Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Steffen Huck - "The Economics of Breaking Bad"

Walter White
Breaking Bad
The Spectator

Concerning Breaking Bad, I've read another excellent review of this brilliant television series I've never seen: "Can you trade love for wealth? The economics of Breaking Bad" (The Spectator, October 2013). The review is by Steffen Huck, professor of economics at University College London and director of Economics of Change at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung, and here in part is what Professor Huck has to say:
When Breaking Bad hit our screens, . . . [t]he social experiment that the series set out to explore was strikingly simple: take an ordinary, law-abiding citizen and have him dabble in crime. Walter White Sr, a failed chemical scientist-cum-high school teacher, who works after hours at a car-wash plant to make ends meet, is diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. Facing death and foreclosure on his family home, he goes into partnership with his former pupil-cum-minor drug dealer Jesse Pinkman. As a gifted chemist, Walt will cook crystal meth of unprecedented quality and Jesse will sell it. Just enough to make sure that Walt's family, his newly pregnant wife and his teenage son, who suffers from cerebral palsy, will be able to survive once he is in his grave.

It sounds reasonable enough, doesn't it? Well, it does to a modern-day economist. Changes in circumstance (the prospect of premature death) give rise to changes in lifetime income (no salary for the deceased) as well as relative prices for different goods and services (no punishment for the condemned). A small change in consumption and occupational choice are exactly what is called for. After all, life is all about trade-offs[,] and when variables change[,] some fine-tuning is needed. Simple graphs drawn on blackboards in every introductory class to microeconomics demonstrate the innocuousness and indeed rationality of Walter White's choice.

But then it all goes wrong. Walter's cancer goes into remission in season two, and whereas his old self (the one that made thoughtful lists about the pros and cons of killing an adversary before proceeding) would have changed course at this point, his new incarnation punches his mirror image in the face when the happy news arrives.

In the process of trading off morality against self-interest a peculiar thing has happened to Walter. Something has been destroyed. Roger Scruton, the British philosopher, writes in his enlightening treatise on Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde: 'We are tempted to live by rational self-interest, judging everything -- the sexual act included -- in terms of cost and benefit. Homo economicus, who exchanges duty for pleasure and value for price, seems to us to have freed himself from guilt. But if he has done so, we recognise, it is because he has freed himself also from love.'

And so has Walter White. While his initial choice was justified by love for his family, he now embarks on a course that will destroy the very essence of this love. For those who harboured hope for Walt and his wife Skyler, it all comes crashing down in episode 14 of the final season. The two of them roll on the floor; between them, shockingly erect, is a knife.

It is a Wagnerian plot that the show's creator Vince Gilligan confronts us with. Love and morality cannot be straightforwardly traded for power and wealth.
And why can this trade-off not straightforwardly occur? Why not? Because that trade-off changes us essentially, transforming us into a thing immoral and unlovable. Or that, I gather, is the message of Breaking Bad.

For more on Huck and Gilligan, follow this link to "Vince Gilligan in Conversation," where you'll find another link to this video of the two-hour conversation among Gilligan, Huck, and others.

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