Non-Zero-Sum Games and Curing Aging

I am always pleased to see essays that expressly refute the zero-sum nonsense that permeates modern political and economic discussions. Life, consisting of economic activity in the broader sense of the word "economic," is not a zero-sum game.

Non-zero-sum situations are an important part of economic activity due to production, marginal utility and value-subjectivity. Most economic situations are non-zero-sum, since valuable goods and services can be created, destroyed, or badly allocated, and any of these will create a net gain or loss.

Here is a piece from Simon Smith of Betterhumans on the non-zero-sum nature of curing aging to help the poor. Some highlights (but read the whole thing!):

Aging takes its toll not only on individuals but also on societies and economies. Billions upon billions of dollars are spent treating age-related diseases and supporting elderly people who are unable to maintain their independence. Nevertheless, many people over 65 still live in poverty.

For this reason alone, the argument that funding antiaging research takes money from the poor always struck me as irritatingly bogus. And it's not the only reason. Certainly, much poverty in the world has little to do with aging and lots to do with economics, bad governance and unequal distribution. But reducing the personal, economic and societal cost of aging and directly alleviating suffering amongst a very large group of people -there are 600 million people 60 years and over today, a number forecast to top one billion by 2025 and reach two billion by 2050 - always seemed to me an unequivocal good. Furthermore, ending aging would free up huge amounts of resources that could be used to address forms of poverty not related to physical and mental degeneration.

Yet increasing funding for the fight against aging continues to be opposed on the grounds that it would be tremendously expensive, take money from the fight against poverty and reflect a selfish attitude of wealthy nations and people. These arguments are based on myths and misunderstandings that have hindered research into ending aging and promoted the false dichotomy that we can't invest both in life extension research and interventions aimed at ameliorating poverty. In fact, ending aging is one of the most effective things we can do to alleviate poverty.

The other, for my money, is an end to all restrictions on free association and trade between willing individuals - the poor are not usually where they are because they want to be. Most current legislation aimed at improving their lot actually hinders their own attempts at self-improvement.

If people didn't need treatment for and weren't incapacitated by aging-related diseases, the money saved and generated would vastly outweigh what was spent on antiaging research, freeing up additional resources to help raise the standard of living for all. Unless we're going to stop people from living past 65 - an abhorrent idea to be sure - then for economic reasons alone it makes sense to fund an end to aging.


At this point, some might voice another argument of those who oppose funding antiaging research: "Isn't it selfish?" After all, the greatest beneficiaries, at least in the early stages, would almost certainly be the wealthy, and people in wealthy countries.

But in fact, funding life extension research is fundamentally selfless because every human ages. Interestingly, I've never heard the people who criticize antiaging research funding make the same criticisms of research funding for rare diseases, which affect just a small fraction of the population and could therefore be considered far more selfish. Clearly, stopping people suffering from rare diseases is a good thing. So why is it bad to stop people suffering common diseases of aging, and the common disease of aging itself?

Biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey projects a cost of $100 billion over ten years for a solidly organized project to engineer an end to aging. This is a tiny fraction of what is spent over the same period on treating age-related conditions, and a project within the range of the largest funding organizations.

If a cost effective cure for aging were available, all the billions currently directed to repairing and holding off age-related damage could be directed to other, more productive uses. Damage of any sort, whether hurricanes, war, disease or aging, reduces the wealth of individuals and society - it saps resources that could have been used elsewhere to generate more wealth. Prevention and more efficient repair technologies ultimately enrich everyone.


One quick correction. You stated that Aubrey de Grey projects costs of 100 billion dollars over ten years, but as I recall, he projects 100 *million* dollars a year for ten years, which comes out to one billion dollars total. I'm a little more of a pessimist, and I suspect the total could rise to ten billion dollars total over fifteen to twenty years, but this is still an order of magnitude less than 100 billion dollars.

Posted by: Jay Fox at September 29th, 2004 6:18 AM

Aubrey's estimate of about $1 billion over a 10 year period seems accurate, based on what I know about laboratory techniques and research. Thats to rejuvenate and immortalize a mouse. Translating these into human therapies will probably cost an additional $2-3 billion beyond that, much of that cost to get the therapies FDA approved for the U.S. market.

Of course, some of the "7 deadly things" will probably be curable by the time mouse rejuvenation is acheived (e.g. vaccine for alzheimer's, ALT-711 derivatives, stem cell regeneration). The point is that human therapies for some of these things are already under development.

Yes, the Simon Smith piece effectively demolishes the "what about the poor" argument against a cure for aging.

Once our biochip scanner becomes available (by the end of the year), I will be in a position to promote the SENS research in Asia.

Posted by: Kurt at September 29th, 2004 10:27 AM

Oops - that's what I get for posting while distracted again. The Betterhumans piece has the cost at $100 billion, and you're right that that is an order of magnitude too high.

Posted by: Reason at September 29th, 2004 10:53 AM

Post a comment; thoughtful, considered opinions are valued. Comments incorporating ad hominem attacks, advertising, and other forms of inappropriate behavior are likely to be deleted.

Note that there is a comment feed for those who like to keep up with conversations.