those in position to benefit most quickly. These are people already retired from active employment and, to the extent that they are regular receivers of government retirement (including medical) payments, would immediately enlarge (rather than reduce) the contingent liability directly in proportion to the degree of "extension" achievable. All those in the category are already dis-incentivized from remaining in the work force. Their earnings are subject to taxes at the ordinary rate and further, to contributions to the "retirement income" which they're already receiving. There's no incentive except for: 1.) those whose SS income is so small that they cannot live on it already so that they have no other choice; and, 2.) those earning (or capable of earning) so much in excess
of the SS-"capped" amount that the contribution is "chicken feed" compared to the alternative earnings. But I would bet that only a small portion--those who enjoy working almost more than any other of the activities in which they're already wealthy enough to engage if they so wish.

With the prospect of virtual immortality (or any reasonable extension of ordinary life-span) would arise divisions of interest between the already-retired, the almost-retired (those who've "paid in" all their lives and are looking forward to some return) and the younger workers.
The present and previous system rationale was the relatively simple one of people of all ages simply placing a good-faith reliance on the willingness of those following to continue doing the same, regardless of the fact that the current recipients behaved in what can only be characterized as "bad faith" (except to the degree mitigated or exculpated by ignorance and the blandishments of political leaders.)

I don't even want to begin to construct any of the possible or likely scenarios--none of them are pretty. Think about it yourself.

There is only a single solution: elimination of the program entirely, whether sudden or more gradually; the problem is that the longer we wait to do it one way or the other, the less of the choice we'll be able to have.

This entire problem is one which anyone not brain-dead could see 30 and even more years ago and has only gotten progressively worse
by virtue of added entitlements and inflation. There's no pretty way out.

The very worst news I have for you is that the problem may simply shrink into insignificance compared to the potential for collapse of the entire world monetary system-- the disappearance of any "money" whatsoever. And that's even SURER than collapse of the federal retirement system, over which we have some reasonable modicum of political control. No "IF"s--only "WHEN?"

Engineer-Poet said at October 6, 2004 9:04 PM:

Gene Berman:  I am of a similar vintage to Randall, and I was writing letters to the editor about the necessity of reforming Social Security (rather than just raising taxes) when it was last "reformed", during the first administration of the ex-president recently deceased.

I'm afraid that your claim of a world monetary collapse sounds like so much scare-mongering.  There is going to be international trade.  There is going to be international ownership of stocks and real estate.  These goods and assets are going to be valued somehow, and that will be money in some form.  If you can see how it could be different, do elucidate.

Kurt said at October 6, 2004 10:07 PM:


If I was offensive, my appologies. Its just that I am tired of being told that I have an excessive fear of death because I advocate curing aging. Its simply not the case.

Randall Parker said at October 6, 2004 10:24 PM:


You say that eliminating Social Security and Medicare is the only solution to the unfunded old age liabilities crisis. Well, it is not a solution because people are not going to vote in politicians who would seriously consider doing such a thing. This is the problem with so many libertarian utopian solutions. The populace are opposed to libertarianism. The evidence for this builds up one decade after another.

Yes, the problem has gotten progressively worse. Even is the financial situation has gotten bleaker the entitlements have expanded, most recently with the Medicare drug benefit. Doesn't that tell you something?

No, money is not going to disappear. There is no great disastrous cleansing in the offing that will wash away the entitlements state.

As for private capital markets: Too many of the questions that would have to get answered to develop workable rejuvenation therapies are questions whose answers can not be patented. The problem with the idea that the market can provide the solution most rapidly is that the market has major flaws and shortcomings when it comes to intellectual products. To get an inkling of how big that problem is possibly as little as 2.2% of the value of innovations goes to the innovators. My guess is that even that figure is too high because it probably doesn't include knowledge accumulation that is done by people other than the innovators of commercial products and services.

gene berman said at October 7, 2004 7:38 AM:


Your rebuttal of my "solution" is merely a reinforcement. My point was to simply to underscore the virtual impossibility of working out a more or less reasonable and workable program from the political side. I don't propose "libertarian utopian" solutions but merely point out the limited alternatives that avoid complete catastrophe.

I also do not make a case for the greater desirability of one or another program (gov't.-sponsored vs. private)--that's a separate argument
which would proceed along different lines. I merely point out that the (relative--because I don't know anything real about the state of development) state of the venture capital market with respect to scientific and technical along a particular line are an excellent synopsis
of the prospective possibility and profitability opinions of those established as best able to make those determinations. Their decisions as to which (or any) projects to finance are subject to error, like any other, but must be contrasted to the bureaucratic model, in which the
direction and extent of all efforts must be determined through complex political and budgetary process having only tenuous connection to the goals. There are both general and specific reasons why most of the goods and services of our economy (and all others, in general)
have been provided on the basis of private effort rather than as functions of the state and there are at least strong (whether ultimately persuasive or correct or not is not at issue) reasons for believing that even many of those which are so (state) provided would be furnished in greater abundance, better quality,, at lower cost through private-sector efforts (there is a very good reason why most such goods and services as are actually state-provided require protection from competition--monopoly--as a condition of their existence). But, there I go again--getting into the argument I didn't want to. And the illumination of the very small portion actually acruing to innovators as a result of their innovation is no argument whatsoever: if accurate, it is merely a picture of what's going on. While it is true that there are many innovations which might be desired, the specific state of low innovator remuneration has not prevented awesomely vast innovation in
almost every area of life. And, it should be noted, the prospect of a particular product or service area being circumscribed or reserved to the state is always a significant damper on whatever might have been the prospects for private-sector efforts, whether of innovators, their
potential financiers, and even the expert technical workers in the field.

And I note that you offered not a word to illuminate what (if any) thoughts you might have on the potentially enormous societal and inter-generational conflicts which would be intensified, rather than ameliorated, through discoveries you seek.

gene berman said at October 7, 2004 9:50 AM:

Engineer-Poet (and Randall):

I am not a scaremonger. I do not subscribe to doomsday scenarios or conspiracy theories. Like anyone else, I can be wrong--but I'm not a nut-case. I am an amateur economist and monetary theorist .That is to say, I've been studying such matters for over thirty years, though I've had no formal education in the field (or have any degree, for that matter). I became interested originally (at the age of 35) to support (or explain or elaborate) certain ideas about which I seemed to have some sort of inexplicable intuition. And, over the years, my predictions of developments in that area have been remarkably accurate and consistent, regardless of how "off-the-wall" or counter to mainstream thinking they may have been.

I cannot lay out an entire "case" for you in short space (and time). Basically, it boils down to the fact that we are involved in a process which began, for all practical purposes, with US monetary devaluation and gold confiscation in 1933 under FDR and the eventual complete separation of all national currencies (without exception!) from any connection to any real thing (or things) which those currencies might represent or for which they might be redeemed by any holder, whether private individual or state financial institution.

Money is worth what people think it it's worth--in other words, what they will give for it in goods or services. Under the current (world) regime of irredeemable currencies, the prevailing conceptions of that value are determined primarily by such peoples' relatively crude (and always behind-the-time) "handle" on its quantity--a dimension "managed" by the central bank function but inevitably upward (and downward for money's value). If such process continues, a point must be reached at which the monetary unit is worth so little that nobody will exchange anything else--good or service--for it. Even prior, the imminence of such end will become manifest as "hyperinflation," as has occurred many times and in many places in the past.

The present situation is different from all others in the past in two very significant respects. In the first place, currency collapse in the past could be averted, to a degree, through belt-tightening measures (insofar as government expenditures were concerned) and decreases in the supply of money with relation to it's "backing"--measures perceivable as "depression." In addition, in those past instances, there were always foreign currencies, sound or merely sounder, that might provide refuge to the savings of individuals astute enough to have foreseen the inevitable. In the present, there are no such in existence. Nor are there liable to be--if only for the reason that, the very instant
such a sound currency came into existence--and for some time after--the flight of stores of the unsound varieties would rush into it (from
the accounts of more-astute individuals everywhere else) to such an extent that the worthlessness of all others would become apparent so quickly that their collapses would be almost immediate. But this is not the likely scenrio of collapse, if only for the reason of the power exerted by the largest economy on earth. No--it is simply more likely that the collapse of all will occur simultaneously, "managed," to the bitter moment just before by their respective central bankers. Nobody (myself included) can make any accurate prediction of just how such events shall unfold--the world has never been in similar position. And I would add to that, that whatever might unfold will be unlike past experience by some extraordinary "instantaneousness," as the result of modern communications, including the internet.

Poet-Engineer can suggest the internationality of trade as a mitigating factor. Ridiculous!--that will be the very first area to suffer extreme diminishment, as exchanges can no longer be made except on the basis of actual gold transfer or barter. Ordinary domestic trade would come to a standstill and martial law everywhere would be necessary, not only to prevent looting and robbery of necessities but, as well, to force some to exchange some things of vital importance with others without any acceptable medium of exchange. Some exchange, everywhere, will certainly be not only possible but actual. But the interconnectedness and robustness of economic conditions are, at the same time, intimately dependent on the interposition of media of exchange--and are, in that sense, as fragile and evanescent at the moment of collapse and afterward as they had previously been robust.

There are people in the world--always--whose existence is close, whether continuously or merely at some specific time, to an invisible but very real line called the "margin." Most of these presently are in Africa, and, moreover, are only marginal because of circumstance (war, chiefly) interfering with the production of the means of subsistence. Agricultural and industrial advances in production have greatly improved the conditions of those close to the margin. But any diminution of such production moves many closer--even below. But in the event of a worldwide currency collapse, my estimate is that a minimum of half the population of the world will be rendered marginal, even, perhaps, in a matter of few hours. The 200,000,000-strong nation of Japan cannot possibly feed, at even bare-life-sustaining levels, more than 20 percent or so of its population for as much as a month on food stores within its borders. And from where shall they get fuel either for winter or for industry or transportation? They are only the most outstanding of the food-deficit nations, among which we'd probably have to include Germany, Austria, England, and many more. Cities--everywhere--would be a special problem. And who is going to induce or persuade--or force--farmers to the necessary exertions (or the truckers to convey what might be produced)? Shall "relicta civitate rus habitare maluerit" once again become apparent as was the case during the decline and fall of Rome? That fall, by comparison, will be benign and gentle; their money had only become worth less, not worthless; and, of course, the trade and specialization of their economy, though the most impressive of that age, hardly begins to compare with the present in those dimensions.

I am not the only one to see "Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin" on the wall. There are a reasonable number of others, though I believe they tend to underestimate the levels of disruption, dislocation, and death. I am absolutely certain that Alan Greenspan understands it every bit as well as I--but has no idea whatever what can be done and merely hopes that he dies before that time while he staves it off as best he can under the existing system. He's captaining a leaky boat in which the bailers work more and more while the hole gets larger and larger--with no port in sight or even known.

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