Your End of Days: Would Life-Length Testing Save the Government Money?


A Spanish company announced this summer that it can help determine when people will die by using a blood sample, a $700 test, and research that earned three American geneticists the Nobel Prize in medicine in 2009. Though the test has its critics, and though it won’t offer an exact date for one’s death, it does promise to reduce uncertainty about longevity by examining a tiny part of DNA that reveals biological age as opposed to chronological age. Successive generations of the test are likely to improve in predictive power.

Our ignorance about an individual’s longevity is the source of a number of problems. Many of them are personal, but some have implications for society writ large, and taxpayers in particular. So one wonders: if the government can make you confront the calorie content of your diet, can it also make you confront your mortality?

If the government were to mandate “life length” testing, it could help resolve the intractable lifetime savings problem. Pervasive under-saving among households is a result of our impatience, to be sure, but it is certainly also a consequence of the fact that no one knows how long his savings need to last. Save too much and you miss out on having fun when you’re alive. Save too little and you end up broke and reliant on the social safety net that taxpayers fund.

Under-saving burdens society much like obesity among the uninsured. And ignorance about how long we will live can only cause a drain on the Treasury. If you over-save by dying unexpectedly early, then you pass your remaining wealth on to heirs; the government doesn’t see it—except for a portion, if any, paid in inheritance taxes. But die unexpectedly late and you end up on the public dole, with your extra years of life paid for by taxpayers. Thus, from the uncertainty of longevity, the government faces only downside risk. There is no upside.

Resolving uncertainty about longevity would not just be in the interest of society, it would also be in the interest of strictly rational individuals, who, armed with the knowledge of when they will die, could make optimal savings decisions and check off all the items on their bucket lists. And yet, a great many of us would choose not to undergo the testing even if it were free. We simply don’t want to know when we will die.

And in many other situations, we delay resolving uncertainty even though rationality dictates that we should try to resolve it as soon as possible. Have you ever received a letter or an email and waited to open it? Maybe it was from a college admissions office or the editor of a journal to which you had submitted a paper. Did you tell the doctor you didn’t want to know the gender of your child until she was born? Or did you delay opening your medical test results, even just for a minute?

The thought of government forcing people to resolve uncertainty about their deaths probably (definitely?) seems Orwellian to most. But the same economic arguments that support mandatory consumption of calorie information—advanced by a sufficient number of Freakonomics readers to make my essay last week among the most “popular” on the blog—also support mandatory consumption of “death information”: forcing you to confront your mortality leads to better life decisions and saves the government money.

Such is the flavor of the new libertarian paternalism, a concept Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein introduced to the masses in describing the manager of a cafeteria who must decide on the order of food presentation in the food line. Do fruits and vegetables come before cookies and cake? The manager, a “choice architect,” must make some decisions—the food must go in some order. And so it seems sensible to put the fruit and vegetables first if that will increase their consumption relative to deserts. No one would object to this policy because the cost of consuming the desserts is virtually unchanged—it just goes onto your food tray after the healthy stuff. It makes no one worse off and may make some people better off if they value healthy eating and if a salad crowds out a cookie.

But mandatory information consumption policies, like calorie labeling laws and compulsory life-length testing, substitute a choice architect’s judgment for that of the individual in order to “nudge” the individual into a choice that the architect deems best for him or society, and yet is rejected by the individual when he is given a choice. As Thaler and Sunstein write in the American Economic Review (ungated version here), libertarian paternalism is intended as a policy approach that “preserves freedom of choice.” Except, apparently, when that choice is blissful ignorance.



There seems to be a simpler way to eliminate over-saving: Outlaw inheritance. No? Would that not be the greatest incentive to avoiding over-saving? Think of the advantages: You also ensure that successive generations must be productive and not live off the "dole" provided by their elders, eliminating the genetic lottery! Rather than life-testing, mandate "you can't take it with you" legally and use the proceeds to support those who under-saved.

Sir, I suggest you need to get over yourself and just ignore the calorie counts.


Obviously that would be a good way to get our society closer to a meritocracy, but Americans (and people in general) are too tied to the idea that their progeny are entitled to what their parents have earned.


Min: You seem to be tied to the idea that you are entitled to what others' parents have earned.

Paul Clapham

The fact that I have to know how long my savings need to last is indeed a problem. In a well-run system I would be able to put my money into a fund along with thousands or millions of other people's money. The fund managers would then use well-known actuarial statistics about how long those people would be expected to live, and dole out the money accordingly. Business as usual for actuaries.

But no. Every one of those thousands or millions of people are forced to make their own guesses as to how long they might live and how much they should save. Notice that it's not the government forcing us to do that, it's private enterprise forcing us to do it by failing to provide a system which does it for us. It's better for them because then they can sell us "financial adviser" services. Not necessarily better for us.


I would love to have this information. Everyone dies and I recognize that day will come for me as well.


It seems like the how is just as important as the when. Say there are two people, with the test saying one will live until 80 and the other 85. Based on the test, the first person would decide to save less since he'll die sooner. But what if he dies after a 10-year battle with cancer while the other person dies at 85 after a sudden heart-attack following an otherwise healthy life? The first person should obviously save more for the hospital bills whereas the 85 year old could spend more across those extra 5 years, knowing that he can still travel until the end. Maybe the test would be useful for older people who have more of an idea of their future health, but it seems like things would still be too hazy to help younger or even middle-aged healthy people.


See, unlike your last essay, this is exactly what I expect from Freakonomics. Short interesting nuggets of interesting economical research or goings-on from around the world, together with a thoughtful yet accessible discussion on the consequences and some links for further reading. No personal opinions or attempts to start a revolution.

Of course, in this case, the government isn't just giving out information - it's making a prediction. Regular Freakonomics readers should already be wary about trusting those too much. It's not quite the same thing as giving out hard calorie data.

Also, this endeavour might have more unintended consequences than handing out calorie data - it seems quite drastic for just helping people save more efficiently.

The next step is of course to invent a death machine, which can predict your cause of death - Personally I can't wait:



I disagree with the assertion that the government sees no upside if you die early. If you die before your actuarial life span, the government has collected more from you Social Security and Medicare taxes than it pays out. If you live longer you get more than you paid in. (I know it doesn’t really work like that because the money for current retirees come from current workers, but my point still stands)
Since neither SS or Medicare is means-tested, everyone gets the payout; whether your private savings, pensions, 401ks, are adequate is irrelevant.

I think the scarier issue is not whether or not gov’t mandates life-span tests, but whether the results are kept secret and what they can be used for. It might help your retirement planning (maybe), but the possibilities for discrimination based on life span are endless.


Perhaps we should first ask whether this test actually works, or whether it's merely a way to ensure its developers a comfortable retirement?

Eric M. Jones.

Interesting idea. In a few years the test will be $20. A few years later your telomeres will grow longer when you take a yearly injection.



Under that system, who would ever be an over-saver? You know your children cannot benefit from your saving, only the government and/or people who blew their savings and did not save like you. Getting near the end of your life and still have some funds? Buy an expensive vacation. Heck travel till you die. Under that systems there would be no savers at all, just under-savers waiting for a handout from the government of money they stole from financially responsible people.


Two problems here.

First, you assume that under-saving is somehow related to life-length uncertainty on a conscious level. The reason people tend to be hyperbolic discounters is probably related to the fact that our ancestors had great uncertainty about their lifespan. But people are adaptation executors - that adaptation is already hardwired. Telling people how long they'll live won't fix it anymore than a woman telling a man she's on the pill will cause him to lose interest in sex. I doubt that too many people refuse to save because they are unsure when they will die of natural causes - they either think they'll die young of unnatural causes or else they just don't think. Of course, "It just doesn't work" may also be a valid objection to calorie labeling, but at least that has a much clearer concept of how it *could* work.

Second, there's an obvious issue of intrusiveness. Calorie labeling operates at the business level; this proposal would operate at the personal level. What would the government do to you if you refused to get tested? If you refused to open the envelope containing your test results? You're free to ignore the calorie counts at restaurants - you don't have to do the math to figure out how much you're eating. More to the point, it's just too disconnected. It's unclear that being told, once in your life, that you will live to be 70 or 90 or whatever will have a meaningful impact on your savings rate. On the other hand, it makes ample sense that being told that milkshake has 1200 calories will impact your decision to consume it (though it actually may not).

Now, if you attached, to everyone's paycheck or some other convenient financial document, "At this rate, if you live an average lifespan, you will be retiring on $X a month at your current savings rate," *that* might do something. Have a slightly less vague guess as to their specific lifespan seems only marginally useful, though.


Bill Trent

" If you over-save by dying unexpectedly early, then you pass your remaining wealth on to heirs; the government doesn’t see it—except for a portion, if any, paid in inheritance taxes."

This is not true. You benefit the government by forgoing those entitlements you would otherwise have consumed. A person who dies at 65 has paid in medicare and social security taxes throughout his or her working years, all of which are forfeit.

Derek Fields

The flaw in this argument is that it assumes that under-saving is a rational decision and that one of the inputs into that decision is the availability of government support. This simply isn't the case; under-saving is largely a result of people not being able to make ends meet on their current income. Certainly, for some, they are living a lifestyle beyond what is necessary and therefore spending their future savings in the present - but what determines what is necessary and sufficient? Is this a universal measurable or is this the essence of a personal decision. I tend to doubt that people live beyond their means now with the thought that they are willing to take a substantial decrease in that quality of life when the money runs out because the government will give them a subsistence living.

The second flaw is that our uncertainty about when we will die should lead us to over-save, not to under-save. Given that we don't have perfect information about the future, if we are acting rationally (except for our irrational fear of knowing our longevity), then we should assume that we might live longer than the average and therefore need to save against that eventuality. The downside risk to us of over-saving is only the opportunity costs of what we could have done with the money that we haven't spent by our death (like supporting a more lavish lifestyle).



Ignorance is bliss, and deprivation of ignorance is akin to a tax? I thought this was pretty silly in the context of calorie statements, but this new context makes me consider the matter anew.

To what extent is self-deception adaptive? The film The Invention of Lying depicts a world in which no one attempts to deceive anyone. Sure enough, the people in the world were less ignorant about their neighbors – and also less blissful. More scientifically, we can consider the many cognitive biases to which humans are prone. If you subscribe to the theory of natural selection, then you might conclude that these biases would not be so prevalent unless they were also somehow adaptive to our ancestors.

But if compulsory education is a kind of tax, perhaps it’s a Pigou tax – that is, a tax designed to offset an externality. If, through ignorance, people are making decisions that impose costs on others, one remedy is to leave people in their ignorance but bill them for the cost of their conduct. But a substitute – or complementary – policy would be to inform the ignorant people, enabling them to choose to avoid the harmful conduct. The ignorant people may not like either remedy, but it’s unclear that one remedy more odious than the other.

Last thought: If nudging is “libertarian paternalism,” keeping people ignorant while billing them for the consequences of their ignorance is REAL paternalism.


Caleb b


We really don't need the tax, the 2nd or 3rd generation usually blows all the money anyway.

The mega wealthy are aware of this and often give a large chunk of the money away anyway. See Buffett, Gates, Lucas, etc.


Robert Heinlein wrote a short story about this years ago called "Life-Line". If you could predict with reasonable certainty when a person would die, the entire life insurance industry would shut down.