Allegedly, Gary Becker said that most (if not all) deaths are to some extent suicides. The logic is something like this: there is always something that you could do to avoid your death. So, the fact that you didn’t do everything that was possible is to some extent a suicide. Of course, the fact that many economist think that this sentence make senses is only an argument against the economists, not a support to the argument.
I won’t argue too much about this, because anyone that does know the marginalist reasoning behind the above claim and still thinks that it makes sense will not be convinced by me. Like we say in portuguese, I’ll not spend good candle with a bad defunct (defunto)*.
And yet, John Quiggin argues at the Crooked Timber that the US Defense Department killed a million Americans since 2001. He didn’t even use “to some extent”. The argument is a marginalist one, and based on a cost-benefit analysis that you can save a life with US$ 5 millions. And, since the Defense Department spent lots of millions these years, they killed millions of Americans.
But this is as silly as the Becker’s statement. This whole thing remebered me of the silly discustion by economists about the appropriate discount rate to value future generations after the publication of the Stern report in 2006. Somewhat surprising, I found right now that the same John Quigging was one of the participansts of that discussion. So, at least he’s coherent in bealiving in this sort of reasoning.
My own take on this is pretty simple. I do believe cost-benefit is important when taking decisions. But if you push it to the limit, you may end in strange situations in which you believe that most (if not all!) deaths are suicide, that the Defense Department killed a million Americans and that all the discussion about the proper discount rate makes total sense.
Again, I’m not arguing that you can’t make some assumptions and some back-of-envelope calculations. You can and, in fact, you should do. Actually, I teach these things in my decision analysis class when I teach negotiations. In most of cases, they’re sensible ways to decide in face of uncertainty. However, you can’t forget that most of these calculations depend of assumptions on partial equilibrium and that the space of alternative is finite. I don’t think they make sense (for humans, not mathematically) when these assumptions don’t hold. We’re not fully optmizers, we’re humans, that most of time use some satisfizing rule of decision. And that’s fine. Actually, that’s better than an optimizer, because an optmizer will have to compute the cost of optimizing before optimizing. And then, the cost of optimizing the analysis of the cost of optimizing and so on, untill infinity. This is called infinity regress. So, since we can’t fully optimize, and this is good, we shouldn’t push to the limit optimizing reasoning. Optimization shall be only a rough guide to decision, and not THE way to decide. Otherwise we end being fools and making silly statements.
* I do prefer some english sentences to portuguese ones, but there is no good translation of “memórias de um defunto autor” to english. In this case at least, portuguese rules.