Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What if the X-Men Were Rich?

reprinted from excalibur-comics.fr

I read an article recently, via Mark Thoma, that asked the question of whether the super-rich will eventually evolve into a separate species of superhumans. Here is a clip:

As medicine becomes super advanced, and super expensive, the super rich may evolve into a completely different species from everyone else, according to American futurologist Paul Saffo. He thinks medical technology such as replacement organs, specially tailored drugs, and genetic research tools to alert the moneybags of any possible hereditary health dangers, could all lead to a new class of rich, elite, and longer-living humans.

Here are Saffo’s thoughts on the advantages this would give the rich, as reported in the Guardian:

“I sometimes wonder if the very rich can live, on average, 20 years longer than the poor. That’s 20 more years of earning and saving. Think about wealth and power and the advantages that you pass on to your children.”

At the very least, they’ll be able to afford health care—and keep opposing it for the rest of is.

First of all, Saffo doesn't exactly have to wonder. There are studies on this. For instance, this brief by the Congressional Budget Office in 2008 discussed growing disparities in life expectancy by socioeconomic status:

Reprinted from CBO, "Growing Disparities in Life Expectancy," Economic and Budget Issue Brief, April 2008 (Figure 2)

In 1980, life expectancy at birth was 2.8 years more for the highest socioeconomic group than for the lowest. 6 By 2000, that gap had risen to 4.5 years. The 1.7-year increase in the gap amounts to more than half of the increase in overall average life expectancy at birth between 1980 and 2000

So, it seems the very rich do not, on average, live 20 years longer than the poor. However, it is clear from the CBO report that the disparity is widening with time. Nevertheless, Saffo's proposition is intriguing. Namely, will we ever see a day when the gap in life expectancy between the super rich and super poor becomes so large that the rich could be considered a superhuman species altogether? Consider the comments by Ray Kurzweil, in which he claims that in 20 years human beings will have access to such sophisticated nanotechnology that they will be able to replace vital organs and limbs, and possibly even expand their mental capacities. This implies that eventually we'd be a nation of immortal cyborgs. Well, the rich anyway.

Now, I don't think Saffo is talking about people growing wings or getting laser vision. At least not anytime soon. But analogously, imagine a scenario in the Marvel Universe in which, rather than being evolutionary mutations among an arbitrary subset of the human population, those who mutated into homo-superior were exclusively the minority class of highest income-earners. What would the universe look like if this class of superhumans was composed of the factory owners, the Wall Street executives, the wealthy politicians and the captains of industry rather than runaway teens and a drunk psychopath infused with adamantium?

For one, there would likely not be the sort of institutionalized xenophobia against these superhumans that we see against the X-Men. Despite being a minority, these guys control the means of production. And that means they have it made.

I also am curious about the implications for overall productivity and GDP (in the United States). The fact that a chunk of society would gradually have artificial physical and mental abilities that they may or may not be able to pass on genetically to their children could increase the overall value of human labor. However, does the fact that these metahumans are more likely to be rich imply that disparities will only continue to grow?

Of course, we don't have to imagine. In House of M, Brian Michael Bendis paints a picture of a society in which homo-superior are the aristocracy. Magneto rules the world and mutants control business, government and culture. As a result, there aren't merely disparities between the mutants and homo-sapiens--the latter are victims of full-blown oppression. Hank Pym actually could not find a job, a phenomenon that Hank McCoy explained away by remarking that he's only human.

But I doubt that this would happen in the real world if it were to be run by superhuman cyborgs? We'd all get along harmoniously and society would benefit from the overwhelming surge in productivity. Right?

reprinted from telegraph.co.uk


Anonymous said...

Something like this happened in the dark ages, except the role of "advanced medicine" was played by "adequate nutrition". There was still enough interbreeding to prevent speciation.

David J said...

The original premise of obscure superhero show Mutant X was that rich people had invested in genetic engineering for their children. It was revised of course because the premise of the show required them to be a hunted minority, not already the upper class. Of course it might be interesting to see a series modeled on the Reign of Terror where the hunted superhumans are members of the former ruling class.

Incidentally, the idea that nanotechnology will be that far along in 20 years is just silly.

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