Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Supervillain Career Fair

Historically villains are not very good at what they do. They usually fail, thankfully. If they were better at their jobs we'd all be robbed blind and walking around with obedience collars on our necks. While some may enjoy that sort of thing, I am vehemently against it.

In general, supervillains are very bad at their jobs. Which leads me to believe that they should change occupations.

Lets talk about Calendar Man. He's a Batman villain who commits crimes on specific days of the year. It's kind of his gimmick. But committing crimes on specific days doesn't make you more successful. It actually hinders you quite a bit, allowing Batman to punch you repeatedly in the face. This is a bad thing. Unfortunately, his gimmick was stolen by the Holiday Killer in Batman: The Long Halloween. That means that Calendar Man is not only ineffective, he's not unique.

Now let's consider an old favorite: Spider-Man's villain, Doctor Octopus. Recently (Amazing Spider-Man #600), it was revealed that years of getting punched in the head by Spider-Man had caused Doc Ock to develop neurological damage. In other words, his head got punched so much his brain began to turn to mush. Doc Ock wrapped himself up like a desicated mummy and tried to get revenge on NY one last time only to (you know where this is going) get punched by Spider-Man. If there is someone who needs to pursue a new line of work more, I do not know him.

Then lets examine some villains who did change occupations. The Riddler went from being an insane criminal quasi-genius to a private detective. This change in occupation netted him more money and respect than he ever received as a criminal. It's also been over a year since he swallowed his own teeth because Batman punched them in. This is definitely a step in the right direction. Norman Osborn went from wearing a form fitting green and purple costume throwing pumpkin-shaped explosives from a bat-glider to becoming America's top ranking national security officer. And that's worked pretty well for him too. He now lives in a beautiful penthouse and gets to desicrate Iron Man's armor on a daily basis. Of course things may change in January during Siege (I do love's me some classic Thor beatdowns).

Regardless, villains who have changed occupation from traditional super-villainy to something else have seen a dramatic increase in prosperity. And that's why we need a supervillain career fair. In fact, if they were smart, superheroes could get together and organize this fair. Batman and Superman should work to get their rogues connected with major companies in order to make everyone's lives easier. Mr. Freeze would be better off working for Frigidaire. Poison Ivy could work for Greenpeace. The Toyman could work for Hasbro. Clock King could improve the design of a Rolex tenfold. I'm actually pretty sure Braniac already works for Apple.

It's so ridiculously obvious, I'm really surprised that no hero has tried it before. But they should.

I mean shouldn't it be every hero's goal to turn this:

...into this?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Life Insurance Now a Moot Point

In light of the recent trend in comics events (namely Blackest Night and Necrosha) it seems like no comic book character can stay dead. While this has always been true, now more than ever, the dead are suddenly seeming very lively.

Now, we've talked about insurance a lot in the past. Namely here, here, here, and oh yeah here. We like the topic. Mostly because an industry based on risk assessment in a world where aliens invade every Friday is too ludicrous not to talk about. And if there's one thing we like at Ecocomics, its ludicrous stuff.

But life insurance is another interesting point to deal with. Lets use someone as an example who seems like they're going to live a nice stable life. Let's say we use Jean Grey in the early 80s. So Jean has nice responsible parents who love her deeply. They don't want to think that its possible that their daughter could die, but like responsible adults, they need to plan for contingencies. Especially when their daughter is the kind of person who picks fights with the Living Monolith. So the Greys purchase a plan for their daughter. Then when she gets exposed to solar radiation, possessed by an alien life force, and blasted with a laser on the moon, it's time to collect on their policy.

The Greys then use the money from their daughter's life insurance policy to give their daughter a nice respectable funeral where all of her friends (including the blue elf creature, hairy canadian, and russian metal guy) and her laser blasting fiancee can mourn her properly.

And then the Fantastic Four finds Jean in a cocoon at the bottom of the Hudson River. What happens now? Has fraud been committed? Does the insurance company who paid out for Jean's death get their money back? If so, who pays them?

And this is the confusion that results from only one death. What happens when every mutant in Genosha comes back to life? What happens when every dead person in the universe comes back with a black lantern ring? Granted in both of these cases, people in insurance companies are likely too busy trying to keep the reanimated corpses from devouring their hearts to think about the finer points of this debate. But the debate remains. Theres a lot of folks re-animating and a lot of insurance claims which would seem to now be invalid.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Bennett Bailout

Amazing Spider-Man #612 by Mark Waid and Paul Azaceta (2009)

The latest tale in Spider-Man's never-ending struggle demonstrates just how powerful the economy is as both an instigator of public discontent and as a motivation for supervillains. If we think about it, many supervillains form because they are either down on their luck or run into some sort of trouble with their finances. As Ezra Klein noted, the Sandman turned to a life of crime in Spider-Man 3 because he was unable to afford medical treatment for his daughter. Most ordinary thugs you see in comics (and a fairly large amount of brand-name villains too) commit crimes that are financially motivated. Even the Joker, depending on your interpretation has origins stemming from financial peril. A struggling comedian trying to support his family, he pulls a heist at a chemical plant to make some cash and...well, you know the rest.

Obviously the state of the economy is important here. We've discussed before how it's possible that an economic recession could lead to more crime. This applies mostly to your orindary street-thug types (remember this guy?), but if left unchecked we know that these low-tier criminals could escalate to be formidable opponents.

But now to top it off, we have a new way that the economy can affect the state of superheroics: public opinion.

Dexter Bennett, former construction tycoon turned newspaper owner, has just engineered the first official federal government bailout of the newspaper industry (specifically, his own newspaper The DB). If you think that this is ludicrous, recall that back in September President Obama hinted at doing something like this. To be fair, Obama was mainly looking at proposals to give extra tax breaks to struggling newspapers if they agreed to restructure as nonprofits. Waid doesn't go into much detail in Amazing Spider-Man, but it looks like what's happening is that the feds are just throwing money at The DB with no expectation of restructuring, public ownership, or...anything. This sort of makes you think about what the federal government is getting out of keeping The DB alive. Or how exactly Bennett pulled it off in the first place.

However, this is all besides the point. Far more interesting is the unintended result of this "Bennett Bailout." Remember the classic Spidey villain, Electro? The one who can...electro-ize stuff? The one we haven't seen in a while? I wonder how he can the federal government's actions to his advantage:

You see, NYC isn't exactly happy with the Bennett Bailout. Citizens feel that their taxpayers' money is being wasted to support greedy, capitalist fat cats sitting in their mansions as they suck the life out of the middle class. If anyone has read the supervillain instruction manual, they know that praying on the fears of the public is by far the easiest way to attack a superhero. And what do people fear more than anything else in the world right now? It's not a crazy former villain who shoots electricity out of his eyes. It's Wall Street.

Interestingly, this is precisely what J. Jonah Jameson has been trying to accomplish for years. By writing scathing critiques of the webcrawler in the former Daily Bugle, he was trying to instill a permanent sense of fear. He argued that Spider-Man increased crime. He argued that Spider-Man was a danger to society. He tried everything and only marginally impacted the public's perception of Spider-Man.

In one day, Electro managed to change all of that. He managed to completely change his own reputation from being a terrorist to being a servant of the labor force. He also managed to persuade the public that Spider-Man was part of the capitalist conspiracy. AND he did it without any intention of involving Spider-Man at all! Turns out Electro had lost the fortune he had in various investments when the economy went sour. He's out primarily for personal gain.

What's the difference between Electro and Jameson? Jameson never thought to use the great instigator of fear. The...economy!

The lesson here is that if superheroes want to be thorough, they better start getting their PhDs and involving themselves in public policy.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Sorry for the Sporadic Posting

Everyone wishes they could get a break from workIrredeemable #7 by Mark Waid and Peter Krause (2009)

Hey guys--sorry for the irregular post schedule recently. The months of November and December are very busy for us as we have lots of deadlines, etc. We should be back to updating on a daily schedule starting next week (though there will definitely be some posts this week too). To wet your appetite, here are some topics you have to look forward to:
  • Government bailout of the newspaper industry
  • Someone finally figured out how to use economics against Spider-Man
  • Indian Casinos
  • More on strange deals with the Devil
Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Ecocomics Explains: Opportunity Cost

reprinted from gettyimages.com

Ecocomics Explains is a new recurring feature of this blog. Each week, we will discuss a different economics concept--ranging from more basic ones to more advanced and mathematically involved ones--and highlight some examples from comic books that reflect the idea
s. We will also include a rating system in each post to show the difficulty level of the concepts. 1 Greenspan refers to a very basic concept, 2 Greenspans refers to a more intermediate concept and 3 Greenspans refers to an advanced concept.

(1 Greenspan)

Opportunity cost
is a fairly basic economics concept. Anyone who has taken any introductory microeconomics course certainly knows about it. It is usually one of the first topics introduced in class. You're probably familiar with a number of classic examples, such as having a choice between hamburgers and pizza or guns and butter. Those of you who have never taken economics before are still likely familiar with the intuition behind it, but maybe not know the terminology.

Opportunity cost stems from the fact that resources are scarce. In fact, the entire field of economics is basically the study of how individuals and societies allocate scarce resources. When a society chooses to place greater emphasis on the production of one good, then production of another good necessarily has to decrease. Similarly, consumers who have a fixed income have to make choices between which goods to buy. Purchasing more of one means purchasing less of another. The opportunity cost of a good, then, is what an individual, firm or society gives up in order to have one particular good. It is the value of the highest valued foregone alternative (this is the definition used in the third edition of Microeconomics Michael L. Katz).

This doesn't just apply to production and consumption of goods, however. It embodies the idea of tradeoffs, which is something that we all experience on a daily basis. And it happens in comic books all the time too!

To see how this works, let's consider the case of Spider-Man. Spidey is a fascinating study because basically the entire point of his ongoing series is to highlight his struggle to maintain a balance between his personal life and his obligations as a superhero. Every day for Spider-Man is an exercise in opportunity costs.

The Amazing Spider Man #600 by Dan Slott and John Romita Jr. (2009)

See here how Peter Parker is making a choice between earning some more money to support his crime-fighting double life and attending Aunt May's rehearsal dinner (she was recently married to J. Jonah Jameson senior). Let's look at this example in a bit more detail, but spice it up a bit. Suppose that Peter has 60 minutes (1 hour) of free time. In that free time, he can either go out and fight some thugs on the street or he can choose to attend Aunt May's rehearsal dinner and spend time with his family. Also, let's say that it takes Spider-Man 12 minutes to take down an ordinary street thug and that it takes 6 minutes with his family to earn him a "brownie point." This means that Spider-Man has a production equation of the form:

12x + 6y = 60

where x is the number of criminals Spider-Man takes down and y is the number of brownie points he earns at the May residence. Given this equation, if Spidey decides to take down 3 thugs (x=3), then we have:

12(3) + 6y = 60
36 + 6y = 60
6y = 24
y = 4

Thus, if Spider-Man spent his hour taking down 3 thugs, he could have also had the time to earn 4 brownie points.

This can be represented graphically as follows:

Note: Not Drawn to Scale. Not drawn particularly well either. By now you've noticed, I prefer drawing my graphs in MS Paint. Lost art, really.

In the graph above, line "l" represents Spider-Man's "budget constraint." This is just a visual representation of the bundles of goods that our webcrawler can "afford" with his given "income." In this case, income refers to Spider-Man's allotted time schedule, the goods are brownie points and criminals put in jail, and costs refers to time in minutes. Any point on the graph beneath line "l" is in Spider-Man's "feasible set." This is the set of all combinations of criminals and brownie points that Spider-Man can possibly afford in his hour of free time. Any point that is in the pink shaded area of the graph is feasible.

Take our example above. If Spider-Man chooses to fight 3 thugs, which would take 36 minutes, he could then only earn 4 brownie points. This is reflected as point A on the graph. Notice that point A is exactly on the budget line. Hence, Spider-Man is using all of his time towards one of the two goods. This is an efficient use of his time. Suppose instead that Spider-Man decided to fight 2 criminals and earn 3 brownie points (point B of the graph). In minutes, the bundle would cost:

12(2) + 6(3) = 24 + 18 = 42 minutes.

Point B, although being in the feasible set, is not efficient. The reason is that Spider-Man is only using 42 minutes of his time, which means he has 18 minutes left over that are not being devoted to one of the two goods that exists in this universe. With that 18 minutes, he could be fighting more criminals or earning more brownie points. But he isn't.

Now consider point C of the graph. At this point, Spider-Man fights 4 thugs and earns 5 brownie points. In minutes, this bundle would cost:

12(4) + 6(5) = 48 + 30 = 78 minutes.

Obviously, Spider-Man only has 60 minutes and therefore cannot purchase this bundle of goods. Point C is therefore not feasible.

If Spidey chose not to attend Aunt May's dinner at all, but instead to spend the entire hour fighting crime, he would be able to bring down a maximum of 5 street thugs in the 60 minutes. If he chose to sacrifice his hero duties for an hour and spend its entirety with the family, he would be able to earn a maximum of 10 brownie points. These points are the x and y intercepts of the graph and are the endpoints of the budget constraint.

So, where is Spider-Man's opportunity cost in this graph? It's actually the slope of the budget line! Notice that the slope is -2. This represents the opportunity cost of one good in terms of the other. So, the opportunity cost of one criminal is 2 brownie points. To put one more criminal to justice, Spider-Man would have to sacrifice 2 brownie points that he would have otherwise gained by being with his family. Conversely, to gain two more brownie points, Spider-Man would have to sacrifice fighting 1 criminal.

Those are the basics of opportunity cost in a nutshell. I even threw in a little bit of linear budget constraints. Once we discuss utility maximization, we can bring in other factors. For example, we all know that Spider-Man suffers from immense guilt over the death of Uncle Ben and would likely derive more utility from fighting a criminal than maintaining his personal life. We can factor all (or most) of this in to an optimization problem. But this is a post for another time.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Is Class Warfare Inevitable?

While reading a discount copy of "Strange Killings" featuring the the Warren Ellis creation, Sergeant Major William Gravel, I began to wonder about class differences.

You see, Bill Gravel is a magician. But he's a very particular magician, namely a combat magician. His skills to manipulate reality (including warping the path of bullets, visual illusions, and summoning demonic horses) make him an extremely effective killing machine. This allows him to succeed both as a private mercenary and a soldier in Britain's SAS. His abilities are even strong enough to grant him access to two societies of the most powerful magicians in Great Britain, namely the Minor Seven and the Major Seven. But despite his amazing abilities, William Gravel considers himself a blue-collar man. His main goal is to protect his country, accrue enough money to pay for his drinking habit, and kill a few wankers along the way. Modest goals to say the least.

In the first arc of Warren Ellis's ongoing "Gravel", Bill's meager life goals cause him some trouble. He is thrown out of the Minor Seven by the six other members of the group and replaced by a paranormal archaelogist who has a more aristocratic bent. The main reason for removing Gravel from the Minor Seven is very simple and very elitist: he's a peasant. Gravel uses his magical powers for meager ends and doesn't behave as is expected for one of the most powerful magicians in Britain.

Gravel's response? He kills the bastards, one by one. In fact the first arc of "Gravel" is just the systematic murder of the men and women who consider themselves to be Gravel's betters.

The point of this being that there is class warfare in even such a small bizarre subset of the world. If even the Magicians of Great Britain can be torn asunder by social and economic disparity, is there any hope for the rest of world?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Reading List for the Week Of 12/2/09

reprinted from geneha.com

Mark and I thought it would be fun to start a weekly post where we recommend the best of our reading lists. If you guys are reading anything we aren't, we would also love for you to comment and tell us about it. We need suggestions for more reading material anyway!

This first post will include last week's comics as well as well as what we're planning on reading this weekend (since we didn't have a chance to read new releases yet).

Starting next week, we'll also include some economics writings too!

Comics From Last Week
Chew #6 by John Layman Rob Guillory
Tony Chu is a cibopath. That means he gets psychic impressions from anything he eats. If he eats a hamburger, he can tell you the origin of the meat. Meanwhile, a bird flu epidemic has caused a nationwide scare prompting the government to expand the regulatory powers of the Food and Drug Administration and ban the wholesale of chicken. See our previous posts on Chew here and here.

Criminal: The Sinners #2 by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
Anyone, comic or non-comic fan, who isn't reading Criminal by now is really missing out. For fans of the pulp, crime-noir genre, this book is absolutely critical. Not to mention, Criminal: The Sinners #1 is a great jumping-on point for new readers. Each arc in the title if relatively self-contained (albeit having minor parallels with other arcs).

Invincible Iron Man #20 by Matt Fraction and Salvador Laroca
This is probably my favorite superhero book out right now. Tony Stark has been ousted from his position at Stark Industries and is on the run from Norman Osborn. It would appear from the last issue that Norman has finally beaten him. But with the start of this new arc, we're in for a treat. Matt Fraction continues to weave an incredibly intricate and layered story that shows Iron Man in a brand new light.

Gotham City Sirens #6
by Paul Dini and Guillem March
If you've ever seen the wildly successful and brilliant Batman: The Animated Series, then you pretty much know what to expect whenever Paul Dini is writing a Batman book. Currently, he has two ongoing titles: Streets of Gotham, which more or less focuses on the daily operations of all facets of Gotham City, and Gotham City Sirens, which focuses on the ladies of the city: Poison Ivy, Catwoman, and Harley Quinn. Nothing too groundbreaking in this issue, but it is a load of fun.

Amazing Spider-Man # 613 by Mark Waid and Paul Azaceta
The best thing about reading Spider-Man is watching Peter Parker balance his superhero responsibilities with his life as a civilian. This issue continues that trend, only now Spider-Man becomes, wait for it, a public menace! Except this time it's because of economics! Sort of. Oh yeah, and Electro becomes a public hero? Very fun things going on in the webcrawler's world this week.

Thor Giant-Size Finale #1 by J. Michael Straczynski and Marko Djurdjevic
A bitter-sweet ending to J. Michael Straczynski's fantastic run on Thor. This is bittersweet because it provides a nice, fun ending to many of the plot threads that Straczynski has developed ove the course of his last 16 issues. On the other hand, it is the end of the best Thor run since Walt Simonson's landmark 4 year run in the mid-80s. In this issue we see some really cool things, including the final fate of the most courageous short order cook in history, William the Warrior.

Uncanny X-Men #517 by Matt Fraction and Greg Land
Matt Fraction's run on the Uncanny X-Men hasn't been socially or politically significant. But goddamit, it's fun. This issue sees the combined forces of the X-Men, Namor, and Magneto battle five Predator X creatures. What is a Predator X, you may ask? It's a creature the size of a monster truck with razor sharp teeth, an nearly impenetrable metal hide and a voracious hunger for mutants. And seeing Namor punch one of these things in the face while dragging it to the bottom of the ocean is truly a blast. And Greg Land's artwork, while occaisionally creepy and quasi-pornogrpahic, is pretty to look at.

Comics This Week
Jonah Hex #50 by Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, and Darwyn Cooke
Superman: World of New Krypton # 10 by James Robinson, Greg Rucka and Pete Woods
The Marvels Project #4 by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting
Thor # 604 by Kierron Gillen and Billy Tan
Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #5 by Brian Bendis and David Lafuente
Uncanny X-Men #518 by Matt Fraction and Terry Dodson

Misc. Comics
Daredevil: Born Again by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli
Remember when Frank Miller wrote the best comic books in the industry? Remember when he had basically attained "do no wrong" status? Daredevil: Born Again was at the height of this time period. Not quite The Dark Knight Returns, but I would rank it up there with Batman: Year One.

The book tells the story of Matt Murdock's descent into insanity as the Kingpin discovers his secret identity and them systematically ruins his life. It's a story about loss, hope and redemption. If this sounds familiar, it's because Kevin Smith basically wrote the exact same story years later and called it Guardian Devil.

This book is a must read for any Daredevil fans.

Priorities, India.

Supergod #1 by Warren Ellis and Garrie Gastonny (2009)

It may not be China or Russia or the United States who will be responsible for the world's ultimate destruction, but India! OK, it will probably be the United States, but India seems to be at least partially responsible in Warren Ellis' new series, Supergod.

Ellis hits the nail on the head here regarding India's massive problems with sanitation, overpopulation and water supply. He notes that a thousand Indian children per day died from sickness related to the population in the river Ganges. According to a 2006 World Health Organization fact sheet, about 456,000 Indians died in 2002 due to Diarrhoeal diseases. 20% of the deaths of children under 5 years old were from Diarrhoeal diseases. And apparently a 2003 government report indicated that only 30% of India's waste water was being treated, with the untreated supply flowing into rivers. One other thing: as of 2006, the population with sustainable access to improved drinking water was 86% in rural areas and 96% in urban areas What about access to improved sanitation? Only 52% in urban areas and...18% in rural areas! Yikes!

Of course, these are more recent statistics than the ones I think Ellis is alluding to, since he refers to the post-Cold War period. I don't have those ready (and will certainly appreciate if anyone finds them!), but an interesting bit of information about that period was that it was the setting of economic crisis of 1991. Growing fiscal imbalances had caused the government to nearly default. Then came economic liberalization! The country opened itself up to foreign direct investment, reformed capital markets, and privatized/decentralized domestic businesses. GDP grew and many people eventually escaped poverty.

However, regulation of the water and sanitation infrastructure was delegated to local municipalities. These institutions are unfortunately very weak and don't exactly have the resources to manage the upkeep. And so many people continue to get sick and remain without access to adequate water supply and proper toilets.

All this and India still finds the money (and this is before the full benefits of economic liberalization were realized, mind you) to fund a team of scientists to create its own superhuman. More than a superhuman...a Supergod! One who decides that the only way to save India is to, well...

Priorities, India. Priorities.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Doctor Strange's Health Care Promo

reprinted from ssjlogan.files.wordpress.com

A few weeks ago, we asked readers their thoughts on who would be the best superhero spokesperson for health insurance. Congratulations to our winner, Will, who came up with a clever promo/commercial for our favorite hero physician (next to Dr. McNinja), Dr. Strange! Here is the answer:

Dr. Strange brings the unique perspective of a man who was a doctor (leading neurosurgeon), a patient with a pre-existing condition that affects his employment options, and, currently, lost his job as Master of the Mystic Arts. I have no idea what health plan the Master of the Mystic Arts has, but he had access to a great deal of resources now not available. Here is how I see his ad going: "Hi, my name is Stephen Strange. To many, I am known as Dr. Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts. Unfortunately, like so many Americans I have recently lost my job as Master of the Mystic Arts and, in the process, I have lost my health insurance. With my numerous enemies, injuries, possessions, and other hazards, my premiums are far too high for me to afford and I am left uninsured. As a former neurosurgeon, I know the cost to the hospitals and the medical system of uninsured like me and that cost is also felt by you. Please join me in trying to end this broken system and, by the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth, we can have an affordable public option that insures all Americans."

This is a wonderful and hilarious response. The great thing about Dr. Strange as a spokesperson for health care reform is not only that he has seen the perils of our health insurance system from within, but that he would also be a terrific proponent of reforming areas of health that have not received enough media attention, namely health care delivery and public health. Furthermore, Dr. Strange has gained so much prominence (despite not having his own ongoing title and not being a registered superhero) that I would consider him among the A-listers in the superhero business. Finally, the commercial that was Will envisions appeals to the public's sympathies by telling a story that many people can relate to (well, inasmuch as they can relate to someone with powers of the dark arts). The combination of all these factors is likely to garner considerable support for the campaign.

Again, thank you all for your wonderful comments. Will, please email us at ecocomics dot blog at gmail dot com with your top five comic choices and address.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

reprinted from onceuponageek.com

A note to all supervillains out there: you'd have to be really low to plan an attack today, while our superheroes are busy eating turkey with their families.

Unless you're the Joker. Batman is always ready.

See you all on Monday!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Costs of Secret Identities

Amazing Spider-Man #610 by Marc Guggenheim, Marco Checchetto, Luke Ross and Rick Magyar (2009)

I think Spidey might be underestimating here. I'm no expert in the cost of drywall, but my feeling is that Aunt May's house isn't really that small and this explosion looks like it took out more than just the living room. Not to mention the damage to other household items, glass (Screwball crashed in through the window), ceiling, etc. I would guess that drywall itself would cost anywhere from $6,000 - $8,000. But this is admittedly an unscientific prediction.

It looks like Spider-Man would make a good spokesperson for a Mastercard commercial (that is, in addition to being a good spokesperson for health care reform). Though, I highly doubt that his secret identity is priceless. However, we do learn something valuable from this panel. Since Spidey is giving up the $3,000 for the drywall and the $8,000 for the costs of labor in order to maintain his secret identity, we know that his secret identity is worth at least $11,000 to him. But is there an upper bound to this cost or would Spider-Man really be willing to give up any amount in order to keep his secret?

Opportunity cost, Spider-Man. Opportunity cost.

The really interesting question to ask here is that if there is a cost, then what would it be? That is, what would Spider-Man be willing to pay to retain his secret identity (or what would he be willing to be paid to divulge it)? This does not necessarily have to be a monetary exchange. Suppose the Green Goblin threatened to kill Mary Jane and Aunt May unless Spider-Man revealed his secret identity. Would he do it to ensure the safety of his two most beloved people in the world? If so, then his secret identity would be worth no more than the combined value of their lives.

It's also fun to note the distinction between Batman and Spider-Man. Now, obviously interpretations of the characters vary by creative team so there is no definitive course of action that either would take given a particular situation. Nevertheless, there are two recent examples where Batman and Spider-Man have been presented the option of revealing their secret identities in order to save a bunch of lives.

For Spidey, it was in Invincible Iron Man #7 by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca. This issue took place just before "World's Most Wanted," which saw Tony Stark on the run from Norman Osborn's "Dark Reign." In the issue, Stark incessantly tries to convince Spider-Man to register with the government under the 2006 Superhuman Registration Act. He claims by doing so, Spider-Man would ultimately be able to save hundreds of more lives as he would have the full support of the government behind him. Spider-Man persistently refuses, however, noting that he would put his closest friends and family in danger--a risk he would not take even for the sake of the lives of many (he didn't say this explicitly, but heavily implied it).

Batman experienced a similar dilemma in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight.
In the movie, the Joker threatens to continue terrorizing citizens of Gotham City unless Batman reveal his secret identity to the public. What's interesting here is that, unlike Spider-Man, Batman makes the choice of saving the lives until Harvey Dent interrupts his decision.

In Spider-Man's example, his secret identity is worth more than the cost of the many lives Iron Man claims he would have been able to save. In Batman's example, it was not worth the cost.

There is also the question of utilitarianism vs. deontologism (saving more lives vs. the rightness of the act). But this will be a post for another day. For more on this in the context of Batman, read Mark White's Batman and Philosophy book.

Any guesses on what would be the most that Spider-Man would be willing to pay to remain hidden from the public?

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Supply of Water in Metropolis 2: Supply Harder

Superman #692 by James Robinson and Fernando Dagnino (2009)

Recently, we posted about the current state of disarray in Metropolis following a disastrous attack that left the city's sewer system virtually irreparable. Specifically, we had argued that the massive wave of dehydration, thirst, and overall panic was likely exaggerated. Since then, a loyal reader has written a wonderful response, arguing that the effects might have been more accurate than I had imagined and using post-Katrina New Orleans as a comparison.

Also when looking at New Orleans we can see how politics and social issues impacted humanitarian response, but the ShadowBanker's analysis of what happened in Metropolis is presented in an apolitical or asocietal manner. In the DC Universe, cities, states, and governments may act apolitically or altruistically, but water governance in the north and south cannot be seen as separated from its political, historical, cultural context.

Indeed this is true and I did leave out the political elements in my analysis. The catastrophe in New Orleans was criticized not only for lack of adequate preparation, but also for government mismanagement after the fact. This raises the question of how effective governments really are in dealing with crises like these. Regarding disaster relief, the National Response Plan dictated that local governments have to first exhaust all of their resources before the feds step in with the big guns. Obviously for something like Katrina, this should have happened much sooner. Many also alleged that racism/socioeconomic status was a significant cause of the delayed government response, given that pre-Katrina New Orleans was composed of about 60% African-Americans.

Whether this is true or not: beats me. However, Metropolis' situation is different from New Orleans for several reasons:

1) Metropolis is likely a much wealthier city than New Orleans. Not to mention it is used to dealing with crises way worse than this on a near-weekly basis. Preparation-wise, I think Metropolis ought to know what its doing by now.

It's also not just that the government has more resources, but its people sort of do too. A quick run on the 2005 Current Population Survey (which reports data for 2004--before Katrina), shows that median household income in New York State in 2004 was about $40,000 and the mean was about $60,000. In Louisiana, the median was about $33,000 and the mean was about $46,000. In New York, about 19% of the population lived below the federal poverty level in 2004 and about 18% lived between 100% and 200% of poverty. In Louisiana, it was 21.3% living below poverty and 23.5% living between 100 and 200% of poverty.

Obviously this is not the best comparison since these are numbers for the entire state and not the cities. If I could run on the cities, I bet there would be much larger distinctions. Second, we have no idea how Metropolis compares to New York City--I'm just guessing. Also, I'm not sure these numbers really had anything to do with anything. Your guess is as good as mine. Here are the graphs:

2) If it was a racism issue that slowed the federal response, then aid would have certainly come quicker to Metropolis. Similarly, using the 2005 CPS, it looks like in New York State, 17% of the population were reported as being African-American In Louisiana, it was about 33%. Again, these are state numbers. But according to this New York City fact sheet from the Census Bureau, it's about 25% in the city. That's much smaller than the 60% or so in New Orleans!

3) Lets' not forget that Metrpolis' problem is exclusively its lack of water. There was no hurricane that devastated the entire city, wiping out homes and displacing families. There's no shortage of food, clothing or shelter. It's water and water alone. I am in no way vindicating the US government, but it had a lot more to do in New Orleans than it would have here in Metropolis.

The post also has this argument:

ShadowBanker talks about 'thugs' supplying water to the city's people for high prices, but small vendors are a very important part of water supply systems. The Asian Development Bank found that in some parts of Manila up to 50% of people rely on informal vendors for water, which means these vendors are filling a massive gap in service provision. Water is often sold at higher prices, and this is a big problem when trying to service the poor, but in some places there may not be another option.

It's funny that he mentioned this because I had just read a post by Tyler Cowen about water in Yemen.

...the market price of water has quadrupled in the past four years, pushing more and more people to drill illegally into rapidly receding aquifers.

Here is the longer (and fascinating) story. Basically the country is running out of water. The article focuses on the fact that half of the Yemeni water supply goes to grow an addictive drug called qat.

Again, though, this is in Manila and in Yemen. I'm not sure if thugs would have their day in Metropolis after some supervillains cleverly destroyed the sewers using nanotechnology.

It's a sad story, but if politics/social issues really were the major cause of delay, then it's very probable that Metropolis would have received considerably better treatment. Anyway, this was a really interesting response. Thank you very much, K. Hamada!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Libertarian Batman

Via Brad Delong, here is an image from Paul Pope's Elseworlds tale, "The Berlin Batman." Set in 1938, it tells the story of Baruch Wayne, wealthy socialite by day and a masked vigilante by night, who is tasked with recovering an early manuscript of Ludgwig von Mises' Human Action (that had been stolen by the Nazis). Mises was famous for championing laissezs-faire capitalism and influencing the modern libertarian movement.

The Berlin Batman stands as a symbol of hope to free-market thinkers everywhere and an enemy of aggressive government regulators. Incidentally, The Berlin Batman is Ron Paul's favorite superhero.

reprinted from comicmix.com
Criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot. They want nothing short of a profligate system of government-run health care. Father, how do I make them afraid?

Yes, father, I shall become a libertarian.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Financial Retcons?

The world of comics is awash with shady details that are constantly in flux. When did Wonder Woman leave Paradise Island? 1940? 1986? 1991? 2000? Nobody really knows. Is Jason Todd dead or alive? Is Bucky a frozen corpse or a brainwashed super-spy working for the Russians? How does Batman stay in his early 30s while Dick Grayson ages 10 years before our eyes?

Comic book history is full of details that have been changed, rewritten or ignored. This is the essence of the RETCON! When writers need to make comics history new or fresh, they simply change it. For example, Superman is the last Kryptonian. No he's not. He has Supergirl, Krypto, General Zod, Ursa, Non, Streaky the Super-Cat... Oh wait no... yeah he's the last Kryptonian again. Thanks Crisis on Infinite Earths. But wait... you brought all those people back again? And now there's an entire city of Kryptonians alive because they were captured by Braniac (the REAL Braniac this time, because all other versions of him were fake). Alright then.

The world of comicdom is constantly in flux. But right now, so is the world of finance. The world economy is in its own Zero Hour, Crisis in Finance (though time is probably applicable to a certain degree).

In light of the recent bankruptcy of CIT, it occurred to me that financial bailouts are essentially the retcon of the financial world. We know that the mismanagements of the past occurred and somewhere in the back of our minds, we know those events still count. AIG did need monetary assistance because of bad investments. However, we're also presented with a reset version of the world where AIG is no longer a company unable to meet its financial obligations. These changes happen suddenly, with little or no justification or respect for history.

One second Ford and GM are in severe financial trouble because of their policies. The next minute it's bonuses for everyone in financial solvency land.

We have witnessed a Deus Ex Machina restructuring the financial landscape. We can call these changes... Greenspan Punches.

Update: Technically, it's supposed to be a "Bernake Punch," but how cool is that Greenspan photo?

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

Friday, November 13, 2009

Tony Stark and Intellectual Property, Part 2

Cover to Iron Man v4, Issue 28

I really enjoyed the reader response to the previous post. Thanks to everyone for the insightful comments.

The question posed is whether Tony Stark, as inventor of the Iron Man armor, has the right to control and destroy his creations when these creations are enormously powerful and can greatly affect the course of human history. Does Tony Stark have the right to distribute this technology as he sees fit?

To use an analogy that I think is somewhat effective, should Robert Oppenheimer be allowed to keep atomic bomb technology in his house and only give it to people he likes?

I think not, especially since Tony Stark has shown himself to be an a rather unstable person and hasn't shown the best judgement regarding his armor.

For years in Iron Man comics (namely in the first Michelinie/Layton run and Denny O'Neil's run), Nick Fury has tried to get the specifications for the Iron Man armor. He even went so far as to try a hostile takeover of Stark Enterprises. The tone of the stories seemed to paint Fury as the villain but who was really right in that struggle? Nick Fury, who wants to use the Iron Man armor to protect the lives of his agents and make S.H.I.E.L.D. a more capable international peacekeeping force? Or Tony Stark who wants to prevent his armor from falling into the wrong hands? Granted, Nick Fury hasn't always shown the best judgement in the past, but he's usually been on the side of the angels. And he has the decision making power of an entire international peace-keeping force behind him. Had Tony given in to Fury's request, how many lives of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents could have been saved by protective Iron Man armor? How many threats could S.H.I.E.L.D. have dealt with directly without having to wait hours for superheroes to show up? How many lives could have been saved in that time? Finally, who would be more effective in Iron Man armor, trained military agents or a former alcoholic billionaire playboy?

Tony's bad decision making continued in the Armor Wars, when Justin Hammer used industrial espionage to steal Tony's armor designs and sell them on the black market. Tony's response was to go on a rampage and destroy the armors of all individuals (heroes and villains) who could have had elements of his armor designs incorporated into their suits. In the process of this, Iron Man took down the Controller, the Raiders, the Beetle, the Titanium Man, and the Crimson Dynamo. Unfortunately, he also took down the Mandroids of SHIELD and the Guardsmen who protect the superhero prison the Vault. Tony also beat up Stingray thinking his armor used Iron Man technology (it didn't) and beat up Captain America while attacking the Vault. In addition, Iron Man's attack on the Vault actually released several super-villains including Mr. Hyde, Titania, the Griffin, Vibro, and the Armadillo. Iron Man's actions caused him to become a wanted criminal. He actually had to fake his own death to avoid getting arrested. Tony's armor designs were safe but he left a lot of destruction in his wake.

Iron Man v1, Issue #225, art by Bob Layton

Later in The Best Defense storyline, the U.S. government found some of Tony's left over armor and reverse engineered it, integrating some of the components they found into their weapons and tanks. Unfortunately, the technology was poorly adapted and the lives of U.S. servicemen was put into jeopardy by malfunctioning tech. What was Tony's solution? Become the Secretary of Defense in order to personally supervise his tech.

In Execute Program, Tony's specialty armors were hacked by a virus and went on rampage. His armors went on to beat up the Avengers, Namor, and ironically clobber the Fantastic Four. Only Tony was able to dismantle them using his personal knowledge of his own tech.

Iron Man v4, Issue # 12, art by Adi Granov

In all of these cases, Tony Stark has shown increasingly poor judgement regarding his Iron Man armor. He has shown egotistical paranoia regarding his designs, withholding them from the international community. The ostensible reason for this is to keep his technology out of the wrong hands. This doesn't really seem to work though. Villians continually get their hands on and misuse Iron Man designs. In fact, all Tony has done is remove the ability of other heroes and the federal government from utilizing his technology. He's also shown that his Iron Man designs are sufficiently advanced to out-fox Reed Richards in the short term. The end result of this is that stolen Iron Man tech is unbeatable unless Tony Stark is there to stop it.

Clearly from the evidence listed above, Tony Stark is not a man who is mentally stable to hold complete dominion over the Iron Man designs. But that brings us to another, more current question. Does Tony have the right to erase his mind as he has done in "World's Most Wanted" which just finished in the Invincible Iron Man title?

This is a problematic question. Naturally, Tony's memories, thoughts, and emotions are his own. He should be allowed to do with these as he wishes. But his brain doesn't just contain emotion and memories. It contains designs, ideas, and the secret identities of every registered super-hero which he took illegally. That information belongs to the government and Tony's theft of it definitively makes him the the titular "World's Most Wanted." Granted, in the current state of the Marvel Universe, the power of government has fallen into the hands of a decidely evil bastard, Norman Osborn (a truly ridiculous turn of events, but hey... its comics). But Norman Osborn was put in his position by elected officials and therefore has more right to the info than Tony does. Stark may have the moral high ground in this case but legally (as some readers pointed out in the comments for the previous post) he's wrong.

But Tony isn't only destroying his identity and a superhero's secret identities. He's also destroying all his knowledge of current and future technology. Tony's erasure of his mind reflects his lifetime pattern of egomaniacal control of his Iron Man designs. When he can't control the use of the Armor, he destroys it. In Tony's mind, no one else can properly use his technology. Now, as always, Tony seeks to hoarde his technology and prevent the positive development that could result if his designs were opened up to the scientific community. At the very least, Tony's armor designs could be used to make better pacemakers for people with coronary heart disease. But all that is gone because Tony took it upon himself to destroy all of his knowledge. At least until 4 issues from now when everything goes back to normal.

By the way, anyone who didn't read the comments on the previous post definitely should. You folks have a lot of well-formed arguments and I'm interested to hear what else you have to say.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Question for Readers: Who Would Be the Best Superhero Spokesperson for Health Care Reform?

(The person who comments with the best answer to this question will win a prize, which will be a comic book of his or her choice for under $20, assuming it is available at my local shop. Please note, we will not ship internationally. Also, one comment per user please!).

reprinted from static.guim.co.uk

Last week, we had asked Ezra Klein of the Washington Post the who he thought would be the best superhero spokesperson for health care reform. This was his reply:

Spiderman! People forget this, but Spiderman 3 was mainly about the need for universal health care. The Sandman had turned to a life of crime -- which eventually led to Uncle Ben's death, not to mention untold innocent lives and millions in property damage -- because he was unable to afford medical treatment for his daughter. If we'd had a saner system, his daughter would've been eligible for treatment and Uncle Ben would be alive today.

Plus, imagine Sandman and Spiderman appearing at a Health Care For America Now rally together. That's bipartisanship America can believe in.

According to Ezra, it would seem that Spider-Man would actually back the public option!

However, there are many other superheroes (maybe even some supervillains) that would likely be in favor of comprehensive health care reform. Frank Miller's left-wing Green Arrow would certainly support a national single-payer referendum, though I suspect he would also be fine with the recent House bill (except, of course, for the abortion concessions). Daredevil could possibly serve as an advocate for a more effective delivery system, more innovation and research, and better public health initiatives, if not for insurance reform altogether. After all, there was once the scare of Karen Page contracting HIV. Not to mention the fact that Murdock's current wife, Milla, is suffering from an incurable disorder as a result of her recently being kidnapped by Mister Fear. I bet Daredevil would like it if the medical community had the resources to remain technologically ahead of supervillain fear gas.

Then, of course, there's Superman. Here is the Man of Steel himself on the subject, explaining the importance of the US welfare and health equality. (HT: ComicMix):

So, today's question for readers: who would be the best superhero spokesperson for health reform and why? Remember, best answer wins a prize!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Tony Stark and Intellectual Property, Part 1

Invincible Iron Man #1 Variant Cover, art by Bob Layton

Tony Stark is brilliant. He is the genius wonderboy of technology in the marvel universe. Reed Richards may have a better grasp on physics and Hank Pym may know biology, but Tony is the master of all things mechanical. And after the Extremis Virus was made a part of his genetic code, Tony evens know biology better than the average Ph.D. in cellular biology. Tony is a genius and resource for the Marvel World akin to the greatest technological minds of all time.

His ability to change the world is limitless. Unfortunately, so is his ego. When we first met Tony Stark, he was developing the Iron Man technology to save his life. Shortly thereafter, Tony decided that this technology was too dangerous for anyone but himself to have. He even refused to patent the armor, for fear that simply having his specifications documented would lead to their misuse (this decision bit Tony in the ass during the Armor Wars and The Best Defense storylines). In Tony Stark’s estimation, he was the only person with significant moral certitude to have and use his armor designs. Of course, this is a man who has flown drunkenly through a billboard in the Iron Man armor, beaten up the aquatic hero Stingray for no good reason, faked his death without telling anyone who cares for him about it, violated numerous national and international laws, and been the angry instigator in a fist fight with the Hulk. What kind of man finds himself in a conflict where the Hulk is the most reasonable person? Still, in light of all of this Tony vehemently believes the world cannot be given access to the Iron Man armor because they will use it the wrong way.

And now, in the “World’s Most Wanted” storyline in Iron Man, Tony is destroying all of his old Iron Man armors and even erasing the contents of his own mind, rather than have it fall into the hands of Norman Osbourn. Granted he’s also erasing information about the secret identities of every superhero who registered with the initiative, so kudos to Tony for protecting all of his contemporaries. Still, does Tony Stark have the right to remove his brain and all the knowledge that comes with it?

Does he have the right to be the sole controller of his weapons designs? And even then, does he have the right to destroy the wealth of knowledge in his brain, as he is doing in “World’s Most Wanted.”

I’d like to hear what our readers think before I write my response. In a week, I’m going to post my response to the question with examples gleaned from my years as an Iron Man reader. Put please let me know your thoughts.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Ecocomic Recession Watch: Spider-Man Edition

Although on real-Earth, GDP might be growing faster than we expected, we are not out of the woods yet. Conversely, the Marvel Universe seems particularly bleak. Superheroes and supervillains alike are struggling to make ends meet. Heroes that aren't endowed with billions of dollars and who might not have solid public support are having trouble funding their weekly adventures. This puts a huge constraint on the amount of crime they could fight. Meanwhile, the ones who deviate from traditional tactics, take advantage of new technologies, and perform cheap stunts in order to propel their popularity are finding unexpected sources of income. Here are some economic indicators from Marvel's New York City (once again, we don't have real indicators like unemployment rates or GDP growth, but we do have anecdotal evidence of how the economy is affecting the daily tasks of heroes, villains, and operations of certain businesses) :

1) Villains are now liveblogging their fights.

Amazing Spider-Man #608 by Marc Guggenheim, Marco Checchetto, Luke Ross and Rick Magyar (2009)

Say what you will about the fickle nature of humanity, but one thing they consistently show interest in is a good performance. Watching real superheroes fight supervillains online, where they are safely insulated from any real harm, is the ultimate reality show. And Screwball here, despite her unfortunate name, seems to be aware of that. 18 million subscribers to her website? Imagine her advertising revenue (although if this is the case, it's curious that she isn't wearing any company logos or patches during her duel with Spider-Man in this issue).

We've discussed many times before how smaller villains need to rely on tactics like these to compete in the marketplace against the well-established elite (and it's not just in the case of villainy). Here's an interesting thought, though--it seems that, particularly in NYC, there has been a resurgence of b-list villains that come equipped with highly original, if not completely ludicrous schemes. Could it be that these villains have started to marginalize the older ones, who more or less rely on the same, traditional techniques? Is this, as Jason Todd had previously described, the iPod taking over the Walkman?

2) Spider-Man is considering using his "brand" to make some extra cash.

Of course, Spidey is just joking about patenting the Spidey-tracers. Or is he? On the one hand, you need to provide proper identification to have a patent. Also, I guess if you want to receive some form of payment for selling Spidey-tracers, you're going to have to need a name on your check. Fortunately, the Marvel Universe has just the mechanism to get around this: Spider-Man could reveal his identity and register with the government through the Superhuman Registration Act of 2006.

My sense is that if Spider-Man really wants to put his name towards making some money, this would be his only option. He obviously can't patent as Peter Parker--he needs the "Spidey" branding. He might have been able to hand off the tracers for mass production to, say, Tony Stark, who would then cut him a share of the profits under-the-table. Of course, Stark Industries is no more, Tony lost his mind (literally), Norman Osborn is running things, and Spider-Man is running low on friends he can trust in high places. But that's even more of an incentive to keep the secret identity. Oh, what to do?

3) The newspaper industry continues to fall more than ever

We have a more detailed post on the economics of the newspaper industry here. The point is the print industry is steadily declining. Part of the recent decline has to due with a reduction in advertising revenue, which has to do with the recession. But a major factor is the overwhelming public reliance on electronic media and technology. As far as I see, the DB is still holding true to its paper roots. But if it doesn't start taking advantage of new media soon, all the Spider-Man photos in the world won't be able to silence its death knell.

Dare I say that the folks at The DB take a lesson from Screwball? Here they are complaining about her liveblog and not one of them mentions perhaps adopting a similar strategy. That combined with Peter Parker's miraculous photography (how does he take all those Spider-Man pictures?) and the company has a chance of bouncing back.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Should Our Superheroes Turn Over Alien Technology?

Irredeemable #7 by Mark Waid and Peter Krause (2009)

Here's one thing that distinguishes the universe of Mark Waid's Irredeemable from the DC Universe: the Plutonian (the Superman equivalent of this world) and his squad of Justice-League-like superheroes, the Paradigm, don't seem to have a very optimistic view of human nature. They equate giving humans access to alien technology to handing out hand grenades to orangutans. Earlier, the Plutonian referred to Earth as an ant farm. It seems that, unlike Superman, who possesses an almost naively positive view of humans, the Plutonian has established himself as a de facto Hobbesian Leviathan. He is there to stop humans from destroying themselves--to aid in the escape from what he sees is their natural state of war, jealousy and corruption.

That being said, the two do have something in common. Namely, given all of the technology that these superheroes have access to on a daily basis (remember, Superman frequently travels through space and time), Earth remains at relatively a similar level to how it is in the real world. Why is this? What exactly do superheroes fear will happen if the humans were given access to these marvels in science and magic? In a previous post, we had discussed the harms of keeping this information hidden:

Ever wonder why people in comics aren't teleporting to work, watching TV through a personal projection device while walking down the street, or attending seminars hosted by an android via group-telepathy?

Instead, the worlds in our favorite comics still have potholes, poverty, and petroleum-powered cars. In fact, aside from the occasional reality-bending crisis involving metahumans, it’s hard to distinguish our world from theirs in terms of technological progress or standards of living. This begs the question of what happens to all the alien wreckage after the Justice League fends off another alien invasion, or to the abandoned spaceships when interplanetary thugs with a grudge against Superman land on Earth. Do men in black immediately cart them off to secret government facilities and weaponize them? If so, then these governments are doing a great disservice to their people. The fastest way to achieve economic growth is through the free and unfettered dissemination of knowledge. Governments should encourage the private sector to develop commercial uses for all the space junk that winds up on earth, thereby simultaneously increasing both the capital stock and total factor productivity. [...] And it’s not just the responsibility of the governments, but also of the superheroes.

Indeed, if it is the case that the superheroes of the DCU are keeping this technology from the humans intentionally, then they are setting the race at a disadvantage. And by the way this does seem to be what they are doing--one needs to look no further than the gadgets available in the Justice League watchtower to know that there is a gap between space and Earth. There is no telling how much Earthlings could potentially benefit from both the physical and human capital available at their disposal. In the Marvel Universe, for example, mutants could be put to work in ways that don't involve them living somewhere out on the San Francisco Bay and having their resumes consist exclusively of the phrase "Fight Magneto."

So then, what's the deal guys? Well, what the major superheroes fear is that humans will either intentionally put this technology to inappropriate uses or that their lack of sophistication and experience would inevitably lead to the mishandling of such overwhelming power. This is what the Plutonian and the Paradigm explicitly state (and what I imagine Superman and the JLA think too).

But, is this really a legitimate concern? It turns out that in this particular instance, it was justified. Eventually the Plutonian caved to the pressures of the scientific community and handed over a tiny device found on an alien ship. Here was the devastating result:

Woops. Now we can see why the Plutonian turned evil. This would be enough to make anyone doubt humanity's potential. Even the purest of superheroes might decide that we simply aren't worth saving.

But it's really not humanity's fault. At least not entirely.

First of all, I think it takes a pretty pessimistic person--superhero or not--to hide possibly life-saving technology from others. The fact that this sort of act was fully supported by the world's most noble protectors is highly suggestive of their real views on humans. And I'm not just talking about the Paradigm here. Despite all his preaching of believing in the goodness of man, Superman was still in the company of those who fended off the alien invasion, scavenged the alien ships for useful technology, threw that technology in a trophy room aboard the Justice League watchtower, and did not even alert the people of Earth to its existence. Even if Supes would justify this by claiming that humans would be better protected with such materials in the hands of the League, it still demonstrates a fundamental lack of trust. And if deep down the Superheroes don't trust the humans, how could the humans trust the superheroes?

Of course this does not mean that Superman and the Plutonian are wrong, nor does it justify humans using these devices haphazardly. So if withholding these alien goody bags is not the answer and if the Plutonian has such a profound lack of trust in the people of Earth such that he fears turning over the tech. freely, is there anything else that can be done? Well, why not donate, but heavily regulate the research and development projects?

With the exception of Batman and possibly a few others, it is generally known that no Earthling is as smart as Superman. Given a piece of technology, Superman and the League could most likely figure out precisely what it can and should be used for. Why not have a look at it themselves first and then donate? If there is an alien device that has the potential to conserve water more efficiently, why not use it to built a really awesome toilet for the humans?

OK, granted many of the bigger superheroes have things to do--guy jumping off a roof here, fourth-world deity trying to enslave humanity there. But not all of them, right? And certainly not all the time. The Justice League has lots and lots of members. I'm sure it can afford to delegate a task force of some of its scientists to working with human researchers at developing proper uses for this technology.

Also, superheroes regulate everything already. They counsel world leaders in making policy choices, they get called in to speak in front of the UN Security Council, they help set international public health initiatives, the list goes on.

This seems like something that is not only feasible, but even responsible. Moreso anyway that simply continuing to foster insecurity and suspicion among the public. And perhaps it would further cement humanity's trust in the superhero community, to the extent that your Joe Everyman would cease being so easily persuaded by clever villains to start hating on Superman and Batman.

The Plutonian did eventually submit, but it was for all the wrong reasons. It was not for an interest in the advancement of society or in an attempt to usher in an era of harmony and cooperation. It was, instead, to mitigate some bad press towards him. It was primarily selfish. With some regulation and a little bit more effort, this whole thing might have been averted. Sorry planet.