Professor Lionel W. McKenzie, who supervised my PhD thesis (jointly with Professor James W. Friedman) at the University of Rochester, NY, walked in on a spring morning to the departmental lounge for his cup of coffee, which he used to consume jointly with the New York Times. There were a few others present in the room at the time, including Richard Thaler, who now holds a prestigious chair at the Chicago University Business School. If I am not incorrectly informed, Dick was recently short-listed for the Nobel Prize in Economics for his original work on Behavioral Economics! On that particular morning though, he was merely a graduate student, my class mate in fact, pontificating on his dissertation topic. The topic was: How does one put an economic value on human life? Or, more simply, what’s the value of a human life? Not an easy subject, since human beings are not available for sale in the market. Slavery after all was an institution of the past.
We had no idea that the venerable professor was listening to the discussion, so engrossed he seemed to be in the newspaper. It was a total surprise to us therefore, when, on his way out of the lounge after he had finished his coffee, Professor McKenzie suddenly turned around to face the group engaged in the discussion. And then, in a stentorian voice that rang through the department, he said:
“Guys, let me assure you, human life’s not worth a s***!!”
Saying so, he guffawed and vanished into his office without waiting for a response. On that far away morning, all of us took his statement as an innocent joke and had a good laugh at Dick Thaler’s expense.
Now, almost 40 years later, Lionel McKenzie’s joke has returned to me with a vengeance and I have begun to wonder if his statement calls for rethinking. Given the events that have overtaken the contemporary world, I can’t help asking myself, “Had he made a prophesy? What indeed is the value of a human life in the world we inhabit today?”
Needless to say, terrorism has assumed a form now that raises serious questions about the value that humanity attaches to living. Indeed, one hears stories about emerging terror outfits where well-defined sums of money are spent to convert young individuals to human bombs. The science of economics would probably view this as a production process that converts inputs (living human beings) to outputs (exploding human bombs). However, to the extent that these people are moved by a cause, one can at least attempt to explain the phenomenon in non-market terms. Beliefs, after all, are not marketable commodities. (I think Richard Thaler would have a lot to say on this matter.)
However, two events have truly opened up a Pandora’s Box of problems in this context. The first was the case of an Infosys trainee who committed suicide at the unthinkably young age of 22, apparently because he could not deal with the pressures and the uncertainties surrounding his professional life. The second event was even more mind boggling. An insurance agent killed himself because he couldn’t afford to book a Nano! Apparently he had a working wife who still paid the monthly installments for a two wheeler they owned. She had allegedly refused to help her husband to fulfill his Nano dream, since she earned only Rs. 10,000.00 a month. If the media is to be believed, she had even suggested that they book the Nano after her two-wheeler loan was repaid. He couldn’t wait, however, and took his life.
I am afraid that I can’t fathom the depth of despair that could have led to these two incidents. In fact, however tragic, I find the two persons to have been driven by motives that were shallow at best. Why, one might ask, do we live? And the only answer to the question that my mediocre mind is suggesting today is: We live because every bit of life is worth living. Life is beautiful despite the struggles we endure. I can’t help being reminded of Sysiphus, who had defied his Creator by refusing to cow down before the absurdity of his existence. He would live on even if God himself had sent him the message that life for him was utterly meaningless!! Despite absurdities, despite ignominies, life is much too unique to be dispensed with so easily.
It is terrifying to bear the burden of losing one’s job, but is it more terrifying than engaging in an act of destruction that one can never undo? Such as bombing out of existence the Bamyan Buddhas? Can there be any index of material success at all that, if not achieved, justifies self-destruction? I tend to believe today that the answer to this question is a solid “NO”.
And it is not without proof that I have arrived at this conclusion. Not far away from my residence, there is a busy crossing where I have come across a young man several times in the recent past. He stands under the shade of a tree if he can find one and, in the blistering heat, distributes free pamphlets to passers by. They are small square sheets of paper with a message that few will be gullible enough to accept at face value. I have now received this piece of paper from him several times and even read it. It’s an advertisement by an unknown private organization that one could make a small earning sitting at home.
The look of the young man, who has obviously been employed by the company to distribute the slips, suggests to me that he has hailed from a normal middle class family. For a motive I will never try to prod into, he has been forced to accept this imaginably low paying job. But he accomplishes his task with total commitment.
His devotion to his work is only too evident, since most people who happen to pass that way avoid him like a leper. Many of them must have occasionally accepted his scrap of paper in the past and discovered its garbage value. And now, except for newcomers, most members of his targeted population make a small semi-circular detour before they are within his reach and ignore the proffered piece of paper in total disdain. I cannot imagine that he is brimming with enthusiasm to spread the news, especially so when the temperature hovers in the neighborhood of 42 degrees celcius. Yet, and this is what fascinates me most about the man, he has a special friendly smile reserved for each person who accepts the slip and he invariably follows it up with two pleasant words: “Thank you!”
It is all too straightforward to see that he has added a personal touch to this job, thereby making his task far more bearable for him than it would otherwise have been. More importantly, his innovative skill even for a job as small as this will sooner or later impress his employer and, hopefully, raise him higher up in the organization.
I think his fear of losing the job is no less intense than that of the well-trained Infosys employee. He would be no less pleased to buy a Nano than the insurance agent, knowing fully well that it was an empty dream. Yet, he lives. He lives because life is far too precious to be thrown away.
And now going back to my professor, he lives even today, believe it or not. He lost his wife as well as grown up children. He has crossed 90 and has few he can claim to be close relatives. Yet, though retired, he travels to the university regularly to attend academic seminars. His mind is still active and by all indications, he enjoys life. He is a living counter-example of the statement he made long ago. He has failed as a prophet but succeeded with flying colors as a human being. For a reason that has baffled his best students, he was not offered the Nobel Prize in Economics. But he did receive the Emperor’s Medal in Japan, a rare honor in that country as well as the rest of the world.
On receiving my condolence message after his daughter’s death, he had written back to me: “Believe me, it’s very hard to bear.”
But he has borne it with enormous strength for more than five years now. He is alive. He is kicking. Here is the New Year’s Greeting Message I received from him in January:
Dear Dipankar :
Thank you so much for the gorgeous table cloth* you sent me. I put it on my dining room table immediately. I am a little late responding since I had a small heart attack on Dec. 18. But I am in pretty good shape now.
P.S. On Jan. 26 I will be 90 years old!!
And this was followed up by an e-mail that said:
… The department gave me a lovely 90th birthday party on January 26. I think I may have lived too long but I still enjoy life. I go into the department every Wednesday for cookies and tea with colleagues. Also I gave an account of my research life to one of the graduate classes the other day which they seem to have appreciated.
With warm regards, Lionel**
* Incidentally, the table cloth in question was a cashmere shawl my wife and I had sent him as a New Year Gift. He mistook it for a table cloth. What matters to us most, however, is that he loved it! Also, I was elated to know that he was born on January 26, which is India’s Republic Day. I am elated not on account of nationalist pride, but because I was born in turn on August 15, India’s Independence Day!!
** Lionel McKenzie passed away at 2 AM, October 12, 2010.
(This article was originally written in January, 2010.)