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Longevity Makes The Gerontocracy Worse

The dangers of age aren't cured by living longer

I’ve been reading Ray Dalio’s Principles For Dealing With The Changing World Order, and if there’s one big takeaway it’s that supremacy now does not guarantee supremacy later. At one point or another, China, the Dutch, Britain, the Spanish, and the Mongols all laid claim to the title of the most powerful country in the world.

Right now, that title belongs to the US. It has the largest economy. The strongest military. The wealthiest population among big countries. The best schools. The most innovative companies. And, perhaps most importantly, the privilege and burden of being the world’s reserve currency.

That “privilege” is what sunk every single power cursed with it’s power. The temptation to print money is a temptation no country has been able to resist. Almost like clockwork, after 75 to 100 years of global financial dominance, the country hosting the reserve currency recklessly prints money. Maybe they do it because of war, maybe they do it because of social programs, or maybe they just do it out of pure greed. The point is they all do it, and the result is a devaluing of the currency to the point of ruin.

We are now approaching that 75 to 100-year timeframe for American financial dominance, and already we are seeing the signs of inflationary disaster for the dollar. The US national debt now stands at a stunning $34T:

Most of this debt is coming from social security and other health entitlements:

And that is especially bad news since it doesn’t look like that number’s going down ever again. The country is aging at an alarming rate:

This has two implications:

  1. More people are going to need social security and entitlements, which is expensive.

  2. Fewer people are going to be available to pay into social security and entitlements, which is bad for the Ponzi, meaning the government is either going to have to cut spending or print more money to cover the costs. History makes it crystal clear which road the government will ultimately take.

So, the debt is going up only. Unfortunately, the wonders of compound interest work on debt the same way it does on savings. In other words, as the debt goes up, the interest payments on that debt go up as well, which increases the amount of debt, which increases the interest payment, etc etc. It’s a vicious flywheel of pain. And this is in a world where our interest payment is already higher than our defense budget ($879B vs $816.7B). Forget about guns or butter. You’re going to have to decide between healthcare and butter.

Basically, barring a miracle, the US dollar, and thus the economy as we know it, is fucked.

So, what are the potential ways out of this mess? Well, when you have debts, you can either cut spending or increase your income so you can pay off the debt faster, which for a country would mean growing the economy. Cutting spending is politically impossible and has never willingly been done in the history of mankind, so we can safely rule that out. That leaves increasing income.

For a country, increasing income really means increasing productivity. This can be done either in absolute terms by adding more people or in relative terms from a technological breakthrough like seen in the Industrial Revolution.

Adding more people seems very unlikely. The fertility rate is in the toilet, and there is no political appetite for firing up immigration to where you need it to be.

So, you’re going to have to grow the economy with a stable or, more likely, decreasing population. That requires a technological breakthrough. One contender is AI. This may very well happen, or it may not; who knows? In any case, the debates over the merits and dangers of AI are well-rehearsed at this point. 

Another contender gaining some steam is nuclear energy. The relationship between energy and economic growth is well established, and nuclear energy provides virtually limitless clean energy. I would love it if this happens, but there’s a long way to go before this happens on anything resembles a large scale.

So, let’s get more radical. What about longevity? Basically, extending the average human lifespan to something like 120 years.

People have been into the idea of living longer and/or forever for literally…forever. Herodotus was writing about the Fountain of Youth in the 5th century BC. But, never before has it been seemingly so attainable. And if there is a way to do it, people are going to find it. Techies are already pouring gobbles of money into doing it:

I always hesitate to say that humans can’t do something. With that much brainpower and money in it, I’m not betting against longevity from a technical standpoint.

Ok, so let’s say that extending the lifespan to 120 years is possible in the near future. Why would you even want to do that? Well, beyond the obvious point of most people not wanting to die until they absolutely have to, there is a case that by doing so, you instantly fix some major issues plaguing the nation.

First, increasing lifespans would increase the working-age population, so you’re better able to service that massive national debt until a breakthrough like AI or nuclear fusion happens. Basically, the retired 75-year-old would now be 45 again, so he’d be able to work for another 20 years or so.

Second, you’d temporarily fix the issue of the gerontocracy in politics, which has gotten comically bad in recent years:

This is a problem for two reasons. First, older politicians are inherently out of touch. It’s hard for a 70-year-old Senator to know the intricacies of nuclear, AI, and crypto, let alone how social media sites monetize. Even some of the relatively younger ones have no idea how WiFi works. Second, older politicians are sometimes so old it’s a literal national security hazard. It’s hard to believe people this old are capable of running the country.

Longevity theoretically solves both of these issues.

The key word, however, is theoretically. If longevity means merely extending lifespans, I don’t believe this would this be good for the country or most people in it without some major stipulations.

On the issue of the national debt, I have a hard time believing that extending lifespans would be beneficial, and in reality, it will probably make the problem worse. The people who most advocate for longevity are billionaires like those listed above, and it’s easy to see why. They want to keep living their life because their lives are amazing. If you’re Sam Altman, why would you want to die?

But, let’s say you’re a run-of-the-mill blue-collar guy. If the pitch for longevity is that you get to keep working your regular ass job for another 20-30 years, would you take that? Hell no. All that does is push the period of your life that you’re really looking forward to, retirement, down the line. Why would you agree to that?

I find it almost impossible to believe that average people would accept longevity if it means postponing retirement. This makes it a politically impossible situation in the same way that cutting social security and health entitlements already is. If you don’t keep the retirement age at or near what it is right now, the people will elect somebody who will.

In that scenario, all you have is more people on social security and health entitlements for longer than before. That would be a disaster for the national debt.

On the issue of the gerontocracy, I also don’t see how longevity fixes the root problem. Yes, extending life may make it so that Biden can walk up stairs and McConnell can give a press conference, but physical and mental deterioration is only half the problem. The other half is that our leaders are out of touch.

Consider the meme “Ok boomer”. The meme isn’t making fun of old people for not knowing where they are, it’s making fun of old people for not knowing the realities of the current world. Whether that’s denying climate change, not knowing how to send a Venmo, or suggesting the 60/40 portfolio.

Mental ability is not the driving force of “boomerism”; it’s a lack of cultural awareness. You can be whip smart and still not know how to swipe a metro or how much a gallon of milk cost. Richard Hudson, the Congressman who didn’t know how WiFi worked, is only 52.

The only things guaranteed in life are death, taxes, and being out-of-touch. I don’t know the exact age, but there comes a point in everyone’s life where they are no longer plugged into the zeitgeist. Where their ideas are no longer original, or worse, relevant to the modern world. Maybe it comes at 50. Maybe 60. Maybe 70. Whatever age it is, it eventually comes for everyone.

This out-of-touchness comes worse for politicians, because they are so removed from the lives of average Americans. Most of them come from very well-off backgrounds to begin with, and then Senators serve for an average of 10 years and Congressman for an average of 9 years. Many politicians spend most of their adult lives rich, in power, or both.

Longevity may restore the mental and physical faculties of our gerontocracy, but it doesn’t solve the issue of our politicians not understanding the modern world. If anything, it’ll make it worse. What’s worse than a 70-year-old politician who has been in power for 30 years? A 90-year-old politician who has been in power for 50 years.

Ultimately, a large part of your world view is set in your 20s, 30s, and mayyybeeee early 40s. People in that age range are the people most with the times, and so those are the people I most want leading the country. In other words, there’s an Overton window of sorts for when people would be effective leaders. In most cases, young people fit this Overton window much better than older alternatives.

Now, there are rare situations where an old person is perfectly fit for the moment. Churchill in World War 2 is the textbook example of this. But his age and experience was not what made him fit for that moment. It was being Churchill that made him fit for that moment. He had that proverbial dog in him that you need to be a wartime leader. It’s not like that dog suddenly developed when he was 60. A 40 year old Churchill would have got the job done the same way a 65 year old Churchill did.

Right now it is hard to think of a single US leader who you can say is fit for this moment. Extending life won’t make this problem better, it’ll make it worse. Like debt, this is a compounding problem. The longer the old guard is able to stick around, the harder it is for the new ground to break through. By the time the new guard is able to take over, they’ll be just as old as our current old guard. Instead of having a freshman class of 45-year-olds, you’ll have one of 65-year-olds. The only way to fight back against this dystopian reality is to institute term limits, which is like trying to get a dog to put a collar on itself.

This is not limited to national politics. Every fragment of society would get older. Your businessmen would get older. Your town and county politicians would get older. Your professors would get older. Your scientists would get older. Young people would be stuck. People would have to postpone making adult money for even longer, and thus the birth rate would continue to fall. Basically, unless you believe change is driven by 50-year-olds, a gerontocracy roided with longevity would grind societal progression to a crawl, much like the exceedingly old Congress has.

Now look, I’m not saying that longevity research should stop or that the people doing it are evil freaks. I can obviously understand why people would be interested in living longer. What I want is for people to think about the second-order effects of such a massive change. In other words, if you’re going to go this route, fine. But at a bare minimum you need to make sure there are checks in place to prevent the same people staying in power forever and, in my ideal world, you figure out a way to ensure that longevity doesn’t mean 1) people merely working their shitty jobs for an extra 30 years and 2) the postponment of adulthood. If you can do that, then I can see for a case for it.

However, that does not change my mind that the best thing for the country is a more engaged youth. There’s a reason that Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook at 19, not 59. There’s a reason that the average age of the moon landing control room was 28. There’s a reason that Michael Jackson’s prime was in the 80s, not the 2000s. And there’s a reason that the Founding Fathers were largely in their 20s and 30s, not 50s and 60s. The world is changed by visionaries with fresh ideas, and you don’t get fresh ideas when you’re in your 60s. Old dogs don’t learn new tricks.

In his famous Stanford commencement speech, Steve Jobs said:

Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.

If we want to get rid of death, then we better have a change agent ready to replace it.

For a similar analysis of the horrors of the gerontocracy, check out Critical Age Theory by Richard Hanania.

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