Monday, June 22, 2009

The Justice League and Comparative Advantage

(Guest Post by John Perich from Overthinking It. As mentioned in a previous post, Overthinking It subjects popular culture to a level of scrutiny it probably doesn't deserve. Hence, we are big fans).

Reprinted from stat.osu.edu
When you think about it, Superman doesn't need the rest of the Justice League.

In conventional wisdom, every member of the Justice League has a particular strength. Green Lantern can handle weird and alien threats. Aquaman can talk to fish. The Flash can handle armies of lightly armed minions in a heartbeat. Wonder Woman usually takes point on mystical threats. And Batman is the World's Greatest Detective.

If we consider each of those types of crime-fighting an output, we see that each member of the Justice League is a uniquely skilled producer of that output. Sure, Batman can beat up henchmen almost as well as the Flash can. But Flash can do it better. If Batman specializes in detective work, and Flash specializes in henchman-stomping, the two of them produce more Justice on net than if one tried to do both.

But what if we bring Superman into the equation?

Superman's slower than Flash (only just), but his super-strength and invulnerability make him better at dispatching minions. He's more capable of dealing with aliens than Green Lantern. And with his X-ray vision and super-hearing, you could make the case that he's a better detective than Batman.

So why does Superman need the rest of the Justice League?

For that, we turn the pages back to 1817 and the principle of comparative advantage, as publicized (though not first documented) by economist David Ricardo. Comparative advantage dictates that, even if one agent can produce two types of goods more efficiently than another agent, it benefits both parties for the efficient agent to specialize and trade for the other.

Ricardo gave the mundane example of a trade between England and Portugal in wine and cloth. Portugal could produce both wine and cloth more cheaply than England could. However, Portugal would benefit more from producing wine and trading with England for cloth, rather than trying at autarky.

Scenario One: Countries Refuse to Trade


Units of Wine Produced per Year

Units of Cloth Produced per Year

England

80

100

Portugal

140

160

Total

220

260



Scenario Two: Portugal Produces Wine, Trades with England for Cloth


Units of Wine Produced per Year

Units of Cloth Produced per Year

England

-

200

Portugal

300

80

Total

300

280



In fact, both Portugal and England would benefit more – the “global” production of both wine and cloth increase.

Bringing it back to comics, let's say tomorrow, the Justice League wakes up to two threats on their table:

1) A number of spatial anomalies have cropped up in Earth's orbit; and
2) A number of Sun-Eaters are approaching Earth.

And let's say everyone is out on vacation except Superman and Green Lantern.

It takes Green Lantern 8 hours to dispatch a Sun-Eater and 6 hours to close a spatial anomaly. It takes Superman 4 hours to do either.

Scenario One: Superheroes Refuse to Trade


Sun-Eaters Dispatched

Spatial Anomalies Closed

Green Lantern

2

1

Superman

3

3

Total

5

4



Scenario Two: Green Lantern Closes Spatial Anomalies and Superman Dispatches Sun-Eaters


Sun-Eaters Dispatched

Spatial Anomalies Closed

Green Lantern

-

4

Superman

6

-

Total

6

4



It's a slim margin, but the Justice League can dispatch one extra Sun-Eater by letting Superman specialize - even though Supes is objectively better than GL at handling both threats. And since letting even a single Sun-Eater through spells trouble for Earth (it does eat the Sun, after all), it’s a profitable decision.

So maybe Superman is better at everything the Justice League does than any given member. But that doesn't mean he can get by without them. He operates best as a floating agent, filling in where any team needs help and letting the specialists do the rest. This maximizes the output that the Justice League specializes in – Justice.

44 comments:

jamused said...

Can't you see how your heartless capitalism is taking jobs from hard-working Kryptonians, a minority if there ever was one?!

Anonymous said...

Great demonstration of comparative advantage and why Superman shouldn't necessarily go it alone. I wonder how much more popular introductory econ classes would be if more super heroes were involved.

DNR said...

The initial premise is flawed about many things, but let's just take its concept of detective work, since that's something where we have real world examples. Detectives in the police force work in pairs or even in whole teams, not because they don't have x-ray vision or super-speed, but because they have differing perspectives which help them collaborate. Hell, economics papers are rarely written by a single person.

Alex said...

You forgot to mention the most important comparative advantage: the rest of the Justice League isn't vulnerable to Kryptonite...

Perich said...

@jamused: Even the Man of Steel is vulnerable to Schumpeterian creative destruction.

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Donn Ha said...

I hate bringing Krugman into this because I loathe Krugman, but as he rightly pointed out, in modern economies countries will produce the same type of good and trade betwixt themselves because of slight variations in product and consumers' desire for variety.

So if we assume the consumer for Justice League Justice is extra-dimensional observers (comic book readers), we would have a model that would correspond with actual results - sometimes Batman would dispatch henchmen not because he can do so more efficiently than the Flash but because the market likes variety.

On a side note, Superman isn't as good as everyone at everything. Martian Manhunter has a larger number of powers (Superman's powers + telepathy + shapeshifting + etc), and Superman has no ability with and no defense against magic.

Anonymous said...

While I enjoyed this overall, it fails to take into consideration advantages and disadvantages of differences in perspective, background, and general knowledge.

For example, the comic books of late have repeatedly established that The Batman makes a better detective than Superman in part because he understands human darkness and the criminal mindset to a degree Kal-El really never will. In a fight to the death against a mindless monstrosity, Wonder Woman has the advantage over Superman due to her willingness to commit fully to killing the monster, whereas Kal-El really hates killing anything (an ideal attitude in someone with his power level!).

I realize that, for the sake of simplicity, you ignored resource factors such as Green Lantern's ability to call in an entire cosmic police force if need be (something Supes can't do) or the fact that Superman will be trusted by public, press, and president to a degree no other hero can match.

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