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The Law and Economics of Superman:

Co-blogger Tyler Cowen asks:

Did you know about the new summer Superman film?

Let's say we had an altruistic and incorruptible Superman, how should he allocate his efforts to improve the macroeconomy? He is really strong, he can fly very fast, leap tall buildings at a single bound, has incredible vision, and somehow he is immune from Einstein's theory of relativity and time dilation at near-light speeds (his most impressive achievement, if you ask me).

Yes he should save the world from evil madmen, but fighting ordinary crime hardly appears worth his trouble....

Tyler offers a few suggestions on what Superman should do to increase the social returns on his investments of time and energy. On a (slightly) less unserious note, I have to admit that one reason why I never much liked the Superman franchise is that the character seems to misallocate his efforts so severely! If you had his powers, would you spend your time chasing a third-rate villain like Lex Luthor (even if played by the great Gene Hackman)? Why not instead overthrow Kim Jong Il or stop the genocide in Darfur? Perhaps the first thing our hypothetical Superman should do is take one of Tyler's economics classes and learn about the concept of opportunity cost. If a Hollywood studio offers me enough money to offset MY opportunity costs, I would be happy to write that up as the screenplay for the next Superman movie!

UPDATE: Several commenters question my assertion that Lex Luthor is unworthy of Superman's attention, claiming that it is important to foil Luthor's plans to take over the world. I remain unpersuaded. Luthor's harebrained schemes for world domination are doomed to failure not only because of their inherent implausibility, but also because he uses morons for henchmen (e.g. - Otis, his right-hand man) and repeatedly ignores the helpful advice of the Evil Overlord List. Assuming that Luthor poses any real threat at all, it could probably be handled even by the dubiously competent Department of Homeland Security (despite its own serious resource allocation problems). A rational Superman committed to maximizing his contribution to the social welfare function should be going after bigger fish. He needs to take Tyler's class right away!

Freder Frederson (mail):
Every time I think of Superman I remember a short story written by, I think it was Larry Niven, entitled "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex" contemplating the consummation of Superman's and Lois Lane's relationship. It ended by envisioning Superman's orgasm gutting Lois "like a trout". Downright hilarious.
6.7.2006 4:51pm
Anon1ms (mail):
I remember reading a Superman comic book many, many years ago in which it had a Q &A section.

One reader queried, "Why didn't Superman fight in World War II?" or wording to that effect.

The reply from the editor: "Superman doesn't get involved in politics."

(Perhaps that unnamed editor later became a Presidential press spokesperson).
6.7.2006 5:01pm
Freder Frederson (mail):
I foundMan of Steel, Woman of Kleenex online. It's worth a read.
6.7.2006 5:06pm
steve k:
Lex Luthor is not a "third-rate villain." He is an evil genius, bent on world domination and the destruction of the one person in his way, Superman. I can't imagine a better fight for our hero to engage in.
6.7.2006 5:12pm
Aeon J. Skoble (mail):
I'd cut the comics guys some slack on fielding that question. Many WWII-era superheroes did, of course, fight against the Nazis. But it's entirely understandable that the writers of Superman would shy away from that: the (real) war dragged on for years, which it wouldn't have if Superman had been fighting. As to the main point of the post -- I'm sympathetic to these sorts of concerns, but basically, the way the comics evolved, different "levels" of villain emerged to oppose different levels of hero. That's essential to the story: it's not like Spider-Man or Daredevil could have any kind of meaningful fight with Galactus or Loki. Conversely, while it makes sense for Batman to foil a robbery, it's better storytelling to have Superman foil some large-scale threat to the world, e.g. General Zod. I agree, of course, that it would be good to have Superman clean up Darfur or Seoul.
6.7.2006 5:13pm
Half Sigma (www):
It always scared me that Superman was so powerful. What if he decided to become evil? How could the world stop him from taking over?
6.7.2006 5:14pm
James Grimmelmann (mail) (www):
The alternate universe in which Metropolis is located may not contain North Korea or Darfur. The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay has some excellent explorations of the alternate-universe qualities of superhero comics and the frustrations felt by the Escapist's creators in trying to have their hero confront real-life evil.
6.7.2006 5:17pm
Wombat:
Actually, the story ends with Superman implanting their embryo in his own stomach!! (Unless all of Superman's genes are recessive/and or Lois wears a Kryptonite girdle, the first suntan Lois gets will result in the baby kicking right through her womb! Also, see a similar discussion in the movie Mallrats.)

On a related note, any such "Superman meets the real world" scenarios have to mention Alan Moore's Watchmen series, in which the only real superhero in the world, Dr. Manhattan, singlehandedly wins the Vietnam War, and ensures American domination to such a degree that President Nixon is on his 4th or 5th term. The book is fuzzy on just what societal changes Dr. M makes (they vaguely mention that he mass creates fuel cells, thus rendering the entire Mid-East mess irrelevant), but the finale is worth mentioning: convinced of their eventual defeat, the Soviet Union inches ever closer to Nuclear War, as they have nothing to lose...

Actually, I just remembered that they recently published a Superman comic(?) in which he crashlands in Russia instead of Kansas and grows up to be Stalin's enforcer. I have not read it, but it supposedly got glowing reviews....
6.7.2006 5:19pm
bms (mail):
If you want to see some superheroes think hard about the best use of their powers, check out The Authority.
6.7.2006 5:25pm
Ship Erect (mail) (www):
As any fan of Earth-2 knows, the Nazis had the Spear of Destiny, confining the All-Star Squadron to the homefront. No politics involved, just some Roy Thomas retro continuity!
6.7.2006 5:26pm
Colin (mail):
Wombat,

You're thinking of Red Son, in which the Man of Steel (incidentally a rough translation of "Stalin," if you're willing to bend the language a bit) lands in a Ukrainian field. I suppose Ukraine was the Soviet equivalent of Smallville. I've never read it, but the summary makes it sound like the story gets more silly than interesting.

I have read The Dark Knight Returns, in which Superman plays a small role. He fights an escalating Cold War on America's behalf, ultimately smashing (if I can recall something I read so long ago correctly) a Soviet tank division and diverting a nuclear warhead.
6.7.2006 6:02pm
Joshua (www):
I agree, of course, that it would be good to have Superman clean up Darfur or Seoul.

If we're talking North Korea, shouldn't that be Pyongyang? (Although given the South's policy of appeasement toward the North in recent years, maybe your confusion of the two capitals is understandable.)
6.7.2006 6:36pm
gab (mail):
I realize this is all sort of tongue in cheek, but for Superman to work, the reader (or viewer in the case of a movie) must suspend disbelief. If you're thinking in terms of Superman misallocating his resources, then go on to something else - it ain't working for you.
6.7.2006 6:39pm
RJT:
What if Superman made a one-time only, completely unexpected wealth redistribution that left everyone with exactly the same amount of wealth? In theory, incentives to work and produce shouldn't change going forward, but the need for government programs drops drastically and we can finally become a true meritocracy.
6.7.2006 6:41pm
Fred Beukema (mail) (www):
Red Son is fantastic. Superman is unveiled by Stalin around the same time as Sputnik, and the Americans realize that this stands to end the Cold War. So Eisenhower enlists American genius Lex Luthor to combat the threat. The book spans decades, and features alternate versions of Batman (the head of an anti-Soviet underground army of Batmen, his parents were killed by a high-level KGB officer), Wonder Woman (her origin stays intact from the DC Universe, but she sides with the USSR), Bizarro, Green Lantern, and more. And along with the also-previously-mentioned "Watchmen," "The Dark Knight Returns" and its sequel, "The Dark Knight Rides Again," examine the relationship between Superheroes and geopolitics. Vurry Inneresting.
6.7.2006 6:48pm
Cornellian (mail):
Superman is the mirror image of Batman, with the mirror image problem. Batman has no special powers, whereas Superman has virtually limitless powers. So why doesn't Superman eliminate Iranian nukes, overthrow the North Korean government or stop the genocide in Darfur (noting that at his faster-than-light speed he could disarm everyone in the country in about a day or so)? The X-Men are much more interesting, partly because their powers are more limited and partly because many of those powers come with a significant downside (inability to touch people, freakish appearance, inability to look at anyone etc.)
6.7.2006 6:50pm
Frank Drackmann (mail):
Superman wasn't needed for WW2,we already had the 3 Stooges,Donald Duck, and Bugs Bunny, plus the Gipper making morale movies back home, the Krauts didn't stand a chance.
6.7.2006 6:57pm
Ken Arromdee:
One comic to consider is Squadron Supreme, where a thinly-disguised Justice League becomes dictators of their world. Eventually they end it because even if they think their dictatorship is doing good, they can't control what could happen in the future.

The main reason it makes sense for Superman to stop Luthor and not North Korea is that everyone except Luthor thinks that stopping Luthor is good. If he tries to stop North Korea, he's imposing his political/social beliefs on other people by force; and he knows that there's a fine line between stopping North Korea and stopping, say, Israel for its "illegal occupation of Palestine". If he sticks to catching individuals who are criminals by the standards of their home country, and who don't purport to be part of mass movements, the issue doesn't come up. Even just going after war criminals raises the issue of altering the course of the war by selectively going after the war criminals from one side.

And Luthor can destroy the world, despite being one man. Within the context of the story, stopping Luthor is more important than stopping North Korea anyway.
6.7.2006 7:19pm
Daniel Chapman (mail):
Cornellian has good taste in comics... bet you hated the movie too, huh?
6.7.2006 7:21pm
Dick King:
RJT, incentives to work and produce don't change only if everybody Really Believes that the redistribution will never be repeated. Would you believe that if it happened once out of the proverbial clear blue sky?

Also, there are definitional problems. I converted some dollars into a Ph. D, which increased my earning capacity, which is as much an investment as if I had invested in some machine tools or in an apartment. Should my education be redistributed, presumably by reducing my share of fungible assets? How about the tools of the machinist's trade? Most people would believe that apartments are wealth, but they generate a lot more income if well managed.

-dk
6.7.2006 7:33pm
Ken Arromdee:
I might also add that for Superman to do things like eliminate Iranian nukes would have consequences far beyond there just not being any Iranian nukes.

He might find that he just raised the incidence of world terrorism by 500%. Or he might find that Iran's government was overthrown after his intervention but it was replaced by something even worse--and it's all his fault. Or maybe Iran rebuilds its nuke program (impoverishing its people, also Superman's fault), then announces an alliance with China, whose nukes Superman dare not take out. Or he might just find Iran demanding that since he destroyed its nukes, he should protect it instead, and then the UN prepares a resolution to that effect, etc....

If Superman did a one-time redistribution of the world's money, it would probably destroy the world's economy, make billions unemployed, allow bigger countries to invade smaller but richer ones, and generally leave people far worse off in a year or so.

If you catch Luthor, at least you've just caught Luthor and nothing else.
6.7.2006 7:38pm
Ken Arromdee:
Finally, it may help to think of Superman as the equivalent of having a large oil supply in your country.

Most of us know that having an oil supply is a very mixed blessing because it brings immediate wealth, but it also reduces any incentives for real progress (either technological or social) and helps keep autocracies and backwards cultures afloat. If Superman were to do any large scale gift-giving, it may be hard to avoid similar effects.
6.7.2006 7:48pm
logicnazi (mail) (www):
He should provide a source of cheap energy. His ability to fly and accelerate matter to near the speed of light would provide a source of near unlimited energy. Say take some 1 ton mass and accelerate it to .999c where it would have a huge energy that could then be translated into power.

Alternatively he should fly around through space to contact other more advanced civilizations and bring knowledge of their technology back to earth.

Perhaps just standing around for the physicists to run tests on would reveal important new laws of physics.

Still even the suggestions in the article about overthrowing north korea or eliminating nukes would probably be a very good use of time but then again if he doesn't thwart lex luther he would take over the world and become even harder to thwart. Besides all this assumes superman is entierly selfless. So long as he is just fighting crime governments have limited interest in uncovering his true identity and killing him. If he starts overthrowing regimes the resources devoted to killing him or at least exposing him become huge.

What I never figured out about all these individuals with super powers is why they never made billions of dollars through bets. Before anyone is aware of your powers make massive bets that you can do impossible feats then collect. If you want use the money to feed children in africa or something.
6.7.2006 8:31pm
An Anonymous Coward:
Batman has no special powers,

Batman has the coolest power of them all: nearly unlimited funding.
6.7.2006 9:29pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
One reader queried, "Why didn't Superman fight in World War II?" or wording to that effect.

The reply from the editor: "Superman doesn't get involved in politics."

(Perhaps that unnamed editor later became a Presidential press spokesperson).
Presumably your theory for why he became spokesperson is because he answers questions without having any idea what he's talking about? Superman did fight in World War II.
6.7.2006 10:56pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
Don't people watch movies? Lex Luther set off an explosion which caused earthquakes that caused California to begin falling into the ocean. I think that's more than a "third rate" villain.
6.7.2006 11:14pm
Meryl Yourish (www):
Wow. So many things wrong with this thread... but Ilya, the movie Superman is not the comic book Superman. It's kind of hard to

Cornellian, Superman was created a year befor Batman existed. The mirror image thing is rather off-base.

The thing is, it's a comic book. You can argue minutia for years on end, and it still comes down to this: It's a comic book. Or in this case, a movie. In the comic, Lex is far more intelligent and dangerous, and surrounds himself with competent, immoral, evil henchmen. The movie writers decided they needed comic relief, ergo, Otis.

But if you want to argue how Superman could use his powers to improve the world: Hey, he's super-smart. He'd invent an alternative energy source, thus rendering the Middle East oil superfluous and--oh, wait. That's been done.
6.7.2006 11:57pm
DiversityHire:
What more could Superman do to improve the world? He's doing what every supremely talented, uniquely gifted, unbelievably brilliant, selfless individual who wants to make the world a better place does: he's a New York Times reporter. (Or whatever they call the newspaper in Gotham City or wherever it is he and Aquaman cohabitate.)
6.8.2006 1:41am
JGR (mail):
1) It might be the case that Somin is talking about Superman movies whereas everyone else is talking about the comics. In the comics, Luthor obviously is worthy of Superman's attention.
2) In 1995, the science fiction writer John Varley wrote a funny story entitled 'Truth, Justice and the Politically Correct Socialist Path' in which Superman crashed on earth but was raised in Russia, where he was imprisoned by Soviet forces but refused to escape on good Communist principles. (Probably for reasons of copyright, the hero isn't actually called Superman, but you know who he is). The story appears in the anthology Superheroes, which isn't that great a book, Varley's story notwithstanding.
3) One of the editors at DC comics once said the primary reason superheroes didn't get involved in global politics was the plausibility factor. If Superman rescued the Iranian hostages in one issue, then the next issue the hostages would still be there which would threaten the suspension of disbelief. This is no longer a factor with the Alternate Worlds scenario. In fact, it's worth pointing out that comics actually pioneered many areas relating to fantasy or SF plausibility. While TV shows still fumble with the paradoxes of time travel, comics long ago introduced the notion that time travel is actually travel to an alternate earth, which is the only theory that makes sense in terms of non-contradictions (I'm not talking about the physics, only the internal dynamics of the story. Contrary to TV, traveling to the past would change the future overnight even if you just stood on a street corner and didn't do anything - chaos theory.)
4)It frankly annoys me that discussions like this - which are sometimes fun and usually light-hearted - can't go three responses without someone lecturing that "it's just a comic", as if everyone doesn't know that. When people discuss Gone With the Wind, no one jumps immediately in and says "THIS IS JUST A BOOK! THESE ARE FICTIONAL CHARACTERS!" Why the double standard?
5)Whatever the historical case, the non-political stance of comics is going out the window. This is sometimes good - it's implausible that heroes wouldn't fight evil regimes - but also bad, since the political views of many writers are left-wing agitprop and consist of childish slogans.
6.8.2006 2:05am
Rick Shmatz (mail):
If superman solves the problem in Darfur, how are liberals supposed to feel good about themselves? Africa must remain a perpetual mess.
6.8.2006 4:18am
Aeon J. Skoble (mail):
Joshua-
OMG. Yes, that's what I meant. [slaps forehead]
6.8.2006 8:10am
Aeon J. Skoble (mail):
Also, I concur with Colin and Wombat -- both Moore's work and Miller's work address this issue in sophisticated and interesting way (which I discuss here, fwiw.)
6.8.2006 9:11am
Cheburashka (mail):
Presumably your theory for why he became spokesperson is because he answers questions without having any idea what he's talking about? Superman did fight in World War II.

Yes, Superman was a very political thing. The Superman of the 50s and 60s, for example, famously fought the klu klux klan.

In fact, I think at various points Superman actually reported to the President.
6.8.2006 3:24pm
this guy:
James Lileks has a short take on this, in his usual cute style:
http://www.lileks.com/bleats/archive/06/0506/052406.html
6.8.2006 4:35pm