Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Externalities: Watchdogs Edition

Superheroes fight crime and save lives. But by doing so they impose certain costs on people not directly involved. These are superhero externalities.

Captain America #603 by Ed Brubaker and Luke Ross

Here's a riddle: what do you get when you mix an extreme right-wing, armored terrorist group with Captain America and Falcon? The answer: destroyed public property.

In their never-ending quest to restore order to a society that they believe has abandoned traditional American values, the Watchdogs, now led by the evil clone of Captain America, "Bad Cap," are now on a mission to capture Bucky and Falcon.

The only problem with this foolproof plan is that to actually kidnap one of these heroes, it seems the Watchdogs have to fire their sophisticated weapons indiscriminately across the city. The result is that windows get broken, roads surfaces get cracked, and of course, traffic lights get destroyed.

Remember: all of this is to bring us to an era of fiscal responsibility and minimized public costs. In the process, all they have to do is...well, impose more public costs.

Of course, maybe this is all part of the plan.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Comics Characters Occasionally Recognize Limited Resources

Cover to Uncanny X-Men #520, art by Terry Dodson

An interesting point comes up in Uncanny X-Men #520. During the "Utopia" crossover, Scott Summers and the X-Men created massive engines to lift Asteroid M out of the ocean. This allowed the X-Men to create a floating haven for all the mutants left in the world. The resulting island refuge was dubbed Utopia. And mutantkind would live happily ever after, isolated from people who would look to hurt them...

Unfortunately, the X-Men were very short sighted in their construction of this new home. No-one thought to mention that when you build giant engines to lift an asteroid, you need to power and repair those same engines. Woops.

This is the point brought up by Dr. Nemesis (a member of the mutant science team put together by Beast) in Uncanny #520. In a briefing with Cyclops, Nemesis reveals that the engines keeping Utopia afloat are failing and that the island is sinking. The only solution he can think of is to tap into the wealth of Warren Worthington (the X-Man, Angel) and continuously build replacement engines. But, as Nemesis points out, the consequence of this would be to bankrupt Worthington.

This is important because, finally, in a comic book, a character acknowledges the fact that even a billionaire still has limited financial resources.

Comics history is filled with characters who have seemingly bottomless pockets. Think about it. For years, the Xavier Institute has been sustained by Professor Xavier and Warren Worthington. Somehow, the nebulous assets held by these two men has paid for housing and feeding hundreds of mutants, building countless supersonic jets and periodically rebuilding a massive mansion when Sentinels blow it up.

Batman is able to create an arsenal of weaponry that could conquer a small European nation. He has literally hundreds of cars, jets, boats, explosives, grappling hooks, and bat-shaped shuriken that he created using his personal wealth. And his assets are so great that Bruce Wayne is able to build all of these things without anyone noticing that he is using his money to build ridiculous contraptions. This means that he can buy a Bat-plane without creating enough of a dent to arouse suspicion. That is a LOT of money.

But in Uncanny X-Men # 520, we see that wealth is, in fact, finite and that someone can't keep buying engines for a mutant asteroid indefinitely. It's nice to see someone in this universe who is in touch with reality. Even if that person is an immortal man in a white suit and surgeon's mask who dual wields hypodermic injection pistols.

Dr. Nemesis from Uncanny X-Men #504, Art by Terry Dodson

Friday, February 19, 2010

Ecocomics Week in Review 02/19/10

Part of our job at Ecocomics is to inform readers of the latest ecocomics news stories. With that in mind, we present to you, straight from the editor's desk of THE DAILY BOGGLE, the WEEK IN REVIEW, a summary of the week's most important events.

Image created at Fodey.com

-Green Lanterns report that they have ended Blackest Night. Angry former Lanterns transformed into living dead were provided with huge bonuses and buyout packages and sent happily on their way. The Dept of Justice investigated whether the buyout packages had excessive numbers of human hearts. Lanterns may be forced to make organ restitution to Treasury Department.

-Wolverine sues Dark Wolverine for trademark infringement. Also sues for lameness and poor hairstyle choice. Dark Wolverine counter-sues for same.

-Norman Osborn reports that all H.A.M.M.E.R. agents will need to have their battle suits recalled. Osborn states that the battlesuits have a defective part that causes them to shoot civilians. Osborn places the blame with a famous auto manufacturer. He states that he is canceling his contract for pumpkins bombs and bat gliders that he signed with the company.

-A photo of J. Jonah Jameson at a conference revealed crib notes on his hand, with phrases: "Tax cuts," "Lift spirits," and "Get Spider-Man"

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Why Can't There Be Two Captain Americas?

Bucky wonders about his future as Captain AmericaCaptain America: Who Will Wield the Shield by Ed Brubaker, Butch Guice & Luke Ross
Click to See More

Natalia, aka The Black Widow, asks a very good question to Bucky in the one-shot Captain America: Who Will Wield the Shield? Namely, why can't there be two Captain Americas?

The quick back-story to those unfamiliar is that Steve Rogers, the original Captain America, had been presumed dead for years from Marvel's Civil War. During his absence, his former sidekick, Bucky Barnes, took the mantle of Captain America. Now that Rogers is back, there is the dilemma of who gets to be the hero.

Steve Rogers wants Bucky to continue as Captain America, citing some vague premonition about the dangers of Bucky relinquishing the shield. Bucky feels a sense of guilt over keeping the identity, as it was Steve's to begin with. In fact, he's actually pretty self-deprecating about the whole thing, claiming that Steve was better at the whole superhero thing than he ever was.

First of all, Bucky should know better than to doubt his self-worth. He has proven himself throughout the past few years to not only be a qualified candidate for the position, but for also adopting a style and technique that differs considerably from Steve Rogers'.

For example, Steve Rogers is stronger, faster, better coordinated, more confident, and has better tactical ability for non-lethal means. Bucky is stealthy, subtle, a better shot, and has better tactical ability for lethal and covert means. Clearly, each of them has an absolute advantage over the other in these terms. That is to say, if each devoted all their resources to non-lethal, non-covert operations, Steve would be able to perform better than Bucky. On the other hand, if each devoted all of his resources to a covert operation, Bucky would outperform Steve.

Now, let's assume that Bucky's concerns are true. Namely, lets say that Steve Rogers is better than Bucky at every element of the job. Steve has an absolute advantage over Bucky in being Captain America. Does this mean that Bucky should pack up his gear, assume a new persona, and move to Bludhaven to find a completely different set of criminals to fight?

Not necessarily. You see, Bucky should realize that although Steve can perform better in all of these feats, Bucky nonetheless has a comparative advantage over him.

The gentlemen from Overthinkingit posted before about superheroes and comparative advantage to show why Superman needs the rest of the Justice League at all. We rehash a bit of that next.

Suppose that there are two kinds of criminals that any Captain America would have to face. One type is the class of strong criminals that require pure old, fashioned fist fights to capture. The other is a more cunning and elusive type that requires more stealth/sneakiness to capture. Possessing both of these skills are necessary to being Captain America. Now suppose that if Steve devotes all his energy to fighting, he could stop 24 criminals in a week (of the first type), whereas Bucky could only stop 8. Now suppose that if Steve devoted all his energy to stealth maneuvering, he could stop 12 criminals (of the second type), whereas Bucky could still only stop 8.

Clearly Steve is better at catching both types of criminals than Bucky. However, for Bucky the opportunity cost of fighting 1 criminal is capturing 1 by using stealth techniques. The opportunity cost of fighting 1 criminal for Steve is capturing 1/2 a criminal by sneaking around (lets just say this means getting halfway there). Similarly the opportunity cost for Bucky of capturing 1 criminal through covert means is capturing 1 criminal by fighting. For Steve, however, the opportunity cost of capturing 1 criminal through covert means is capturing 2 criminals by fighting.

What we see here is that Steve has a lower opportunity cost of catching strong criminals by fighting, whereas Bucky has a lower opportunity cost of catching elusive criminals by covert means.

Now let's just say that in a given week, Bucky and Cap split their time evenly between both types. So, the number of criminals they capture in a week looks like this:


Now suppose Bucky decides to "specialize." He spends all his time working on covert tactics, thus sacrificing the criminals he would have had to catch through fighting (4 criminals) to catch those he could by stealth. Rogers then decides to take 4 criminals he would have caught through stealth and devote that same amount of time to fighting. However, we know that Rogers can fight 2 strong criminals in the time that he can catch 1 elusive perp. through stealth. After they specialize, the new chart looks like this:


Lo and behold, we are now better off than we were before. Despite the fact that Steve might be better at catching strong criminals and catching elusive ones, Bucky's concern that he is not needed is simply false.

Natalia obviously realizes this and as such asks a reasonable question: Why can't both continue to be Captain America to fight the different types of Captain America villains?

Well, for one thing there's only one shield. But more importantly, Bucky could simply specialize under a new superhero persona (which it looks like is what he intended to do). He could call himself "Captain Shadow" or something. He and Captain America could team up, each of them specializing in a certain type of criminal, which would increase the overall number of criminals caught.

On the other hand, creating a new identity does have its disadvantages:

1) New costume, new gadgets, new hideout, etc. all have significant start-up costs.
2) Pooling both skills into one identity could have the benefit of making Captain America appear to be invulnerable. This might deter more crime, as opposed to creating a new superhero that no one has ever heard of and that might take a considerable amount of time to develop the same reputation.
3) More superheroes might lead to more supervillains.

Really then, being Captain America all comes down to labels. Whether Bucky becomes Captain Shadow or remains Captain America, the important thing is that he realizes that he has an important role to play by fighting a specific subset of criminals. Once he figures that out, he should be happier.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Externalities: Ultimate Spider-Man Edition

Superheroes fight crime and save lives. But by doing so they impose certain costs on people not directly involved. These are superhero externalities.

I doubt anyone is injured here, but they could have beenUltimate Comics Spider-Man #7 by Brian Michael Bendis and Takeshi Miyazawa
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In this episode, Peter Parker's nextdoor neighbor, Rick Jones, begins to develop mutant abilities. Of course, not everyone who develops powers at the age of maturity can master them as quickly as, say, Superman. For the rest of the metahuman community, there's a considerable learning curve. Good thing there are plenty of other superheroes around (in fact, right next door) that have gone through the same thing and can help ease these newcomers through this profound transition.

Of course, that does not always mean that disconnected third parties don't have to pay for new mutants to learn. A few trees are destroyed here and there. Maybe some nasty chemicals leak into the atmosphere. In this case, Spidey and Rick crash through the window of a restaurant in Ann Arbor, Michigan, thereby destroying it along with the owner's "livelihood."

Superheroes explode. People pay. Usual stuff.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Crime Brokers

Cover to Batman #444 (art by Michael Bair)

Recently, while reading an old issue of Batman I had picked up in a 50 cent bin, I was struck by the story of the Crimesmith. She is a villain who provides other crooks with supposedly "fool-proof" plans to take down scores in exchange for a percentage of the profits from these heists. Unfortunately, fool-proof does not include "Batman-proof" and the Crimesmith's nefarious schemes are thwarted.

Not long ago, I posted a discussion of how many criminals should change careers and use them for more lucrative and less physically injurious means. The Crimesmith is something of an example of that. Rather than place herself in dangerous situations, she merely devises plans and sends them out in exchange for 60% of the loot. This is profitable and reduces the threat to the Crimesmith. Unfortunately, Crimesmith was not discerning in her clientele and sold her plans to some true morons. The morons bumbled the Crimesmith's plans and alerted Batman to her presence. But in general, the Crimesmith's strategies were safe ones. She removed herself directly from criminal activities, dealt only with intermediaries to hide her identity, and in the end got away free (despite the fact her operation was destroyed). In general, the Crimesmith showed that supporting outlandish villainy was more effective than engaging in the villainy itself.

My colleague, the Shadowbanker, wrote about an analogous Batman character, The Broker, who acts as an exotic real-estate agent to all of Gotham's villains. Much like the Crimesmith, rather than being a real villain, the Broker merely supports Gotham's villainous community. This is safer (arguably) and more profitable than being a true Batman rogue.

Art from Batman: Streets of Gotham #4, art by Dustin Nguyen

DC has yet another character, The Calculator, who is the counterpart to the heroic Oracle. Calculator also specializes in information and sells this information to the villain community for large sums. The Calculator's abilities were so valued that they garnered him a place in Lex Luthor's Society of Villains during Infinite Crisis.

Cover to Birds of Prey #126 (art by Stephane Roux)

Clearly these examples show that when it comes to being evil, look to the business world for success. The formula is maximize profit, minimize risk, develop assests, and protect yourself.

Kudos to DC for giving us some villains that we can relate to.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Globalization of Crime

Trafficking operations are complicated"The Question" in Detective Comics #859 by Greg Rucka and Cully Hamner

Renee Montoya, aka The Question, is on a mission to root out a network of human traffickers coming through Gotham City. The problem, as she's starting to see, is that the network is much more complicated than she expected. In fact, the trafficking operations seems to take place all over the world and involve many different agents.

Many refer to this phenomenon as "The Globalization of Crime." Globalization, basically the process by which national economies become integrated into a global economy through various mechanisms--trade, foreign direct investment, spread of technology, etc.--brings about several benefits. Supporters of free trade, for instance, argue that globalization heralds economic prosperity, especially for developing nations. Such economies would realize the benefits of trade, the free and unfettered flow of information, and might even see improvements in civil liberties.

Others argue, however, that the minimization of trade restrictions actually brings about other problems. For example, it might make the transportation of illicit goods across national borders that much easier. According to the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, the production and spread of synthetic drugs has been rising rapidly for years and, as of October 2009, income from the drug trade has hit $320 billion.

Here is one author talking about the connection to globalization:

International organized crime has globalized its activities for the same reasons as legitimate multinational corporations. Just as multinational corporations establish branches around the world to take advantage of attractive labor or raw material markets, so do illicit businesses. Furthermore, international businesses, both legitimate and illicit, also establish facilities worldwide for production, marketing, and distribution needs. Illicit enterprises are able to expand geographically to take advantage of these new economic circumstances thanks to the communications and international transportation revolution.


Globalization is coupled with an ideology of free markets and free trade and a decline in state intervention. According to globalization advocates, reducing international regulations and barriers to trade and investment will increase trade and development. But these very conditions that promote a globalized environment are crucial to the expansion of crime. Crime groups and terrorists have exploited the enormous decline in regulations, the lessened border controls, and the resultant greater freedom, to expand their activities across borders and to new regions of the world. These contacts have become more frequent, and the speed at which they occur has accelerated. Whereas the growth of legal trade is regulated by adherence to border control policies, customs officials, and bureaucratic systems, transnational crime groups freely exploit the loopholes of state-based legal systems to extend their reach.

The ease with which these criminals dodge regulations is actually even mentioned in the comic. See?

The greasing of palms
So what can be done about this? The article mentions that we need "greater international cooperation, more harmonized legislation and increased sharing of intelligence." The UN argues that we should focus on promoting health, justice and security across the world to mitigate the regional economic conditions that might foster drug and human trafficking.

This all sounds very complicated. Too bad the real world doesn't have a global network of bat-related crime fighters (or Liam Neeson)!

I have a very particular set of skills.  Skills I have acquired over a very long career.  Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Ecocomics Week in Review 02/05/2010

Part of our job at Ecocomics is to inform the readers of the latest ecocomics news stories. With that in mind, we present to you, straight from the editor's desk of The DB, the WEEK IN REVIEW, a summary of the week's most important events.


Thursday, February 4, 2010

Futures Analysis: Determining Ancient Enemy Resurgence

Predicting patterns is important. Its very useful to known whether a commodity you're interested in will be worth twice its current value in six months. This kind of analysis drives all of commodities trading.

But what's more important than predicting whether an ancient enemy will return? This is a perfect venue for futures analysis since ancient enemies have a lot of data about their appearance. After all, they are ancient. Granted the information used for any futures analysis would be gleaned from cave drawings rather than bar graphs, but the information is still there.

If I was a Native American mutant inventor, I would like some basic predictions about whether an ancient adversary destined to bring about a "Fall of the Mutants" was going to return in the next quarter. That just seems like helpful information.

If I were a hairy canadian mutant, it would be good to have a heads-up about whether some feral jackass who was apparently manipulating my entire life was gonna bust in and start mucking about with things again.
If I were a billionaire playboy who dresses like a rodent and one of my arch-enemies was going to return in mummified form, I would like to be able to plan for it at least a week in advance.

If Mandrakk the dark monitor is coming from the end of time to eat our universe, it's best to have prior notification.

Obviously since heroes don't seem to know about ancient enemies before they return, ancient enemy futures analysis has not been very popular in comic books. Even those who have tried (Destiny and Blindfold in the X-Men comics) have been pretty damn crappy with it. What we need are futures analysis portfolios providing information about ancient enemy resurgence in a logical and easily understood manner.

Like so:

Hmmm, we need to develop some mutant vampire countermeasures posthaste.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Is Batman's Lifestyle Too Unrealistic?

Art by Jim Lee

OK, so we all know that certain elements of the Batman mythos are pretty hard to swallow. Imagining that one human being can spend his entire life training for the fulfillment of one, sole purpose is hard enough, but doable. Yet Batman also has to balance spending each and every night patrolling the streets of Gotham City as a caped crusader, while spending his days managing a business, training, research, and maintaining a personal life to keep up the appearance of a dimwitted billionaire playboy. Not to mention that Batman must be the luckiest human in the world considering all the stray bullets that conveniently miss his face. This stuff requires some suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader.

However, yesterday the Escapist Magazine published an article entitled "Batmanalyzed," which pointed out some other oddities and inconsistencies of Batman's lifestyle that people don't seem to talk about too much. The ideas raised in the article are interesting (although I don't agree with all of them) and actually have a fair bit of economics to them. They are also very funny. I do want to highlight my views on some of the author's particular points.

1) Projecting the appearance of the "society airhead" actually may require a bit more work than we imagine:

At these parties, Bruce makes empty-headed gossip until he's convinced everyone he's an idiot. How does he come up with this chatter? Obviously, he has to study it. Though we're never shown this, he must have a clipping service prepare dossiers of pop-culture events, which he skims in the limo as Alfred drives him to the party. The Darknight Detective, as part of his holy war against Gotham's underworld, reads all about society debs and Jay Leno and American Idol. His bat-computer tracks Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Batman, sitting in the Batcave, diligently memorizing this month's Playboy Party Jokes - you don't want to picture that, do you?

This is a great example of opportunity costs. If Batman is going to spend a few hours every night working on his social life, then indeed he does have to be kept abreast of the latest in pop culture news. Not only that, but Bruce does not always hang around fashion models and movie stars. He is a billionaire playboy, sure, but he is also something of a "sophisticate." He sometimes spends his nights with prominent political figures and businessmen. This would suggest that he would also need to read up on the latest political and economic news (at least to a superficial extent--enough to make conversation).

As Varney points out, all of this is more difficult than it seems. Staying on top of this requires at least some time spent each day (maybe as little as half an hour to one hour a day) listening to or reading entertainment news. And this is just the minimum. As we know from our lessons in opportunity cost, this is valuable time that Batman could be spending doing other things, be it actually catching street-level criminals or researching a pending case. This time adds up to many foregone criminals put in jail.

Nevertheless, we know that it's important for Batman to keep up appearances. We just never really think of what it costs.

2) Batman's ability to consistently resist satisfying his sexual urges stretches our ability to suspend our disbelief:

Bruce Wayne's social life is a continual exercise in seduction, arousal and dismissal. He charms a sexy woman into going home with him, hugs and caresses her publicly. She's agog, about to spend the night with a handsome billionaire ... then bam! Out on the sidewalk, see you later. This is Bruce's most common interaction with women. Creepy.


What's creepy is a healthy, athletic heterosexual man who persuades entire job-lots of Gotham City's most desirable women to fall on their back, then walks away, repeatedly, unconsummated. It explains how he sustains the rage to keep beating up muggers.

This seems to me like a strange argument to make. First, it makes the assumption that Bruce Wayne is an ordinary heterosexual man who has ordinary, heterosexual desires. However, we know that Bruce is very far from ordinary. In fact, there are people who describe themselves as being completely nonsexual or having never in their adult lives been sexually attracted to anyone. One study revealed that this happens in about 1% of adults.

Now, I don't actually think this is the case with Batman. We know that Batman has some sexual attractions. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that he is or has been physically attracted to both Catwoman and Talia al Ghul among others. Hell, he has a son with one of them. What seems to be the case is that Bruce, given what we know about his personality and history, is probably just completely unattracted to the shallow personality types that he hangs with while assuming his invented personality. To me, this is a totally reasonable assumption.

But let's say that Bruce is physically attracted to these socialites he sees every night. Is it really so odd to assume that he would be able to resist them? In fact, Bruce spent the majority of his life training to resist these very urges and to focus his mind on his mission. This is something that priests do all the time. One might of course argue priests are not presented with as much temptation as Bruce is, but then you could also argue that Bruce's training far exceeds that of an ordinary priest.

To doubt that Bruce would be able to resist these urges is then to doubt either the legitimacy of his training or his will and determination, which means his entire mythology falls apart. I think if you're going to suspend your disbelief about some aspects of Bruce's life, then you should easily be able to with this one.

3) Batman's criminal focus may be a bit misguided.

The unthinkable thought, though - the damning observation - is his choice of targets. When he's not foiling some super-villain's plot to turn everyone in Gotham bright blue, Batman fights muggers, hit men, drug gangs - minor-league hoods all - and the occasional crimelord. This is small-scale retail crimefighting, penny-ante stuff. Why no Wall Street derivatives traders? Directors of tobacco companies? Corrupt Treasury officials? Fraudulent researchers for Big Pharma or the chemicals industry? These individuals create misery on a scale the Joker has never imagined.

Two things here. One is that I'm not entirely sure this claim is true. Batman has fought corrupt business types before. Although it may not always be as Batman. For example, the Tim Burton film, Batman Returns, shows Bruce Wayne desperately trying to prevent the tycoon, Max Shreck, from building an additional power plant that Bruce, correctly, suspects would actually drain the city's power and make a huge profit for the Shreck business. In Batman Beyond, an elderly Bruce Wayne fights tooth and nail to stop corrupt businessman Derek Powers from using his company to manufacture and sell weapons.
In Batman: Year One by Frank Miller, Batman goes after the organized crime families for sure, but he also makes attempts to deter the corrupt businessmen, police and law officials that take kickbacks and (directly or indirectly) support these families.

Of course, we know that Batman doesn't go after these guys all the time. The Escapist is correct in making the observation that when not fighting violent supervillains, Batman spends a majority of his time taking out street thugs and ordinary criminals. Why does he do this instead of spending more time going after all the aforementioned business-type crooks?

The most obvious reason is that catching crooks on the street requires much smaller operating costs and has a considerably higher probability of success. We all know how easy it is for Batman to catch these guys. He swoops in, neutralizes them, bags them, and drops them for Commissioner Gordon to process and try. Crime stopped, lives saved, case closed. To go after major organizations and complicated operations would require much more preparation, more work, and may not even succeed. Batman first has to discover that there's even been a crime committed, which is much harder to do with a Big Pharma company than it is by simply observing a mugger on the street.

The other reason is that Batman is not exactly a utilitarian. The author argues that these business-type crimes cause much more damage to Gotham City than a low-class hood. True. But I don't think that Batman cares about the magnitude of damage as much as the immediacy of it. He sees crime, he knows it's wrong, and he vows to stop it. This goes back to opportunity costs. If Batman spends time researching these corporate crimes, that means that a bunch of people get mugged or killed on the street while he is conducting that research. Batman's moral code just cannot allow for that to happen. Yes, if Batman got wind of the fact that the Joker was about to blow up the entire city, he would attempt to stop it over stopping a mugger. Yes, if Two-Face just got released from Arkham, he would spend a little time eyeballing him. Similarly, if Batman had reason to suspect that some illicit Wall Street act was about to cause the death of many people, you can bet he'd be on it like annoying on Mxyzptlk. But if Batman were a true utilitarian seeking only the maximal rewards for his city, he would have killed the Joker a long time ago thereby saving the city the cost of thousands of lives.

Batman is a complicated man. And no one understands him but his woman writers.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Externalities: Strange Edition

Demons like to make deals for souls. But by doing so they impose certain costs on people not directly involved. These are demon externalities.

What are the diagnostic criterion for magic strokes?Strange #3 by Mark Waid and Emma Rios

Here's a quick, but important lesson in contract law. Keep your contracts. Otherwise, there may be some unintended costs for everyone around you. This is especially the case in Demon Law.

What we have here is a simple transaction between a demon, Virilian, and a mother of a preteen participating in Bibb Country, Georgia Annual Miss Buttermilk Pageant. The terms of the pact are simple: Virilian promises victory to the daughter in exchange for the mother's soul. The catch (as demons always have one) is that Virilian actually made the same bargain with every contestant's mother. Obviously since not every girl can win, Virilian plan seems to be to breach contract with n-1 mothers, yet steal their souls anyway. He figures the worst that would happen is that he would incur a small fine.

I'm not expert in the legal system, but it seems that normally when there's a breach of contract, the victim takes the offender to court. It's a matter between two parties (or any other third parties that might have been direct beneficiaries or or payees in the contract). What Virilian did not anticipate, however, was that demon contract bylaws stipulate that any breach results in the opening of a wormhole and mass destruction on Earth. Or as Casey put it, "Magic's having a stroke."

He is a demon, but Virilian certainly did not intend for his thievery to bring out world destruction. Innocent people bearing the costs of one demon's negligence and several mothers' insecurities? That's externalities: demon-style.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Effect of Superheroes on Local Law Enforcement

Pay cuts for local policeUltimate Comics Spider-Man #5 by Brian Bendis and David Lafuente

A loyal reader wrote a comment on a recent post about the abundance of certain antiquated professions in comic books:

I really enjoy that, because so many comic book characters are fairly old (in our world, not in their own, because, as we discussed, they don't age while the world does), they work in jobs that are declining in significance. For instance, no offense to fighter pilots, but the increase in drones and decrease in enemies with air forces means that job isn't the daredevil prestige job, but Green Lantern, the Thing, and others had it.

Aside from the fact that many superheroes still have origins in such jobs, I also find it fascinating that there is still a prevalence of jobs declining in significance outside of the superheroes themselves. In reality, the mere existence of superheroes should have significant economic consequences on other jobs. We have discussed some of these here and here. Another important one is the effect of superheroes on law enforcement.

As shown in the Ultimate Spider-Man panels above, superhero teams, especially the government-sponsored Avengers, are putting traditional law enforcement professionals out of work. Another comic that showcases this fact is Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker's Gotham Central which depicted among other things the Gotham City's Police Department's struggles in maintaining operations under the shadow of the quicker and more efficient Bat-family. One of the negative externalities of having this network of avengers patrolling Gotham City is that demand for traditional police would likely go down. This is an aspect of superheroes not typically observed in comics.

I think Bendis really hits the nail on the head here. It's a supply and demand issue.

Now, the way it should work is as follows: the Avengers should use their comparative advantage in other-worldly matters to deal primarily with metahuman or extraterrestrial incidents, or just crime on a much larger scale. Local law enforcement, given their manpower, experience, and intimate knowledge of the neighborhoods they patrol, should deal with the smaller crimes. So while police would work cases involving robbery, arson, murders, etc., the Avengers would be free to focus all their energy fighting guys like Norman Osborn and Galactus. This is theoretically the best use of each organization's comparative advantage, which would allow them to perform their respective services at a lower opportunity cost.

Of course we know that this isn't exactly how it works. The Avengers actually don't always have a giant, world-ending crisis on their hands (though it seems that way). When they're not gathered in the Tower, um, avenging things, they patrol their own respective cities and deal with crimes of a more mundane nature. Spider-Man, for instance, splits his time fighting morphing aliens trying to take over the planet and beating up ordinary crooks on the street (and hanging out with Aunt May and Mary Jane and Kitty Pride and taking photographs and...damn how does he have time to do anything?). If Spidey saw a mugger on the street, do you think he'd stop and call the police? He would obviously do something about it. After all, great power comes great responsibility.

The problem for the local police is that these Avengers do an extraordinary job with all sorts of crimes. Even a better job than local police. In fact, the superheroes seem to overshadow law enforcement in every respect. They have more technology, more powers, more smarts, and seemingly the time to handle everything! On top of this, we've seen the population of superheroes increase over the past decade or so. Generally, this had had two consequences:

1) A steady (or maybe even increasing number) of supervillains and
2) A decrease in run-of-the-mill criminals.

Supply of criminals goes down. Demand for police goes down. Funding for police goes down.

In the panels above, the officers are complaining that their money is going towards the Avengers. We know in the Marvel Universe, the federal government levies taxes to fund the extremely sophisticated operations of both SHIELD and the Avengers. I'm not exactly sure how it works with state governments, but I'm pretty sure states pay their fair share too, especially in cases where an Avengers is known to frequently police their territories (i.e. Spider-Man in New York, Iron Man in California, etc.).

So, let me poll you guys. Say you're an ordinary taxpayer in New York City and your government is trying to balance its budget. You see the city is plagued constantly by supervillainy, but less so by average criminals. Would you want your dollars to go towards the Avengers (who also are more efficient at dealing with these regular criminals) or the NYPD?