Bryan Caplan  

The Economics of Woody Allen

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Many people feel that death makes life meaningless. The religious use this to sell the afterlife, and the irreligious use it to rationalize depression. Woody Allen can hardly get his mind of the subject:

Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering - and it's all over much too soon.

It is impossible to experience one's death objectively and still carry a tune.

I don't want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying.

If you want the serious version, try Tolstoy. And if Woody Allen is too dated for you already, there's always the episode of the Simpsons where Homer keeps repeating, "Can't sleep, gonna die."

If you read Woody Allen very charitably, he seems have a perfectly reasonable desire to live longer. But his real complaint is that the time he has is meaningless because he only has a finite amount. And his conclusion resonates with a lot of people, and has for a long time.

I've never understood the appeal of this argument. If a finite quantity of life is worthless, how can an infinite quantity be desirable? Sure, you could trot out mathematical structures with this property, but come on. If an infinite span of days is so great, what's stopping you from enjoying today? In fact, by the law of diminishing marginal utility, the average value of a year in a finite lifespan should be more valuable than the average value of a year in an infinite lifespan.

It would be exceedingly interesting to see how Woody Allen would react to immortality. Frankly, I suspect he'd be complaining about it in a week. Well, actually, I don't have to just suspect. He tells us:

Nietzsche says that we will live the same life, over and over again. God - I'll have to sit through the Ice Capades again.

This illustrates one of the main lessons of personality psychology: Contrary to appearances, perennially unhappy people aren't unhappy about anything. They are just unhappy, and project their feelings onto the world.

Still, I have to admit that if I found out I only had a week to live, I probably wouldn't enjoy my last days very much. That's a failure on my part, but I wouldn't spend the week moping around either. The cheerful economist on my shoulder would keep telling me, "Hey, immortality through your work is better than nothing. Make sure your webpage survives!"

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The author at Truck and Barter in a related article titled Death and the meaning(lessness) of life writes:
    Today I wanted to write about how immigration has effected the welfare state, but the discussion of “The Economics of Woody Allen” is so interesting I leave immigration for another day. Bryan Caplan wonders why people enjoy each life year less if it is... [Tracked on June 30, 2005 4:50 PM]
The author at Truck and Barter in a related article titled Calculus of Faith writes:
    Tino’s post about death caused me to ponder a little about spirituality. I think only the spiritually hollow people feel that death makes life meaningless. Jeffrey Lang, a mathematics professor at University of Texas, in his book “Even Angel’s Ask: A J... [Tracked on July 3, 2005 5:45 AM]
COMMENTS (7 to date)
Robert Schwartz writes:

Clearly the life of seducing young girls has worn thin on our "hero."

Deb McAdams writes:

In fact, by the law of diminishing marginal utility, the average value of a year in a finite lifespan should be more valuable than the average value of a year in an infinite lifespan.


William writes:

Mortality and the desire for immortality is something about which I have thought quite a bit. Life as we know it would be quite impossible without death.

Let's just engage in a thought experiment. We are immortal. We cannot die. How would our life be different? What would life look like? Let's see... I could jump off a cliff, and still not die. I could stop eating, and still not die.... Okay, I kind of get the concept. So what are we going to do with ourselves? Well, we can travel, take classes in subjects I've always wanted to study, try out a new career, etc. Ok, after a few years/centuries of this, what else can I do?

One thing is certain, if humans cannot die, then we won't be able to reproduce much longer. Otherwise the world will be too crowded. This wouldn't pose any health risks or food production problems (we cannot die), but it would be uncomfortable after a certain point.

Let's see, what else would be different? Let's say I'm getting ready for work. I have to be on time for that 8 am conference call. Why do I have to be on time? No one is going anywhere. Tomorrow will come and go, and there will be plenty of time to get things done. I imagine the pace of our lives will slow down considerably. No hurrying around, no scrambling at the last minute.

But, really, there's no hurry in the least bit. What's the difference between getting the report done today, tomorrow, or 100 years from now? There's no impetus to do anything. No external pressure to meet deadlines.

Finally, what's my real motivation for most of what I do? There are some things I would like to see, to feel, to experience before I die. If I'm not going to die, there's little motivation. After several centuries, people will slow down and stop all their exploring, philandering, and fooling around. People will become very laid back.

Is this a world I want to live in? No, not really. Death is essential for life. It gives us a deadline. A real deadline. And this helps us to prioritize. It gives us a sense of time, a sense of urgency, a sense of importance. Death forces us to give our lives "meaning." In fact, death forces us to focus on those things we find most valuable. Someone once said "the wages of sin is death," and I disagree. Death is not income. It is a limit, and by this limit we measure our lives.

So what would life be like if we could live forever? I imagine there would be thought experiements about what life would be like if we could die.

Hunter McDaniel writes:

Woody Allen had a much more humorous take on all this in his younger days.

In one of his 70's movies (Take the Money and Run, IIRC) he comes home from elementary school having learned that the Sun will become a red giant in about 4 billion years and then envelop the earth. Later that evening his mom asks why he's not doing his homework. "What's the use?", he replies.

jaimito writes:

People knowing that they have a definite period of life to live (like cancer patients) show no decrease in their interest for money. Even people without heirs will grab that dollar. Navegare necessita est, vivire etc.

lawrence cinamon writes:

As the old joke goes, the rising cost of living hasn't affected its popularity.

Marcus Welch writes:

"Still, I have to admit that if I found out I only had a week to live, I probably wouldn't enjoy my last days very much."

If an optimist found out he only had a week to live, he might not enjoy it. If he found out he only had _a year_ to live, chances are he would feel bad a bout it for a few weeks, snap out of it, and finish strong. Deviation to the average.

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