Longevity, Technological Progress, and Economic Growth

Longevity and wealth go hand in hand. This association is very evident in many periods of history, such as the century leading up to the industrial revolution in England, or the more recent and very rapid transformation of South Korean society from rural poverty to industrialized wealth, accompanied by an equally rapid rise in life expectancy.

Thus economics should be a topic of at least passing interest for everyone who follows longevity science, or looks forward to a future of extended healthy life provided by new medical biotechnologies. Frankly, economics in the broadest sense of human action and its explanations should be of at least passing interest to everyone: societies rise and fall based upon the public understanding or lack of understanding regarding the origins of wealth and economic growth. There seem to be cycles in which those who understand dominate and thus build prosperity, only for their descendants to give it all back to waste and destruction because they fail to grasp why it is that their society is prosperous. Comparative wealth is very good at sheltering people from the realities of how the world works, sadly. These days the US seems to be on the downward slope of that cycle: there is a lot more of eating of seed corn and corruption than even as recently as twenty years ago.

On the grand scale this will slow down progress in technology across the board in comparison to what might have been. Corruption manifests itself most evidently as centralization of power and resulting regulation, which in turn attracts those who live to propagate control for the sake of control. Medicine and biotechnology are being choked beneath a mountain of red tape. One can hope that other regions of the world will take up the slack as the grand medical research community of the US is slowly crushed into an inability to produce and commercialize anything truly new and innovative.

But I hadn't intend this to be a gloomy post, and the very readable paper I want to bring to your attention today is, ultimately, an optimistic take on human progress - both in longevity and in wealth. And indeed, I am optimistic for the long term; empires rise and fall, the US only different in detail from those that came before, and humanity nonetheless marches onward, building new technologies at what seems to be an every-increasing pace, despite the politics, politicians, and parasites. What gloom there is stems from that fact that you and I don't have forever to wait for the just-around-the-corner biotechnologies that will enhance human longevity - there is plenty of room for ugly economic or political collapse to delay matters long enough to produce a poor outcome for us, while still winding up as just another fiddling detail of early 21st century history to the ageless folk of the 2100s and later

But take a look at the paper I mentioned; I think you'll find it interesting:

Population aging and endogenous economic growth

We investigate the consequences of population aging for long-run economic growth perspectives. [We] show that (1) increases in longevity have a positive impact on per capita output growth, (2) decreases in fertility have a negative impact on per capita output growth, (3) the positive longevity effect dominates the negative fertility effect in [our models], and (4) population aging fosters long-run growth.

Just to get an impression of the severity of the demographic changes, we are facing the following: on the global scale, the total fertility rate has dropped from five children per woman in 1950 to 2.5 children per woman today, while life expectancy has increased from 48 years in 1950 to 68 years today. [We] are interested in the implications of population aging for per capita output growth over a long time horizon. Since technological progress has been identified as the main determinant of long-run economic prosperity, we are particularly concerned with the effects of changing age [distributions in society] on research and development (R&D) intensities.

Our main conclusion is that currently ongoing demographic changes do not necessarily hamper technological progress and therefore economic prosperity. Simultaneously decreasing birth and death rates can even lead to an increase in the economic growth rate.

As I've argued in the past, technological progress is really the only yardstick that matters when you're looking at the long view.


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