I finally saw The Aviator, and it’s hard not to scream “Scorsese was robbed!” Larry White has already done a great job of analyzing the bread-and-butter economics of the story. What’s fascinating to me, however, is the exploration of Hughes’ eccentricity/mental illness.

I am a big fan of psychiatrist Thomas Szasz (pronounced like the statistical program SAS). Szasz is notorious for his view that “mental illness is a myth” – which of course does not mean that self-destructive and anti-social behavior does not exist, but that “diagnoses” of mental illness are covert ethical judgments rather than scientific diagnoses.

In one of my favorite papers, “The Economics of Szasz”, I argue that microeconomics and Szasz have a natural affinity. As he puts it in Insanity:

Do we want two types of accounts about human behavior – one to explain the conduct of sane or mentally healthy persons, and another to explain the conduct of insane or mentally ill persons? I maintain that we do not need, and should not try, to account for normal behavior one way (motivationally), and for abnormal behavior another way (causally). Specifically, I suggest that the principle, “Actions speak louder than words,” can be used to explain the conduct of mentally ill persons just as well as it can the behavior of mentally healthy persons.

Move over, Gary Becker! In economic terms, I argue that the best way to model mental illness is as “extreme preferences” rather than literal incapacity. Rather than give you my big theoretical case, I’m going to apply it to Hughes’ bizarre behavior, and let you see if the shoe fits. (Aside: I don’t know how factually accurate The Aviator is, though all the license taken by A Beautiful Mind makes me wonder).

What’s so odd about Hughes? His biggest foible, which drastically increases during the story, is germophobia. No doubt today he’d be diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder. I say, however, that this is just name-calling. Hughes worried a lot more about germs than I do. A lot more. But I don’t see why this makes him less of a rational economic agent than me. My dad can spend 10 hours a day watching sports, which seems like a complete waste of time to me. Why should I judge a man who fights germs 10 hours a day any differently?

In “The Economics of Szasz”, I argue that a key test of my position is responsiveness to incentives:

Can we change a person’s behavior purely by changing their incentives? If we can, it follows that the person’s was able to act differently all along, but preferred not to; their condition is a matter of preference, not constraint. I will refer to this as the “Gun-to-the-Head Test.” If suddenly pointing a gun at alcoholics induces them stop drinking, then evidently sober behavior was in their choice set all along.

So what do we see in the movie? Even when he seems awfully “crazy,” Hughes pulls himself together for the sake of his airline. He hates to risk getting someone’s germs from shaking hands, but he shakes the hand of the senator he wants to win over. He hates to go out in public, but he testifies before Congress to defend himself from accusations of “war profiteering.” Sometimes he obsessively repeats catch phrases to himself. “Show me all the blueprints. Show me all the blueprints. Just show me all the blueprints.” But when he has to win over the American people with his Congressional testimony, he is suddenly articulate and charming.

Call him OCD if you must. The Howard Hughes of The Aviator recognized and responded to incentives just like homo economicus is supposed to.