Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Why I Don't Want to Live Forever

In last weekend's NYT book review, Abraham Verghese reviewed Jonathan Weiner's Long for This World, a book about the science of immortality, primarily focusing on the English gerontologist Aubrey de Grey. It seems the book is a bankhanded slap, noting that
If biologists could have done for the dictators of the 20th century what they can now do for roundworms and flies — double their life span — then Mao Zedong might still be alive

Most people, like Mao, give it their best and are better off dead after 90 years. After that, they merely say the same things, and keep others from saying new things via their cult of personality. Further, people who are powerful at 83 tend to be evil, so mortality is especially useful for battling tyranny.

I like life, can't imagine being dead, and especially will miss not being able to share experiences with my children, and help them as best I can. I have no reason to believe in an afterlife, which many find reason to fight for more life at any expense. Yet, the thought of immortality really pains me. I see so many people develop a personality that after a while converges on some big idea, some routine in thought and behavior, it becomes not merely unhelpful to the world, but boring for the person and every thinking person around him. I rather respect the view of William F. Buckley, who not long before dying, said he was tired and didn't care to live much more. As Richard P. Feynman noted, he didn't feel like dying would be the end of him, because he has created so many memes, he would still be alive. That's a good attitude. During his death, proximally caused by kidney failure, his last words were 'I'd hate to die twice. It's so boring'.

I was reminded of this last weekend reading a couple of Reagan era bigshots discussing their big ideas. First, David Stockman had a Sunday NYTimes op-ed decrying Republican hypocrisy for not enthusiastically raising tax rates on the wealthy. Stockman became famous after a December 1981 Atlantic Monthly article, "The Education of David Stockman", based on lengthy interviews with famous liberal financial reporter William Greider. In it he pronounced great skepticism of supply side economics (lower taxes--> higher revenues). Clearly, his big idea is unchanged.

On the other side, Arthur Laffer, the guy who promoted supply side economics by showing, on a cocktail napkin, that theoretically at some point a higher tax rate implies a lower tax revenues by virtue of their boundary conditions, also had a prominent WSJ op-ed. In it, he said raising taxes would hurt the economy and tax revenues, just as he said in 1980.

Since 1980 total tax revenue as a percent of the US economy, has risen and then fallen to its 1980 level, while marginal tax rates have fallen for both income and capital gains. Total spending, meanwhile, is at record peacetime levels as a percent of GDP. Given the various Democrats and Republicans in charge of the White House or Congress, and business cycles, the cause and effect is not obvious. But clearly 30 years later, we are spending more, and government is getting about the same total vig at lower marginal rates.

Now, I tend like simple proofs and so a demonstration on a cocktail napkin is impressive, but that's besides the point. They both have had their say and they've said it. Thirty years after the fact, it is still the their only big insight that gets them top billing in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. I am sure it will be in the second paragraph of their obituaries. We don't need another 900 years of that. They themselves will become bored saying it. Best to move on, let others reformulate their argument, and say it better or not at all.

I guess my big idea--one I've been told is wrong, obvious, and for a time, illegal--is that risk, however defined, does not beget higher returns--on average or rationally expected. I know the academy doesn't want to hear it, but also I don't want to say it over and over. Maybe, I'll come back as a bug and experience some unexpected pleasure by hearing someone proved my assertion using the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture (proven by Andrew Wiles), giving the faux-rigor that economic assertions need to influence academics.


Rue Des Quatre Vents said...

This isn't an argument against immortality but instead a call for finding ways to stimulate creativity late in life.

That mathematicians, chess players, and some artists have short bursts of creativity during their 20s and 30s, only to fade later in life is regrettable.

And other ways of petrifying our views add up as we age, but maybe there are brain enhancements or drugs around the corner that might one day snap that ossification?

Dave said...

Rue makes a good point. Along those lines, as an economist, would you consider Paul Samuelson a counter-example, for his late-in-life questioning of the benefits to the U.S. of free trade?

Re the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture, since nothing like that existed in Fermat's time, that would seem to suggest that either Fermat never had a proof of his famous last theorem; or, he had a far more elegant one.

"First, David Stockman had a Sunday NYTimes op-ed decrying Republican hypocrisy for not enthusiastically raising interest rates on the wealthy."

You meant taxes, not interest rates there, right?

Drewfus said...

Eric, i suppose what your saying is that humanity needs a positive turnover rate to keep progressing culturally and scientifically, just as markets needs a turnover of firms and organizations need a turnover of staff - to keep everyone 'honest' and maintain creativity.

Are the benefits of positive turnover, and the detriments from a lack thereof, well described in the economic & social science literature? A nice little book on the subject is Why Most Things Fail: Evolution, Extinction and Economics by Paul Ormerod.

German1 said...
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quints said...

I may come to the point when I am so tired but right now, I am deathly afraid of dying! Also, I know a few real people over 90 who share with others and support them as they struggle with basic functions while walking up the stairs. Just because someone gets old does not mean they become worthless. I usually agree with you but I don't see eye to eye with you in this case.

Also, for every Art Laffer, there may be a Joe Blow who would have had an even better idea but they died before they could formulate it and express it effectively.

przemek said...

It's true that many people's personalities seem to "converge." But, is this convergence due to some inherent constraints on the mind, or do people simply end up specializing in one single thing because they know they won't have time to reinvent themselves? Say you're a mathematician and that when you're 30, you get this great, career-making, Fields medal-worthy idea. For the next forty years, you harp on this idea, fleshing out its every possible detail and application. This happens a lot--but does it really happen because your personality has converged on the idea, or because you know your life is too short for you to become equally good at something else than that idea of yours? What if we could live for a thousand years and be able to say "okay, I've become so good at mathematics that it's become completely boring to me and everyone around me. I think I'll try photography now"--and then go and become a great photographer? Wouldn't such life be desirable?

Eric Falkenstein said...

Well, I haven't observed people develop new interests. Hyman Minsky was obsessed with imminent big recessions until he died. Lots of old academics, seem to riff on the same theme (see Noam Chomsky circa 1967, same thesis, different facts). It's possible, perhaps if you thought you were going to live another 50 productive years changing tunes would be more attractive. But I tend to doubt it, that most people would just keep digging in the same ditch. And then most people don't even have one big idea or profession, but just get by.

przemek said...

Well, we certainly agree on one thing: thinking about context-free grammars is boring Noam Chomsky to tears. But I think that if he knew he had 200 more years to live, this boredom would have driven him to try to do something else entirely. Perhaps he wouldn't be nearly as good at it, but at least he'd stop talking about linguistics.

I think people have many latent interests and talents, but they can't pursue them all because their lives are not long enough to learn to be really good at more than one thing. One of the saddest things about getting older is realizing how many different things you'll never be able to become.

Dave said...

Some people get by happily without one big idea. Some can find meaning in work without it being a profession. If they are treated well and feel that they are making a tangible contribution to an organization, that might be enough. Or maybe it isn't, but they find meaning in their lives through their relationships with loved ones, good works or causes they pursue on the side, or their religions.

You seem to have a worldview skewed somewhat by your stint in academia. To take your idea to its logical conclusion, life is too long already for most academics, and a Logan's Run approach might do the academy good. Or, more humanely, perhaps ditching tenure and showing academics the door in their 40s.

quints said...

When it comes to re-inventing oneself there are many examples. Look at Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was the greatest bodybuilder in the world, but that was a young man's game, so he had time and motivation to reinvent himself as an actor and then again as a politician. You are looking for examples in academia but most of those in academia are there because they are risk averse and would be least likely to willingly reinvent themselves.

Anonymous said...

Small quibble. The correspondence should be between marginal tax rate and personal tax revenues, not total tax revenues. Personal tax revenues as % of GDP is at least a percentage point below the 1980 level. FICA taxes have gone up significantly compared to 1980 thanks to the Greenspan commission's hike in 1983 (?).

Dave said...

Another counter-example that comes to mind is Bruce Bartlett. He went from advocating supply side economics in the late '70s to more of a Keynesian approach today.

Anton Sherwood said...

I imagine plenty of people feel "tired" shortly before dying of natural causes.