Is Life Worth Living?

It Depends Upon the Liver!

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.

Best wishes. 


P.S. On Jan. 26 I will be 90 years old!!

And this was followed up by an e-mail that said:

Dear Dipankar:

... 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 Kashmiri 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.)


More by :  Dipankar Dasgupta

Top | Memoirs

Views: 3377      Comments: 31

Comment Dear Uttara:

It was wonderful to hear back from you This man meant a great deal to me, though, I must admit, my academic performance fell far short of his expectations.

26-Oct-2010 09:00 AM

Comment 'Thanks for this wonderful piece you sent, in remembrance of your Professor. I'd rather not comment on the philosophical discourse. I, being an ordinary person, love life fully and feel deeply sad when things around go wrong. A little dismayed about the fate of the exquisite and precious Kashmiri shawl.

Uttara Chakraborty
26-Oct-2010 08:56 AM

Comment Dear Prof. Friedman: You are so right. Lionel represented not just a great academician, but a whole institution. He led Rochester Eco to great heights. I am sure U of R will miss him like all the rest of us.

16-Oct-2010 03:42 AM

Comment Dear Meera: Thank you for reading this as well as your comment. I do try to perceive life this way, but being human, I do not succeed all the time. I need to admit this fact.

16-Oct-2010 03:39 AM

Comment Dear Dipankar, Your memoir is very touching and very apt. Like some of your respondents above it brings back good memories to me and is a fine tribute to Lionel.

Jim Friedman
15-Oct-2010 11:05 AM

Comment Dear Dr. Dasgupta:
Simply beautiful.. your perception of life.

15-Oct-2010 10:29 AM

Comment Dear Kamal, Tapan, Sarada and Soumyen:

Thank you for reading this. As some of the respondents have observed, I have an additional reason to feel sorry about the event. I had dedicated my latest book on Growth Theory to Lionel. Despite repeated requests, the publishers didn't send him the book on time. I don't think they sent it to him at all, because they haven't sent it even to me. I wanted this to be a pleasant surprise for him. It was not to be. We communicated about this book quite recently.

This is the last time I heard from him (September 7, 2010):

Dear Dipankar,

I would suggest that you look at the last section of my book on Classical General Equilibrium where I show that competitive equilibrium over time is an optimal growth path given the distribution of wealth and assuming that future prices are correctly foreseen. Then stability follows from the turnpike theorem of optimal growth. The Solow model of growth makes ad hoc assumptions snd thus is not a general equilibrium economic model. I hope this is helpful to you.

With kind regards, Lionel

15-Oct-2010 07:34 AM

Comment Thank you,Dipankar-da. It is an excellent tribute to an extraordinary man.I am sad to know of McKenzie's demise. Why he was not given the Nobel is a big mystery.

Soumyen Sikdar
15-Oct-2010 07:15 AM

Comment Dear Dipankar

I read the article . Such an illuminating piece ! How wonderful that you knew him well. But its really sad that he din't get to see the book. A small solace is that at least he knew you'd written the book.

14-Oct-2010 14:16 PM

Comment Dear Dipankar da,

Thank you for sharing your write-up with me, and for expressing so eloquently an affirmation of life. We all need to be reminded about it from time to time.

Your story about Lionel McKenzie brought back many memories of Rochester days, including encounters with Lionel in that coffee lounge and in his office, both when I was a graduate student and later, after I had become a faculty member at Cornell.

I am glad that Kazuo and I were able to complete in time the collection of Lionel’s selected papers (MIT Press, 2009). He wrote to us that he liked the collection very much and appreciated our introduction to it. Anjan da wrote a very nice review of the book.

Tapan Mitra
14-Oct-2010 14:15 PM

Comment Dear OJ/Deepankar,

Yes i had read this, and now that he has passed away, is so sad.what a full life helived, with no family and yet so full of beans.

And the story u said, of the boy distributing leaflets, so happily with a smile and a thank u, of the two who committed suicide, well they do not appreciate the lords special gift to us, of life itself, there is so much more to life than a job or a Nano or anything for that matter.

You bring tears Deepanker.May lionelle's soul rest in peace.



14-Oct-2010 10:39 AM

Comment Dear Buz (William Brock): I know that you appreciated him. I also know how much he appreciated your work. I still remember you presenting your extension of the Gale paper in his second semester GE seminar. It took me a long time to understand the notion of "weak domination". I was never really that strong in Math and I can never forget how much you helped me to learn.

14-Oct-2010 02:04 AM

Comment Dear Geetha: Thanks for reading this. Lionel will always stand out as one of the best academicians I came across. He was also a wonderful human being.

14-Oct-2010 02:02 AM

Comment Dear Bhaswar: I am happy that you read this. I knew you were not his student, but I also knew that in your case at least, this would not matter. I know your feelings are very genuine.

14-Oct-2010 01:59 AM

Comment Dear Amal: He was a man with angularities as well as great human warmth. It is not easy to forget him.

14-Oct-2010 01:58 AM

Comment I never had the good fortune of studying under him, but many years ago, as a graduate student, I read his famous GE paper. I envy those who did. Sad, isn't it, that he never got the Nobel.

Bhaswar Moitra
14-Oct-2010 00:00 AM

Comment I am very sorry to learn that Prof. McKenzie is no more. I know many of his students and share with them their sense of personal loss.

Amal Sanyal
13-Oct-2010 22:37 PM

Comment ddg, sorry to hear about your loss and thank you for giving me the opportunity to read such a beautiful reflection of his life and life in general.

Everybody lives and leads a life. Some can actually teach it. Lionel seems like an example of the latter.

Thanks for sharing.


13-Oct-2010 20:22 PM

Comment I LOVED your piece about Lionel. I could just see him making that remark as he left that coffee room. He was truly a great man.

William A. Brock
13-Oct-2010 12:53 PM

Comment To Utteeyo: Yes he did know that the book was ready, but he had no idea that I had dedicated it to him. We discussed the book even two weeks ago over email. He was his usual sharp self when he made suggestions. You are right. He helped me a great deal. The other man who also helped was Jim Friedman.

13-Oct-2010 12:46 PM

Comment Dear John: That was a wonderful tribute to Lionel. Only those who were really exposed to him would get the feel for what you have described. It had never occurred to me that a part of Lionel was a "Lion" after all! :) Thanks John for taking the time to add value to my post.

13-Oct-2010 12:42 PM

Comment That is really sad. I never found a mentor like he was to you. But I can well imagine how it must feel. It is a pity that he did not get to see the final print of the book. But at least he did know about the book and you dedicated it to him right?

Utteeyo Dasgupta
13-Oct-2010 12:38 PM

Comment Dear Dipankar: Thank you for informing me of Lionel's passing. More importantly, thank you for routing me to your beautiful and reflective piece about Lionel and life in general. The incident that you report in the lounge is vintage Lionel. I remember my first encounter with Lionel at the welcoming cocktail party given by Dick Rosett (then Chair) at the beginning of the year. A group of first-year graduate students were congregated at the shrimp bowl. We were indulging ourselves knowing that we could not afford such delicacies on our graduate stipends. Lionel walked over and stood for a couple of minutes rocking back and forth on his heels in his inimitable manner. Finally he addressed us and asked if we were first-year students. When we replied yes, he said "I don't talk to first-year students" turned and walked away. Undaunted, I took his two seminars, albeit not until I was a second-year student and was rewarded with a glimpse of the complexity of his character. Of course, watching his mind work in front of us was the ultimate experience. I can honestly say that I have not met and talked with anyone since (including Joe Stiglitz and Bruce Greenwald) who have impressed me as much by the incredibly sharp insightfullness of their minds. Lionel could figure out the most complex argument and hone in on its core immediately even when he had not read the paper the night before!

As the years passed, I was treated to a peek at the human side of Lionel. As one of his former students, Lionel always sent me the list of papers that he covered in his seminar each year. From time to time, he would pen a little personal note. "Saw your paper in AER." "See your name in the journals" I realized that Lionel was telling me that he was proud of his former student. When Lionel was feted by the Department at the AEA meetings, I attended the celebration. It was wonderful to see him in person after so many years; I think this was the first time he was at the meetings since I left Rochester.

How good of you to have kept in such close contact with Lionel. I am sure that he appreciated greatly your gifts of kind and more importantly of self. The Lionel whom I met as a "lion" at that shrimp bowl was a truly great intellect and a warm (in his own way) "lamb". The value of Lionel's life is certainly infinite; he will live on in our memories and our hearts.

Thank you again very much for sharing your beautiful tribute to this great man and Noble Economist.

John Bonin
13-Oct-2010 12:36 PM

Comment Dear Shanti: Thanks for peeping in. I couldn't agree more with you about the choice of Nobel candidates.

13-Oct-2010 07:09 AM

Comment Thanks for letting me know about the passing away of McKenzie. Also, thanks for the link to your article.

When I saw the names of the Nobel Laureates this year, Diamond certainly is a pioneer. Many have been overlooked: Mancur Olson, Duncan Black, Joan Robinson, Lloyd Shapley, Partha Dasgupta, Frank Hahn, Lionel Mckenzie ...

Shanti Priya Chakravarty
13-Oct-2010 07:07 AM

Comment Happy Birthday Argha. I know you are a sensitive person. You speak rightly when you say it's a narration of life.

13-Oct-2010 05:57 AM

Comment Shobha: I am afraid that the age of great men is slowly winding up.

13-Oct-2010 05:55 AM

Comment k2s: I have rarely felt as sad as I am feelling today.

13-Oct-2010 05:54 AM

Comment By presenting this article, you have made my day.

Thank you for sharing such a heartfelt narration of life.

Coincidentally, its my best birthday gift till date.

Argha Bagchi
13-Oct-2010 05:49 AM

Comment That is really sad.But for you I would not have known about this great person.May his soul rest in peace,is all I can say.

Of course I reread the whole post and it teaches one that life is what you want it to be. One could crib and grumble all their life or deal with it coolly and calmly.the choice is ours.

Shobha Krishnan
13-Oct-2010 05:48 AM

Comment Really sorry to hear the news about Lionel McKenzie. It would have been such a proud moment for him to hold the book in his hands.

I am so glad you completed the book. It will mean much more to you now. The post on Lionel is beautiful and the harsh reality of human life today is sad. We have got it all wrong.......

13-Oct-2010 05:46 AM

Name *

Email ID

Comment *
Verification Code*

Can't read? Reload

Please fill the above code for verification.