Thursday, June 10, 2010

Markets in Everything: Superpowers Edition

Max Damage learns of the superhero markets.Incorruptible #2 by Mark Waid and Jean Diaz, BOOM! Studios (2010)

The world of Mark Waid's Irredeemable and Incorruptible is a scary place. The Plutonian, Earth's former greatest superhero, continues to wreak havoc on major cities, killing millions of innocents in the process. The global economy has all but collapsed. Unemployment has hit something close to 30%. Riots flood the streets of the cities. Anyone still alive lives in constant panic that he or she will be hit next. The worst part: there is no escape. The Plutonian is basically Superman-- he can travel quickly through any of the four dimensions. He has super-hearing and x-ray vision. In short: no one is safe.

Well, maybe.

In Incorruptible #2, we learn that David Orjean, a corrupt biochemical engineer, claims to have developed a method to transform ordinary humans being into superhumans, with powers that could apparently rival that of the Plutonian's. What's more is that he's been making these claims for years, even before the Plutonian went rogue.

We know that there's a market for superheroes. Given the opportunity, many people would elect to have a procedure done that would allow them to fly or teleport or whatever. Even in the black market, Orjean would still attract some pretty good business.

One problem: Orjean has no success record. Apparently instead of successfully delivering on his promise of superpowers, he severely cripples his subjects. Oops.

This raises some interesting questions.

First, why do people continue to buy his product when there is a documented failure rate.? Even in dire circumstances like, say, a godlike villain destroying the world, I'd still be skeptical. I understand that desperation causes people to do some silly things. But come on! The probability of successfully procuring superpowers from Orjean is somewhere close to 0. Moreover, the utility of having such powers is uncertain! There are plenty of superpowered people in the world. An entire superhero team, in fact. All of them are in hiding from the Plutonian: the most powerful being on earth. Even with powers, does anyone really think they're going to be safe? Not to mention, Orjean doesn't even tell you what the powers are going to be. Talk about asymmetric information.

The more interesting question is whether we could live in a world with (successful) superpower markets. Clearly, black markets would have many unintended negative consequences. If people could go purchase superpowers from a crazy engineer, then there is a strong potential for abuse. We'd see much more supervillainy!

However, suppose we legalize the buying and selling of superpowers. If heavily regulated (extensive background checks on potential customers, heavy taxation, etc.), what would be the outcome?

Turns out there are books that tangentially deal with this issue. Warren Ellis' No Hero, for instance, tells the tale of a government-sponsored agency with access to technology that gives humans superpowers. These human candidates are screened, prepared, and then trained for a career in superheroics. And they've been policing the world for years.

Of course, this is just a government agency. What if the market for superpowers were privatized? What if there was competition, innovation, and the incentive to produce really terrific superheroes?

Unfortunately, the world of No Hero isn't a bright one and Ellis isn't shy about declaring the dangers of this sort of technology. Superheroes, apparently, shouldn't be created and traded like commodities.

What do you think?

16 comments:

Seth Finkelstein said...

> First, why do people continue to buy his product when there is a documented failure rate.? ... I understand that desperation causes people to do some silly things. But come on! ...

The real-world analogy, of people purchasing the equivalent - normal health when they have a terminal disease - is pretty bad in terms of skepticism. Medical quacks do a brisk business, even those with a success rate of zero. Desperate people just don't behave the way rational-consumer economic theory predicts they should, or even according to "common sense"

Anonymous said...

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Derrill Watson said...

1 - Unless labor laws in this universe don't apply to supers, it would probably be inappropriate to refer to commoditizing superheroes. Superpowers is another matter.

2 - I can't trade superpowers. I can't rent superpowers. I can at best rent the time of someone else with the superpower I want. [Flights over Manhattan in the arms of Superman, $10 + $0.50 per pound over 200.]

That makes this a lot more like health economics than commodity economics. Receiving superpowers as an elective medical procedure.

If it were eventually privatized, I can't imagine this being an unregulated market. The nature of the market will then depend heavily on the nature of the regulations: licensing, tax incidence, do they ask people to sign away health insurance or social security claims, liability, different treatment across state borders [Montana: THE state for superpowers], required safeguards, company insurance.... It's a big list.

Anonymous said...

if it existed, it should be made available. For the same reason that guns should be available to the populace... as one famous science fiction author noted drily, "A state where only the police have guns is known as a police state." Regulation has never kept anything out of the hands of the populace, and would only cause harm by denying access only to the law-abiding.... leaving the powers market open only to the powerful, the wealthy, and the unscrupulous and ruthless (and my my my, how redundant that can be.)

Kamagra said...

well there's a problem with the laws that another blogger propuse here, in our national or international laws, we don't have any one that have a super power, so you can protect from something that doesn't exist.

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