Victor Basiuk, Ph.D., is a well-published expert on the impact of science and technology on international relations and national security policy. He recently co-published an article with Huber Warner, Ph.D., in the journal Economic Annals-XXI titled “Will a Breakthrough in Science Modify World History?” This article delves into the challenges faced by countries as their populations age and the vast potential benefits of the extension of healthspan. We had the privilege of doing a two-part Q & A with Dr. Basiuk in which we talked about some of the topics brought forth in the article. In Part 1, we discuss the article and the effects of an aging population on the United States. Please note Dr. Basiuk’s opinions are purely his own.
Q: In your article in the journal Economic Annals-XXI, you discuss the potential global impacts of the extension of healthy aging. What led to the writing of the article?
VB: The reason I published it is because biogerontology is on the threshold of a major breakthrough in science that may well turn out to be the most important scientific breakthrough of the 21st century: extension of human longevity by some 20 years without age-related diseases like cancer, cardiovascular illnesses, Alzheimer’s disease, and others. (In the scientific community, this phenomenon is referred to as “extension of human healthspan,” which is different from extension of human longevity.) This will bring vast benefits to society, but outside of scientific circles very few people know about it. So, I thought, I should bring to light and analyze the implications of these benefits.
Q: Would you elaborate – What are these benefits?
VB: Basically, there are four principal benefits:
- Huge resources will be released from the health care sector because there will be little, or no, need to spend money for age-related diseases. This will be true globally, not just in the United States.
- A number of countries are losing their population. For example, Japan is projected to lose 19.8 million people between 2013 and 2050, from 127.3 million to 107.2 million. Russia is projected to lose 13.1 million (by some projections, much more); Ukraine, 11 million; and Germany, 10 million. Since extension of healthspan includes extension of human longevity for a corresponding period of time – say, 20 years – the decline in the population is likely to stop; perhaps it will increase. Accordingly, a program to extend healthspan would be especially desirable for the nations whose population is dwindling. Extension of human healthspan will also be beneficial for countries that have large territory, but smaller populations, like Canada and Australia. Given extension of healthy longevity, the growth of their population will increase, thus helping translate their huge territory into a productive asset.
- The third benefit derives its validity from the other two. Extension of healthspan is potentially a very powerful instrument of soft power with regard to the countries that do not have this capability. For example, the United States, which is the leader in the development of healthspan, could be the principal beneficiary of this form of soft power if it capitalizes on it. This is particularly important in this period of American history, since the rise of new powers challenges America’s global leadership.
- Last, but not least, the fourth benefit will be the contribution of extension of healthspan to the well-being, vitality, and happiness of societies. People will live for up to 20 years longer without debilitating diseases. The most successful individuals are likely to continue working in their areas of pursuit, be they science and technology, music, literature, or the economy, capitalizing on their previous experience and further enriching societies.
Q: You offer a pretty stark future for the U.S. if it does not make changes to address the challenges of its aging population. But what challenges are being created?
VB: The aging of our population will dramatically increase spending on Social Security and Medicare. Additionally, older Americans will no longer be working and will pay fewer taxes, resulting in lower revenues. The rapid rise of the health care cost is another major factor. At present, the federal cost of health care amounts to 4.9 percent of the economy, but it is projected to rise to 8 percent in 25 years. Given the high cost of retirees, health care spending, and interest, the problems of our debt are so large that they cannot be solved by either spending cuts or revenue increases.
Q: What is at stake if these challenges aren’t met?
VB: What is at stake is the fiscal viability of the United States. In January 2015, the national debt of the United States was $18.1 trillion, which was larger than the $17.7 trillion of the U.S. GDP. True, this was the total national debt, which included the money the U.S. government owes to its own internal institutions like Medicare, Social Security, and others. The national debt owed to the public, U.S. and foreign, was 73 percent of GDP in 2013. However, according to the projections by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in a scenario, which it considers the most realistic, in 2038 it would amount to 190 percent of GDP, or $100.9 trillion. This is like owning a home worth $500,000, but having a mortgage on it amounting to $950,000. To put this in a historical perspective: So far, the highest debt to GDP ratio was reached shortly after World War II in 1946, when it was 106 percent.
Why does a high national debt undermine the fiscal viability of the United States? Forty-six percent of the U.S. national debt is owned by foreign nations, especially China and Japan (10 percent each). This makes the U.S. economy vulnerable to potential withdrawals from its national debt by foreign nations. This would significantly increase the interest rates for the U.S. economy in general and on the interest paid for the national debt, potentially slowing America’s economic growth.
As the national debt grows, it does not significantly affect the mandatory spending on programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, which are protected by legislation. However, it crowds out funds available for discretionary spending, which include the armed forces, education, international affairs, transportation, and the environment. Discretionary spending is projected to compose just 23.7 percent of the national budget by 2024; compare this to 65.8 percent in 1965. As a result, the government has less and less room to respond to future crises, such as international events or economic downturns. The loss of fiscal viability inevitably leads to the loss of America’s viability as a superpower.
Please check back next month for part 2 of our Q & A with Dr. Basiuk in which we talk more about the positives of increasing healthspan and some ideas on how this can be accomplished.