It is well-known that once you become rich, you can stay rich with little effort. Some of the super-rich in today’s world, for example, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and Jack Ma of Alibaba have accumulated an enormous amount of wealth already and are likely to get richer in future. In the parlance of business, the super-rich or billionaires are on a path to exponentially increase their “net worth”.
I don’t know if such trends were viewed with any concern in the previous centuries when the Tatas of India, the Rockefellers of the US or the Rothschilds of France started to build their empires and assume the role of tycoons. Nowadays, however, some of the common headlines one notices around the globe are “The rich are getting richer,” “Income inequality accelerates,” “The rich must pay a wealth tax,” etc. The driving force behind some of these eye-catching news items is a universal sentiment: most modern societies aspire to be just and equitable. Inequality in income and wealth is considered a disruptive force in today’s world.
Some of the billionaires, on the other hand, have come to the realisation that the rich cannot get richer forever. All the billionaires have to die one day and while they can pass on their wealth, most societies impose a hefty estate tax which is levied on the property left behind by the deceased. Inheritances get divided among the offspring, siblings, and other beneficiaries. It is no secret that the billionaires’ biggest wish is to live longer or, as in some cases, to pass on their brain to a clone or to have it transplanted to a chosen one. Will their dream come true? Research on brain transplant is a new field, but anti-aging is not. The field of medical research, which is striving to slow the process of aging, has received a boost from the billionaires who are pouring money into “anti-aging research”, life extension technology, etc. Unfortunately for the ordinary mortals, the medicines that slow the process of aging are quite expensive and only a few can afford it. Medical insurance in all western countries considers these drugs experimental and refuses to cover the costs of anti-aging drugs.
Now Paul Krugman, the noted economist and New York Times columnist, has joined the fray. “Billionaires Shouldn’t Live Forever” is the title of an op-ed by Krugman published on July 15, 2019. If the column was written by anyone other than Krugman, who is the winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2008, it would not have received as much attention globally. However, Krugman is one of the most powerful voices in academia and mass media. Once you dive into this article, you will find a fascinating story about our future and the role of rich oligarchs in tomorrow’s societies. But, be warned, as the editors of NYT tell us, “the opinion piece is a work of fiction.”
The op-ed Krugman wrote is part of a series called “Op-eds From the Future.” On this page, science-fiction authors, futurists, philosophers and scientists write columns that they imagine we might read 10, 20 or even 100 years from now. “The challenges they predict are imaginary— for now—but their arguments illuminate the urgent questions of today and prepare us for tomorrow.”
Let us consider Krugman’s thesis. First of all, Krugman is alarmed at the growth of inequality across the globe. The US is struggling with epic levels of inequality, which also is now a global trend. He writes, “Even in the early 21st century, a growing number of people realised that America was becoming an oligarchy, with a hugely disproportionate share of income, wealth and power held by a small number of people.”
According to Salon.com, the world’s richest 1 percent own 45 percent of total wealth. By contrast, 64 percent of the population (with an average of USD 10,000 in wealth to their name) hold less than 2 percent. And to widen the inequality picture a bit more, the world’s richest 10 percent, those having at least USD 100,000 in assets, own 84 percent of total global wealth.
Now, imagine a scenario where the billionaires decide that they do not want to get older and die, rather live forever. If they can have access to a magic pill which will slow the process of aging, or completely stop it altogether, the rich can have more time to enjoy the riches they accumulate and continue to grow their companies or business enterprises. I have not seen any statistics that proves that as the rich get older, they become a better businessperson or make money at a faster rate, but it makes sense. One gets better with experience!
For many years now, research on anti-aging medicine has been generously supported by the billionaires. Prominent among these billionaires are Peter Thiel of PayPal and Larry Ellison of Oracle. Since the cure for aging is expensive, there is no doubt that the primary beneficiary of anti-aging technology will be the billionaires. Krugman seizes upon this possibility and predicts that in 50 years, we might see a few oligarchs who are not aging and plan to live forever.
The medicines that reduce aging or the life extension technology are so expensive that only a few can afford it. In fact, only billionaires. So only these people, by a process of natural selection, will live until 100 or more and be able to continue their money-making endeavours, Krugman says. “We’re talking about people who were generally power-hungry to start with—that’s how they got where they are—and they’ve had an unnaturally long time to build connections and buy influence.”
But that is only a manifestation of Darwinian Dynamics. “As for Darwin, in the world of financial evolution, those with wealth or power will do what’s in their best interest to protect that wealth, even if it’s in no one else’s interest at all.”
Let us now turn away from Krugman’s dismal predictions, and ask ourselves, how do we counter the Darwinian process of the survival of the richest? The answer can be phrased in terms of Newton’s first law of motion, sometimes referred to as the law of inertia. An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed, and in the same direction, unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. So “those in power will remain in power unless acted upon by an external force. Those who are wealthy will only gain in wealth as long as nothing deflects them from their present course.” It is the role of the majority, who are not wealthy, to act and be the external force to counter the growing trend towards inequality.
Dr Abdullah Shibli is an economist and works in information technology. He is Senior Research Fellow, International Sustainable Development Institute (ISDI), a think-tank in Boston, USA.