Election season is in full swing here in the United States and I honestly couldn’t be more terrified (please, don’t call my bluff). While a group of politicians tries to win the hearts of 300 million+ American voters, the country is currently going through a significant crisis, from climate change to the rise of fascism.
And as if our lives couldn’t feel any more at risk, we still don’t have any goddamn healthcare!
Granted, we’re closer than ever to finally implementing universal healthcare here in the U.S. as nearly all of the candidates on the Democratic Party side support various incarnations of “Medicare for All.” It’s not like it’s taken us decades longer than any other industrial nation to consider healthcare to be a human right! *sighs*
The benefits of a universal healthcare system are without doubt. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), having universal health coverage results in:
- Better access to necessary care;
- Improved population health (the poor being the largest benefactors);
- A reduction in the infant mortality rate;
- An increase in life expectancy;
- The elimination of financial risk due to unpredictable health costs;
- A reduction in the wealth gap between the rich and poor;
- Creates jobs and improves gender equality; and
- Protects countries from epidemics.
And, yet, the U.S. population remains stranded without healthcare on an oversized island ran by profit-driven kleptomaniacs, i.e. the billionaire class. To make things all the more bizarre, these same billionaires have suddenly picked up an interest in the transhumanist cause for indefinite life extension.
As a transhumanist myself, I certainly have an affinity for longevity science and the goal of developing cures for age-related diseases. I support institutions like the SENS Research Foundation and dedicated gerontologists like Aubrey de Grey.
My problem, however, stems from the billionaire class’s co-opting of the longevity movement in favor of an agenda that continues lining their own pockets and establishes them even higher in the capitalist hierarchy. And, apparently, this month alone, two other notable people have seemingly shared similar worries over the prospect of an “immortal” billionaire class.
Those two people are the American economist Dr. Paul Krugman and libertarian-transhumanist author and politician Zoltan Istvan.
Unfortunately, while both viewpoints seem to check all of the right boxes when it comes to addressing the reality of health inequality, somehow, their conclusions completely miss the mark in their own disconcerting way.
Let’s start with Dr. Krugman’s article, “Billionaires Shouldn’t Live Forever,” published by The New York Times:
“…in the early 21st century, a growing number of people realized that America was becoming an oligarchy, with a hugely disproportionate share of income, wealth and power held by a small number of people.”
So far, so good. Let’s see where he runs with this…
“In 2014 the French economist Thomas Piketty added a further twist by noting that the dominance of the elite was increasingly based on assets, which could be passed on to the next generation. We might, he warned, be heading back toward the “patrimonial capitalism” that prevailed in the 19th century — dominance by dynasties centered on vast inherited wealth.
But while the dynasties of the past often endured for a very long time, the dynasts themselves didn’t. Sooner or later, like everyone else, they grew old and died.
Nowadays, not so much.”
Dr. Krugman is, certainly, correct in his observation that dynasties of the old were maintained via the inheritance of wealth, but he then proceeds to briefly celebrate the fact that “the dynasts themselves…grew old and died.” So what? Their deaths certainly didn’t change the absurd wealth hierarchy, so why celebrate? Let’s continue…
“It would be one thing if life-extension technology were relatively cheap and could be made widely available. Even that would have created huge problems. As it turns out, however, the technology is obscenely expensive, deep into the range of “If you have to ask what it costs, you can’t afford it.” So the technology is directly affecting only a handful of incredibly rich people. But the indirect effects of life extension for a privileged few have been huge and, dare I say it, sinister.”
Okay, we’re somewhat back on track. Other than the brief, yet lacking in clarification, “Even [cheap life-extension tech] would have created huge problems,” Dr. Krugman is, once again, correct in his reluctance to accepting life extension that only extended the lives of the superwealthy.
If you thought the rebellions over an increasing wealth disparity were bad, just you wait for a future where the superwealthy are able to live forever while the poor remain mortal and destitute. As Dr. Krugman highlights in his hypothetical future scenario, “nothing is forever, even in an era of life extension. Public rage against the evergarchs has been building for decades, and it may now have reached boiling point.”
But, alas, just when you thought Dr. Krugman was getting somewhere good, he had to muck it up with a conclusion that would even make sociopaths question his moral and ethical standards:
“So what should be done? Some are proposing that we simply try to diminish the evergarchs’ influence with steep taxes on huge fortunes, which is a good idea in any case. But there were real concerns about tax evasion even when oligarchs were merely mortal; imagine how good people can get at hiding their assets when they can spend decades, even generations, building their tax shelters.
No, life extension for a privileged few is, by its nature, a socially destructive technology, and the time has come to ban it. Take the evergarchs off their treatments, so that they start aging like everyone else, and don’t let anyone else get started. Prosecute anyone who tries to evade the ban, which shouldn’t be hard to determine: Billionaires may sometimes manage to hide their assets, but they can’t hide failure to age.”
Uhhh…what? It’s already become known that Dr. Krugman is opposed to Medicare for All; opting, instead, for a healthcare plan that keeps insurance companies and private businesses in possession of all of the bargaining chips. But this? So because it would be difficult (though, not impossible) to redistribute the wealth in a hypothetical future consisting of “immortal” billionaires, we should instead condemn everyone to a limited lifespan of disease and pain?
This is what I would call peak cognitive dissonance!
Let’s see if my friend and ideological-dance-partner Zoltan Istvan has a better response. According to Zoltan in his new article, “Rich people shouldn’t be the only ones who get to live forever,” published by Quartz:
“Earlier this year, I traveled to the Los Angeles headquarters of the XPRIZE Foundation, which awards prizes for “industry-changing technology that brings us closer to a better, safer, more sustainable world.” I had been invited along with about 60 other longevity advocates to help develop a possible prize surrounding longevity. I was ecstatic.
… During some of the heated sessions, medical doctors and anti-aging researchers argued loudly across the conference room about biomarkers, enzymes, telomerase endings of genes, and how far mitochondria might be manipulated.”
Ahhh, music to my ears! Go on…
“Frankly, I felt a little out of my element — I’m not a scientist, but a communicator. My original proposal, designed later with the help of Max More, Natasha Vita-More, James Strole, and Bernadeane, was called the Longevity Peace Prize. It would award a one-time $5 million prize to a person or a group who convinces a government to publicly classify aging as a disease.”
This would certainly be a noteworthy achievement. One could argue that, while humanists would consider it a job-well-done if the U.S. passed universal healthcare legislation, in the eyes of a transhumanist, we’d only be halfway there and would still require the government to recognize longevity science (thus classifying aging as a disease) as a legitimate component of modern-day healthcare. Proceed…
“In spite of major progress in the scientific community of longevity research — and major resources being invested in the field by leading companies and organizations — many people around the world are unaware that radical life extension research exists as a real thing. Many others are downright skeptical of it.
But the science is already here. And it will inevitably impact how we innovate and solve problems in every major field; from climate science, to politics, to education and health care systems. A major international longevity prize would help societies shift their thinking and become more aware about how deeply the field will alter our future, and how much sooner major shifts will occur than is generally acknowledged.
Few goals of humanity could so dramatically alter the lives of humans as extreme longevity. The field is ripe for a significant award. If people start living to the age of 500 — which Bill Maris, former head of Google Ventures says is possible — so many current ideas about human life would change, including ones that impact us personally such as marriage, child-rearing, and retirement.”
We’re definitely in agreement here that, what Zoltan calls, “extreme longevity” would make such an enormous impact on humanity that today’s longevity skeptics couldn’t possibly fathom with their limited, preconceived notions and biases. But do you know what also could “dramatically alter the lives of humans” and also “impact us personally such as marriage, child-rearing, and retirement?” Universal healthcare — especially when you compare statistics involving marriage, child-rearing, and retirement between the U.S. and every other industrial nation-state.
But I digress…
“It’s been a long and ongoing battle for me to convince the public that people should try to live far longer. Currently, governments don’t back projects or fund initiatives that consider aging controversial, much less a disease.
And yet billionaire after billionaire is starting to enter the life extension field and invest in it — everyone from Larry Ellison to Peter Theil to Mark Zuckerberg, who recently donated $3 billion dollars to wipe out all disease by the end of the century.
While this is excellent news for the longevity industry, a society that embraces living super long must have more than the one-percenters backing it. It must have the government and national culture supporting it as well. And it needs to be accessible to people no matter who they are.”
“A high-profile annual global prize for longevity could be just the answer to engaging more people around the world with the developments in the longevity industry.”
Oh, for fuck’s sake, Zoltan! Must we really keep this dance of ours going?
“My visions [sic] is for a peace price, not a medical prize, because living indefinitely is not only about aging, it’s also about dealing with our biggest problems, like overpopulation, growing inequality, skyrocketing environmental concerns, and trying to improve living standards for the elderly. Extreme longevity will affect social security burdens, religious beliefs, the health care system, and families who might now regularly have multi-generations living under one roof.
Isn’t our future, and how it is shaped, a matter that concerns all of us? If we have something like a major longevity award, people can participate in how we adapt to longevity, rather than deal with decisions made in closed meetings and medical labs. If we are to celebrate the work of those who are trying to get humans to live dramatically longer, we need to be a part of the conversation from the start.
I’m still hoping some wealthy patron, organization, university, or government might establish a yearly longevity prize that the world will cheer on.”
Yes, yes, yes, we’re in full agreement here that achieving indefinite life extension could dramatically improve the lives of our species as a whole. But, again, so would universal healthcare! Transhumanists, like Zoltan, need to get past this bizarre belief that we can somehow skip the “healthcare-for-all” part and go straight to “longevity-for-all.”
Zoltan and I have had this quibble before as well. As I mentioned in a previous article of mine, “Why the Transhumanist Movement Needs Socialism,” which was in response to Zoltan’s “Transhumanism is Under Siege from Socialism,” I stated:
“If we wish to reach a transhumanist future where longevity science has developed a cure to aging and is equally distributed to everyone at their own discretion, we must first declare health care a right to all. Health care is life, and life is the ultimate pursuit of a transhumanist.”
So while Zoltan remains hoping for some billionaire or government to “establish a yearly longevity prize,” the rest of us will continue ̶h̶̶o̶̶p̶̶i̶̶n̶̶g̶ struggling to achieve universal healthcare and join the rest of the industrial world in the 21st century. Maybe, hopefully, we’ll someday cross paths and realize that our causes are one and the same.
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