Are All Deaths Suicides?

What does it mean to use “the economic approach” to thinking about the world?

In the old days, if you asked 100 people this question, I bet at least 80 of them would have given some kind of answer having to do with dollars and cents, supply and demand, etc.

Over the past few decades, however, “the economic approach” has come to mean something far broader. We are grateful practitioners of this movement, the godfather of which is almost inarguably Gary Becker, Levitt’s U. of Chicago colleague and a man who has shown up on this blog repeatedly, most recently for winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (He also blogs.)

I was reminded of this the other day while rereading Becker’s book, The Economic Approach to Human Behavior. In the introduction, he beautifully describes what he means by “the economic approach,” and includes an example that seems so brazen at first that it may take your breath away — but after a moment, it makes perfect sense, and you see why Becker’s way of thinking is so unusual and so valuable. See for yourself:

Indeed, I have come to the position that the economic approach is a comprehensive one that is applicable to all human behavior, be it behavior involving money prices or imputed shadow prices, repeated or infrequent decisions, large or minor decisions, emotional or mechanical ends, rich or poor persons, men or women, adults or children, brilliant or stupid persons, patients or therapists, businessmen or politicians, teachers or students … Subsequently, I applied the economics approach to fertility, education, the uses of time, crime, marriage, social interactions, and other “sociological,” “legal,” and “political” problems … Good health and a long life are important aims of most persons, but surely no more than a moment’s reflection is necessary to convince anyone that they are not the only aims: somewhat better health or a longer life may be sacrificed because they conflict with other aims … According to the economic approach, therefore, most (if not all!) deaths are to some extent “suicides” in the sense that they could have been postponed if more resources had been invested in prolonging life.

In addition to regularly being floored by Becker’s thinking, I am also enamored of his writing. I particularly enjoy his use of parentheticals and exclamation points. (It conveys both passion and informality!)


Matt P

This is a rather fanciful idea, but mostly groundless. It may apply to the government spending too little on healthcare or perhaps insufficient armor for soldiers in combat, but generally we're talking about poor personal choices that have little to do with economics. Everyone could exercise like Jack La Lanne, but most are too lazy. It's not a matter of economics; it's a matter of people seeking short-term, rather than long-term, satisfaction.

Gary G

Derrick (#5)said it plainly enough. Becker is claiming economics can be used to study more than finance, he never says it's the only (or even the best) way. This is a position I wouldn't expect to be controversial on a Freakonomics blog, unless people are just here to disagree in general I suppose.

As to death = "to some extent suicide"... I don't see "all", but might believe "most"... if we include "shortening life by a few seconds" in "to some extent suicide". Which I'm willing to concede. On the other hand, suicide implies intent to die, whereas what Becker is talking about is really a willingness to risk death. Not at all the same in my opinion. So, I take it back - Becker's going too far in his attention-getting "suicide" claim.

Matthew V

I feel a bit slow here.... but surely all "choices" are not made on an entirely rational basis. I would have thought that people are affected by internal events as well as purely environmental or economic ones.

For example, people continue to smoke despite the cost and risk to health- possibly to avoid feelings of mental discomfort when giving up. People may avoid socialising because of internal feelings of anxiety. They may sleep with others without using protection, exposing themselves to the risk of venereal disease, because of sexual desire.

In addition we know that people are not the same in terms of their personalities, and that personalities can be differentiated from each other in part by the fact that people respond to similar situations in different ways, because of differing internal (emotional) set ups.

The "Jam today" argument put forward in the original quote sounds reasonable- one trades off years at the end for something one wants now. But what is original about this?

The most interesting question as far as i am concerned, is why are some people so bad at restraining their basic drives (hunger, sex, aggression) when the future payoff is all but guaranteed? Please don't tell me its because they are so rational. One can say at the most that there is a part of the mind which is rational. In my opinion economics takes for granted a model of the human mind that it is unable to critically evaluate- for this you need psychologists and analysts.

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Wyman

Wonderful, all the complexity of cognitive science meets all the predictive failures of economics.

Matthew

Becker is using the term suicide in the colloquial sense of doing something which carries a risk of death, such as "joining the army right now would be suicide" or "smoking cigarettes is suicide" rather than the legal sense, which involves deliberately committing an act to cause one's own immediate death. I think poster 21 had it right when he said that technically "self-manslaughter" is a better term for what Becker is getting at. But that just doesn't have the same kick, does it?

Becker is just saying that since we don't live our lives in a way entirely devoted to optimizing our life expectancy (essentially living in some sort of sealed-off room), our actions invariably cause our own deaths to occur earlier than necessary. Dying in a plane crash does indeed count as "suicide" under this economic definition, because
although planes are safer than cars, they are less safe than staying at home. Of course this means dying in a car crash is "suicide" as well. The only possible condition of death which I can think of to negate his point (as he means it) is a severe disease with which someone is born and which is 100% fatal.

I think, however, that Becker's choice of the word "suicide" may also to some degree reflect a problem with "economic" thinking in its assumption of rationality. If people truly are always making rational decisions, then perhaps these deaths are indeed "suicide" because people make a rational choice to lower their life expectancy a certain amount every time they engage in any activity with any degree of risk, i.e. leaving their house. However, I seriously doubt most people consider the true risks involved in their everyday activities. The assumption of rationality is somewhat circular: we can learn about what trade-offs people are willing to make by studying their actions because all choices are rational, and we know all choices are rational by studying the trade-offs which people will make.

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Hachakhchakh

"almost inarguably"? To quote William Safire on this issue: "The adjective arguable is negative [...] The adverb arguably is positive". Arguably doesn't mean disputably, but rather a position one can argue (successfully).

linda

Democracy -freedom of speech. See part 11

linda

It depends on who is doing the killing!

Chris

Becker should have consulted Posner. A lawyer would have told him that even using his analysis most deaths arise from neglect.

That said, I think he was just making a point.

Arthur

Don't get me wrong, I love Becker's work and I believe him to be one of the most brilliant living scientists around. And of course, being an economics student myself I'm sympathetic to "the economic approach" of scrutinising everything, but I have trouble determining the usefulness of describing most deaths as suicides. We use language to convey our expressions and opinions to others, to make ourselves understood, and that means that we automatically have to make self-adjustments to bend to the conventional wisdom. Seen through an economist's lens, then yes, most deaths "could have been postponed if more resources had been invested in prolonging life", but that does not mean that we shouldn't still draw a line somewhere practical, near to where laymen would draw the line differentiating non-suicide from suicide.
I mention psychological egoism because rational self-interest is something that fascinates me, and I do subscribe to the view that most (if not all) actions are done via self-interest, but I still have to be practical and concede that my definition of rationality and selfishness is not entirely useful in the world we live in so I have to accept other's definitions.

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rod tomczak

in a certain sense all existential choices somehow reflect a binary choice of life or death. Lighting a cigarette is a death choice, sensible exercise a life choice, eating transfats death, take your blood pressure medicine life...
thus, suicide or life are the ultimate free choices

Uhclem

at MIT, they argue it's all physics

Chomsky will be amazed

doesn't matter

The tone of these comments reminds me of an old stereotype of economists, that they are only able to look at things as facts detached from emotion. Because of the emotive language of suicide as well as the poor understanding of Becker several comments have been quite angry but not addressing the direct issues raised by Becker. Becker is basically stating that if we control what we do, and what we do effects our longevity that most deaths come earlier than they would have if we make trades in longevity for immediate gains. Suicide might not be the best word, but the idea that we perform trade offs for different goals is the underlying ideas. To those discussing psychological issues, the insane may still be pursuing goals if in an illogical way, or they may be pursuing goals we do not value, but they are still taking action to do so. The behavioral economics of Becker tend to have positive (as distinct from normative) goals, and need to be considered without associating them with value systems.

Please forgive the economists when they state things in their wacky, fact driven, value devoid manner. They mean well, even if they look at the world differently.

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AbleFable

Can't the economic approach itself be explained by the evolutionairy approach? Let's skip the middle man and go straight to Darwin. The "big" difference is that the econimic approach assumes personal self interest. (Which is proven wrong time and time again... but still used like it's the bible) The evolutionairy approach assumes a genetic self interest. (Which could mean you sacrifice yourself to help your genes thrive) Difficult to understand in some cases, but never yet proven wrong as far as I know... parenthesis, exclamation... just how you like it.

Joe

I've brought this up before on this blog, but I'll reiterate it again. This is exactly what Skinner proposed when he wrote The Behavior of Organisms. We can describe, predict and control behavior by examining environmental stimuli. The language and science is more robust than the economic language used to describe (human) behavior. I've argued with my own colleagues that the biggest failure of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is that it hasn't been used sufficiently in fields outside of special education like Donald Baer predicted. And I point to Freakanomics as an example of opportunities lost.

The work done by these economists is great, and very important for society. And my sociologic studies as an undergrad, way back when, were the first to teach me that the economy is the most influential societal institution (the others being education, religion, family, and government). The findings of these researchers are important for us to accurately describe and explain human and societal behavior (and henceforth predict and control), but I think many of these fields would be well served to study Learning Theory, which would fill in many holes and jumpstart many new research questions that would allow us to make much better decisions for as our society continues.

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DrNova

The "economics of human behavior" is not original to Becker, although his self-promotion is spectacular. Almost any GROUNDED economist sees human behavior as the result of fundamental economics (although rarely seen by everyday practitioners as such). Becker has sensationalized this issue, distorting it thereby, and making it less useful as a simple tool of thought.

reddoorhomeloans.com

Humans are biological organisms that respond accordingly, so psychology and economics are inextricably linked. I once read that government data showed that when gas prices go up, so do divorces. The link between the disciplines will be the wave of the academic future. Eventually people will obtain interwoven degrees instead of the standard dual degrees. Some believe that religion (in particular the Bible and Buddhism) have quantum physics at their root. Physics is also interwoven with psychology, something made clear by the long term research at Princeton that told us that the mind affects matter. The Princeton research showed that the human mind can affect a random number generator. If the mind can cause heads to come up more often than tails, that means that psychology and physics are linked, as are likely many other disciplines.

Bill

I think it was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said that using exclamation points was like laughing at one's own jokes. That said, becker does write well.

Shan

I write like that too... I use a lot of ellipses and parentheses (as you can see) and a few quotation marks, although I don't really use exclamation points (yet!). Actually, Becker's writing wasn't really too appealing to me because it's so similar to my writing that it seemed boring.

If you don't believe me, check out my blog (which only gets about 4-5 entries per year now, but it's evidence)... http://shanulhai.blogspot.com/

Tom Martin

Stephen,

I like the post, however I believe the book is actually called The Economic Approach to Human BEHAVIOR, not Nature.

-Tom