Americans are, on average, living longer. But the data shows that increased longevity is an advantage enjoyed by the wealthy. 

Rich Americans can expect to live significantly longer than poor Americans, and the gap is widening. A 40-year old American male in the top 1% of income distribution can expect to live 10 years longer than a 40-year old American male in the bottom 1% of income distribution. The gap is 15 years for women. And between 2001 and 2014, those in the top 1% gained an average of 3 years in expected longevity, whereas those in the bottom 1% gained zero.

This suggests that, even if it can't buy you happiness, money can buy you time. What's more, with increased time, the rich get even richer--and perhaps not in the way you think.

The Hawaii Independent/Flickr
Source: The Hawaii Independent/Flickr

As Americans live longer, they collect more in the way of government benefits. And the rich collect more government benefits because, on average, they live longer than the poor. According to one recent estimate, a 50-year old man in the top quintile of income distribution can expect to receive $130,000 more in lifetime benefits than a man in the bottom quintile. And the disparity is likely to get bigger.

One response to these findings is to ask how we should go about crafting policy proposals that shrink the gap in economic inequality. For example, how can we craft progressive entitlement and tax policies to replace the regressive structure currently in place? One reason to favor doing so is that there seems to be a feedback loop between economic inequality and longevity. The richer one is, the longer one can expect to live; and the longer one can expect to live, the more entitlements one can expect to collect. This cycle will only exacerbate current disparities, unless we intervene.

These findings raise a different set of questions as well. Should we be actively pursuing life extension? And if so, should we guard against further exacerbating the inequalities associated with wealth? Those in the vanguard when it comes to research into extending the human lifespan are already in the top 1%. They're already on the right side of the unequal distribution of gains in life expectancy, with all the benefits that come with it. And yet they are funding massive projects to discover ways to further radically increase longevity. Should we make sure that any gains this research yields are equitably distributed throughout the population?

There may be no easy answers here. But we'll never know what to think if we don't try to puzzle it out. In addition to discussing the ethics of tax reform, we should be discussing the ethics of life extension. And we should attend to inequality in discussing both topics.

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