Cruel Caring in Breaking Bad
By Bryan Caplan
Breaking Bad is a show about a terminally ill high school chemistry teacher who starts cooking meth to build up a bequest for his family. You see a lot about the economics of drug prohibition in the show, but you’re probably already familiar with it. What’s original about Breaking Bad is its highly Hansonian take on the economics of health care. [Warning: Mild spoilers follow.]
Robin Hanson doggedly argues that health care is more about “showing that you care” than about improving health. Breaking Bad shows us the dark side of caring. When Walt finally tells his family about his illness, he gets almost no genuine sympathy. Instead, his family bullies him into accepting painful, expensive treatments that are almost certain to fail. It’s all about them and their feelings; both objective statistics and the feelings of the man with two years to live count for nothing. Indeed, it’s precisely because his family insists on expensive treatments that Walt keeps making meth even though he’s in way over his head.
The main problem with Robins’ signaling model of medicine is that (unlike the signaling model of education) it’s counter-intuitive. Breaking Bad brings the Hansonian critique of medicine – and “admirable activities” generally – to life.