Longevity FAQ

by on March 16, 2018 at 1:02 am in Education, Medicine, Science | Permalink

From Laura Deming, you will find it here, essential reading for our time.  Here is one bit:


at a glance: a fraction of your cells get older than the others, so we’d like to eliminate them

As you get old, so do your cells. But some of your cells get old in a way that is much worse than the others. You may have heard of a thing called telomerase. If you remember correctly, it’s the thing that keeps the end of your DNA long enough that your cells can still divide. When one of your cells runs out of telomerase, it can’t make many more copies of itself. If the cell sticks around, refuses to die even when it stops working, and starts secreting signals to the immune system, we call that a ‘senescent cell‘.

What happens when you get rid of these cells? Some animals that age faster than normal have a lot of these ‘senescent cells’ and are good experimental models in which to ask that question. In 2011, a group from the Mayo Clinic cleared out many of the senescent cells in one of those animal models, and found that the resulting mice were healthier in old age (among other things, they did not get cataracts and bent spines, which typically emerge in old age). In 2016, the same investigators found that getting rid of senescent cells in normal mice made them live a longer healthy lifespan. Knocking out senescent cells is tricky, because they don’t have many unique identifiers. Companies are working to either find things empirically that kill senescent cells, or figure out specific mechanisms by which to try to destroy them.

It starts off like this:

Hi! I’m Laura Deming, and I run Longevity Fund. I spend a lot of time thinking about what could increase healthy human lifespan. This is my overview of the field for beginners.

Does it end with you living to 129?  I genuinely do not know.

I am honored to have been able to do this, here is the podcast and transcript.  The topics we covered included…the ideas of Robin, most of all: “With Robin, we go meta. Robin, if politics is not about policy, medicine is not about health, laughter is not about jokes, and food is not about nutrition, what are podcasts not about?”

Here is one exchange:

COWEN: Let’s say I’m an introvert, which by definition is someone who’s not so much out there. Why is that signaling? Isn’t that the opposite of signaling? If you’re enough of an introvert, it doesn’t even seem like countersignaling. There’s no one noticing you’re not there.

HANSON: I’ve sometimes been tempted to classify people as egg people and onion people. Onion people have layer after layer after layer. You peel it back, and there’s still more layers. You don’t really know what’s underneath. Whereas egg people, there’s a shell, and you get through it, and you see what’s on the inside.

In some sense, I think of introverts as going for the egg people strategy. They’re trying to show you, “This is who I am. There’s not much more hidden, and you get past my shell, and you can know me and trust me. And there’s a sense in which we can form a stronger bond because I’m not hiding that much more.”


COWEN: Here’s another response to the notion that everything’s about signaling. You could say, “Well, that’s what people actually enjoy.” If signaling is 90 percent of whatever, surely it’s evolved into being parts of our utility functions. It makes us happy to signal. So signaling isn’t just wasteful resources.

What we really want to do is set up a world that caters to the elephant in our brain, so to speak. We just want all policies to pander to signaling as much as possible. Maybe make signals cheaper, but just signals everywhere now and forever. What says you?

HANSON: I think our audience needs a better summary of this thesis that I’m going to defend here. The Elephant in the Brain main thesis is that in many areas of life, perhaps even most, there’s a thing we say that we’re trying to do, like going to school to learn or going to the doctor to get well, and then what we’re really trying to do is often more typically something else that’s more selfish, and a lot of it is showing off.

If that’s true, then we are built to do that. That’s the thing we want to do, and in some sense it’s a great world when we get to do it.

My complaint isn’t really that most people don’t acknowledge this. I accept that people may be just fine leaving the elephant in their brain and not paying attention to it and continuing to pretend one thing while they’re doing another. That may be what makes them happy and that may be OK.

My stronger claim would be that policy analysts and social scientists who claim that they understand the social world well enough to make recommendations for changes—they should understand the elephant in the brain. They should have a better idea of hidden motives because they could think about which institutions that we might choose differently to have better outcomes.

And of course I asked:

COWEN: What offends you deep down? You see it out there. What offends you?

And why exactly does it work to invite your date up to “see my etchings”?  And where is “The Great Filter”?  And how much will we identify with our “Em” copies of ourselves?  There is also quantum computing, Robin on movies, and the limits of Effective Altruism.  On top of all that, the first audience question comes from Bryan Caplan.

You should all buy and read Robin’s new book, with Kevin Simler, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life.

At least in the Geauga, Ohio Amish settlements, the decline in fertility followed national fertility trends very closely. Here’s a fun fact: the Amish don’t use most forms of birth control or abortion.

Now, this doesn’t mean Amish fertility fell as low as U.S. general fertility; it simply means that Amish fertility fell as much as U.S. general fertility.

…Cuz what I’m seein’ is that Amish fertility is pretty well correlated with U.S. TFR on the whole.

Scroll down through this Lyman Stone essay to see the graphs of the data (which won’t reproduce for me here, alas).  Here are some pictures in tweet form, if you don’t like scrolling.

Yes, here is Keith Humphreys from Wonkblog:

Although some people believe prohibiting drugs is what makes their potency increase, the potency of marijuana under legalization has disproved that idea. Potency rises in both legal and illegal markets for the simple reason that it conveys advantages to sellers. More potent drugs have more potential to addict customers, thereby turning them into reliable profit centers.

In other legal drug markets, regulators constrain potency. Legal alcohol beverage concentrations are regulated in a variety of ways, including through different levels of tax for products of different strengths as well as constraints on labeling and place of sale. In most states, for a beverage to be marketed and sold as “beer,” its alcohol content must fall within a specified range. Similarly, if wine is distilled to the point that its alcohol content rises too high, some states require it be sold as spirits (i.e., as “brandy”) and limit its sale locations.

As states have legalized marijuana, they have put no comparable potency restrictions in place, for example capping THC content or levying higher taxes on more potent marijuana strains. Sellers are doing the economic rational thing in response: ramping up potency.

How about the Netherlands?:

The study was conducted in the Netherlands, where marijuana is legally available through “coffee shops.” The researchers examined the level of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main intoxicant in marijuana, over a 16-year period. Marijuana potency more than doubled from 8.6 percent in 2000 to 20.3 percent in 2004, which was followed by a surge in the number of people seeking treatment for marijuana-related problems. When potency declined to 15.3 percent THC, marijuana treatment admissions fell thereafter. The researchers estimated that for every 3 percent increase in THC, roughly one more person per 100,000 in the population would seek marijuana use disorder treatment for the first time.

The Dutch findings are relevant to the United States because high THC marijuana products have proliferated in the wake of legalization. The average potency of legal marijuana products sold in the state of Washington, for example, is 20 percent THC, with some products being significantly higher.

I believe that marijuana legalization has moved rather rapidly into being an overrated idea.  To be clear, it is still an idea I favor.  It seems to me wrong and immoral to put people in jail for ingesting substances into their body, or for aiding others in doing so, at least provided fraud is absent in the transaction.  That said, IQ is so often what is truly scarce in society.  And voluntary consumption decisions that lower IQ are not something we should be regarding with equanimity.  Ideally I would like to see government discourage marijuana consumption by using the non-coercive tools at its disposal, for instance by making it harder for marijuana to have a prominent presence in the public sphere, or by discouraging more potent forms of the drug.  How about higher taxes and less public availability for more potent forms of pot, just as in many states beer and stronger forms of alcohol are not always treated equally under the law?

From Carolina Cardona and David Bishai:


New technological breakthroughs in biomedicine should have made it easier for countries to improve life expectancy at birth (LEB). This paper measures the pace of improvement in the decadal gains of LEB, for the last 60-years adjusting for each country’s starting point of LEB.


LEB increases over the next 10-years for 139 countries between 1950 and 2009 were regressed on LEB, GDP, total fertility rate, population density, CO2 emissions, and HIV prevalence using country-specific fixed effects and time-dummies. Analysis grouped countries into one-of-four strata: LEB < 51, 51 ≤ LEB < 61, 61 ≤ LEB < 71, and LEB ≥ 71.


The rate of increase of LEB has fallen consistently since 1950 across all strata. Results hold in unadjusted analysis and in the regression-adjusted analysis. LEB decadal gains fell from 4.80 (IQR: 2.98–6.20) years in the 1950s to 2.39 (IQR:1.80–2.80) years in the 2000s for the healthiest countries (LEB ≥ 71). For countries with the lowest LEB (LEB < 51),

decadal gains fell from 7.38 (IQR:4.83–9.25) years in the 1950s to negative 6.82 (IQR: -12.95–1.05) years in the 2000s. Multivariate analysis controlling for HIV prevalence, GDP, and other covariates shows a negative effect of time on LEB decadal gains among all strata.


Contrary to the expectation that advances in health technology and spending would hasten improvements in LEB, we found that the pace-of-growth of LEB has slowed around the world.

Of course in many United States counties, life expectancy is moving backwards these days.

For the pointer I thank the eternal Kevin Lewis.

What would make more sense to me is that, having first built an interface for its employees, and then a standardized infrastructure for its health care suppliers, is that Amazon converts the latter into a marketplace where PBMs, insurance administrators, distributors, and pharmacies have to compete to serve employees. And then, once that marketplace is functioning, Amazon will open the floodgates on the demand side, offering that standard interface to every large employer in America…

This is certainly ambitious enough — basically intermediating U.S. employers and the U.S. healthcare industry — but in fact this only sets the stage for the wholesale disruption of American healthcare. First, Amazon could not only open up its standard interface to other large employers, but small-and-medium sized businesses, and even individuals; in this way the Amazon Health Marketplace could aggregate by far the most demand for healthcare.

And to close the piece:

My expectation, then, is not that the Internet methodically disrupts industry after industry in some sort of chronological order, but rather that the entire edifice lasts far longer than technologists think, only to one day collapse far quicker than anyone expected.

The ultimate winners of this shakeout, then, are not only companies that are building businesses predicated on the Internet, but just as importantly, are willing and able to build those businesses with the patience that will be necessary to wait for the old order to collapse, particularly if that collapse happens years or decades after the underlying business models are rotten.

Here is more, and I do hope you are all subscribing to Stratechery, which is one of the very best regular reads, worth the money.

Surgery (and many medical specialties, esp. highly compensated ones) should be on the list of ‘Bad at finding best talent.’ There’s no way to show aptitude for a surgical specialty before medical school, and there is no mechanism for good surgeons to rise to the top, and bad surgeons to be identified and punished. If you make it into a surgical residency, you will succeed, even if you faked your way into med school and your surgical success rate is terrible. There is essentially no mechanisms to make sure aging surgeons learn the newest techniques, and no checks on waning competency. It is only because the training is so long and difficult that it isn’t a complete disaster.

Policing should also be on the list. It’s another job where, like being a surgeon, once you’ve made it into the profession, you have to fail spectacularly to be kicked out. At least half the police officers I know shouldn’t be allowed to carry firearms, much less have the power of life and death over ordinary citizens.

That is from Kevin, based on my earlier post on this question.

Soon I will be having a conversation with Robin Hanson — the Robin Hanson.  What should I ask him?  The jumping-off point will be his new book with Kevin Simler, but of course we won’t stop there.

The government estimates that 10 percent of New Hampshire residents — about 130,000 people — are addicted to drugs or alcohol.

Here is much more from the NYT.

The United States has been called the OPEC of blood plasma because it exports hundreds of millions of dollars worth to other countries. Why does the US dominate the blood plasma industry? Because in the U.S. it’s legal to pay donors which increases supply. Some provinces in Canada have also allowed paid donors but 80% of the blood plasma given to Canadians is imported from the United States and, to make matters worse, some provinces have banned or are considering banning paid donation. A very good letter opposes the ban:

We are professional ethicists in the fields of medical ethics, business ethics, and/or normative ethics, and academic economists who study how incentives and other mechanisms affect individual behaviour. We all share the goal of improving social welfare.

We have strong reservations regarding any Act or legislation (hereafter: “Acts”) that would prohibit compensation for blood plasma donations…….Both the ethical and the economic arguments against a compensatory model for blood plasma for further manufacture into PDMPs are weak. Moreover, significant ethical considerations speak in favour of the compensatory model, and therefore against the Acts.

The letter carefully discusses many of the objections such as that paid donations will drive out unpaid:

The compensatory model leaves open the possibility of donors’ opting out of compensation, or the operation of a parallel non-compensatory model. The United States does just this, and has an approximately 50% higher voluntary, unpaid, per capita blood donation rate than Canada. Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic, where plasma donors can be compensated, likewise all have higher rates of voluntary, unpaid per capita blood donation than Canada.

Is paid blood plasma less safe?

Dr. Graham Sher, the CEO of Canadian Blood Services, has said, “It is categorically untrue to say, in 2015 or 2016, that plasma-protein products from paid donors are less safe or unsafe. They are not. They are as safe as the products that are manufactured from our unremunerated or unpaid donors.”

The letter is signed by two Nobel Prize winners in economics, Alvin Roth and Vernon Smith, by philosophers like Peter Jaworski, who did most of the heavy lifting, and by experts who have studied incentives and blood donation closely like Nicola Lacetera and Mario Macis. I am also a signatory.

Crime Imprisons and Kills

by on January 15, 2018 at 7:26 am in Economics, Law, Medicine | Permalink

…the most disadvantaged people have gained the most from the reduction in violent crime.

Though homicide is not a common cause of death for most of the United States population, for African-American men between the ages of 15 and 34 it is the leading cause, which means that any change in the homicide rate has a disproportionate impact on them. The sociologist Michael Friedson and I calculated what the life expectancy would be today for blacks and whites had the homicide rate never shifted from its level in 1991. We found that the national decline in the homicide rate since then has increased the life expectancy of black men by roughly nine months.

…The everyday lived experience of urban poverty has also been transformed. Analyzing rates of violent victimization over time, I found that the poorest Americans today are victimized at about the same rate as the richest Americans were at the start of the 1990s. That means that a poor, unemployed city resident walking the streets of an average city today has about the same chance of being robbed, beaten up, stabbed or shot as a well-off urbanite in 1993. Living in poverty used to mean living with the constant threat of violence. In most of the country, that is no longer true.

That’s Patrick Sharkey writing in the New York Times.

More police on the street is one cause, among many, of lower crime. It’s important in the debate over better policing that we not lose sight of the value of policing. Given the benefits of reduced crime and the cost of police, it’s clear that U.S. cities are under policed (e.g. here and here). We need better policing–including changes in laws–so that we can all be comfortable with more policing.

Yes, it would seem.  The subtitle is “The Effect of Medical Marijuana Laws on US Crime,” the authors are Evelina Gavrilova, Takuma Kamada, and Floris Zoutman, and the outlet is The Economic Journal.  Here is the abstract:

We show that the introduction of medical marijuana laws (MMLs) leads to a decrease in violent crime in states that border Mexico. The reduction in crime is strongest for counties close to the border (less than 350 kilometres) and for crimes that relate to drug trafficking. In addition, we find that MMLs in inland states lead to a reduction in crime in the nearest border state. Our results are consistent with the theory that decriminalisation of the production and distribution of marijuana leads to a reduction in violent crime in markets that are traditionally controlled by Mexican drug trafficking organisations.

Here is the link to the paper, here are earlier versions.  For the pointer I thank Peter Metrinko.  That said, I learn from Kevin Lewis that the high school graduate rate goes down.

Norwegian psychiatrist Ørnulf Ødegaard has studied personality types.  He has shown that relatively more Norwegian-born persons in Minnesota suffered from mental illness, especially schizophrenia,in the 1920s than did members of Norway’s population.  He maintained that the greater frequency of illness might be due in some degree to the greater strains the emigrants were exposed to in a foreign society, but he also held that people who were disposed to this illness were more restless and found it easier than other personality types to break out of their environment.

That is from Ingrid Semmingsen, Norway to America: A History of the Migration, and I believe the original reference is to ” Immigration and Insanity: A Study of Mental Disease Among the Norwegian-born Population of Minnesota,” Ø Ødegaard – Acta psychiatrica Scandinavica, Suppl, 1932.”  Here is a related post on gene-culture interaction.

A Twitter battle over the size of each “nuclear button” possessed by President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un has spiked sales of a drug that protects against radiation poisoning.

Troy Jones, who runs the website, said demand for potassium iodide soared last week, after Trump tweeted that he had a “much bigger & more powerful” button than Kim — a statement that raised new fears about an escalating threat of nuclear war.

“On Jan. 2, I basically got in a month’s supply of potassium iodide and I sold out in 48 hours,” said Jones, 53, who is a top distributor of the drug in the United States. His Mooresville, N.C., firm sells all three types of the product approved by the Food and Drug Administration. No prescription is required.

Here is the full piece, via the excellent Mark Thorson.

Not long ago, over lunch, I asked Robin who he wanted to see rise and fall in status, as a result of his book with Kevin Simler.  As for who should rise, he cited the book’s epigram to me:

To the little guys, often grumbling in a corner, who’ve said this sort of thing for ages: you were right more than you knew. —Robin

So yes the little guys, but I also stress the cynics as well, or maybe it is the gentle cynics who go through life with a smile.

And who should decline in status?  Robin’s lunch answer was again to the point: policy analysts.  Policy analysis, while it often incorporates behavioral considerations, when studying say health care, education, and political economy, very much neglects the fact that often both the producers and consumers in these areas have hypocritical motives.  For that reason, what appears to be a social benefit is often merely a private benefit in disguise, and sometimes it is not even a private benefit.  Things that feel good aren’t always good for you, or for the broader world.  Here is Robin’s take on that:

Our new book, The Elephant in the Brain, can be seen as taking one side in a disagreement between disciplines. On one side are psychologists (among others) who say of course people try to spin their motives as being higher than they are, especially in public forums. People on this side find our basic book thesis, and our many specific examples, so plausible that they fear our book may be too derivative and unoriginal.

On the other side, however, are most experts in concrete policy analysis. They spend their time studying ways that schools could help people to learn more material, hospitals could help people get healthier, charities could better assist people in need, and so on. They thus implicitly accept the usual claims people make about what they are trying to achieve via schools, hospitals, charities, etc. And so the practice of policy experts disagrees a lot with our claims that people actually care more about other ends, and that this is why most people show so little interest in reforms proposed by policy experts. (The world shows great interest in new kinds of physical devices and software, but far less interest in most proposed social reforms.)

In ignoring hypocrisy, policy analysts are themselves hypocritical, and thus Robin wishes to downgrade their status, perhaps doubly so.  Sorry people!

I find these status questions to be a useful means of thinking about many non-fiction books, sometimes fiction too.  I would note it is sometimes hard to market books with the “group X ignores well-known truth from field Y” spin, but perhaps that also means there are intellectual arbitrage gains to be had from studying such works.