Economics and the mid-life crisis have much in common: Both dwell on foregone opportunities

C'est la vie; c'est la guerre; c'est la pomme de terre . . . . . . . . . . . . . email: jpalmer at uwo dot ca

. . . . . . . . . . .Richard Posner should be awarded the next Nobel Prize in Economics . . . . . . . . . . . .

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Arthur Miller, Willy Loman,
and the Economics of Suicide

Arthur Miller, playwright of "Death of a Salesman", died on Thursday. One of the most intriguing characters I have ever studied in the theatre is the tragic hero of "Death of Salesman," Willy Loman.

As I approach the age at which my tenure will be revoked [aka mandatory retirement], I wonder that there aren't more people who commit suicide just prior to retirement. At my university, the life insurance policy pays hundreds of thousands of dollars to one's beneficiary if one dies before retirement; the benefit drops to only $15,ooo after retirement. If the expected incremental benefits of continuing to live are small, and the expected incremental costs [in the form of foregone life insurance benefits paid to one's beneficiaries] are large, I would expect more people to make a rational, charitable decision of early death.

There have been studies on the economics of suicide, most notably this one. There have been recent pieces on the benefits of having attempted suicide and failed or on the impact of gun-control legislation on the suicide method of choice.

But I have yet to see an academic piece linking the economics of altruism and the economics of suicide, and that puzzles me. As I asked my friend BenS when he retired,
"Don't you know your life insurance benefits have dropped to almost nothing? Why didn't you kill yourself before you retired? Don't you love your family?"
If you Google "economics of suicide"+loman, you get nothing.

We often hear of people sacrificing their lives for the sake of their spouses, children, grandchildren, or sometimes even strangers; one might reasonably expect that the economics of altruism could be extended to these situations. And yet I do not recall having heard or read of any cases (other than Willy Loman, in a way) in which persons killed themselves so their families would receive more, rather than less, insurance money. I presume it happens, but I am guessing it does not happen very often. I wonder why not. It makes me wonder about the nature of the constraints on our altruism. If people respond to incentives, what are the incentives at work in these decisions?

What would be the effect if the Chronicle of Higher Education were to publish something along these lines? What would be the effect if Larry Summers posed these questions? Are they legitimate fields for academic inquiry?

At the very least, I would expect some cop show to have this difference in life insurance benefits provide the motive for murder by one's beneficiaries.

Actor Patrick Cronin once told me that whenever he played Willy Loman, his partner would complain that he became quite suicidal himself.

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