The Economics of Woody Allen
By Bryan Caplan
Many people feel that death makes life meaningless. The religious use this to sell the afterlife, and the irreligious use it to rationalize depression. Woody Allen can hardly get his mind of the subject:
Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and it’s all over much too soon.
It is impossible to experience one’s death objectively and still carry a tune.
I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying.
If you want the serious version, try Tolstoy. And if Woody Allen is too dated for you already, there’s always the episode of the Simpsons where Homer keeps repeating, “Can’t sleep, gonna die.”
If you read Woody Allen very charitably, he seems to have a perfectly reasonable desire to live longer. But his real complaint is that the time he has is meaningless because he only has a finite amount. And his conclusion resonates with a lot of people, and has for a long time.
I’ve never understood the appeal of this argument. If a finite quantity of life is worthless, how can an infinite quantity be desirable? Sure, you could trot out mathematical structures with this property, but come on. If an infinite span of days is so great, what’s stopping you from enjoying today? In fact, by the law of diminishing marginal utility, the average value of a year in a finite lifespan should be more valuable than the average value of a year in an infinite lifespan.
It would be exceedingly interesting to see how Woody Allen would react to immortality. Frankly, I suspect he’d be complaining about it in a week. Well, actually, I don’t have to just suspect. He tells us:
Nietzsche says that we will live the same life, over and over again. God – I’ll have to sit through the Ice Capades again.
This illustrates one of the main lessons of personality psychology: Contrary to appearances, perennially unhappy people aren’t unhappy about anything. They are just unhappy, and project their feelings onto the world.
Still, I have to admit that if I found out I only had a week to live, I probably wouldn’t enjoy my last days very much. That’s a failure on my part, but I wouldn’t spend the week moping around either. The cheerful economist on my shoulder would keep telling me, “Hey, immortality through your work is better than nothing. Make sure your webpage survives!”