Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Superman, New Krypton, and Labor Unions

From Superman: World of New Krypton #3 by James Robinson, Greg Rucka and Pete Woods (2009)Over on New Krypton, Kal-El (formerly Superman) is having trouble negotiating a peaceful resolution to a very dangerous hostage situation. Members of the planet's labor guild have taken Alura, commander of the Kandorian people, as well as several other prominent members of the Council hostage. Though General Zod, who is now Kal-El's superior in the military guild, ordered him to use force to dissolve the attack, Kal-El resolves to listen to the guild's demands. What are they? Simple enough: the workers demand shorter work days so that they can see their families and reduce the illnesses they had been suffering from being overworked, exhausted and malnourished. They are also demanding some form of health care, sick leave, and other social benefits common in Earth's workplace today.

Even New Krypton, a society that favors efficiency over equality and views Earthlings as "primitive" and "weak" for their emphasis on the converse, cannot suppress the rights of the individual. Perhaps had they studied a little Earth history, they might have noticed some historical parallels.

The eight-hour day movement in Europe was a time of dramatic transformations in work life, as adults during the Industrial Revolution typically worked anywhere from 12 to 16 hours a day, with little or no time to eat or rest. Factories were unregulated, so there was no one to ensure they met health or sanitation standards. Child exploitation was extremely popular as well. These variables helped spark not only the movement for an eight-hour day, but began to sew the roots of unionization.

Of course, there is an important distinction between this and New Krypton: Capitalism. Workers in the United Kingdom, France and the United States were typically working for private, unregulated employers and were earning wages to survive. New Krypton doesn't seem to work this way. Employers are certainly not private, there seems to be no such thing as "business" or "profit," and hence there is no competition among them. There are no markets. The Invisible Hand has no place on New Krypton. Further, the workers do not actually seem to earn any sort of wage -- it seems that each citizen is instead motivated by an innate sense of civic duty. In fact, the labor guild likely adheres to the social code for one or all of three reasons:

1) Civic duty or a utilitarianism
2) Deep sense of Kryptonian tradition
3) Self-interest: they work in exchange for the right to be citizens, to enjoy the planets public resources (the only one I can think of is pretty crystals), and to be protected by the military guild

Civic duty and tradition are powerful motivators. As an example, consider feudal Japan where vassals were almost instrically attached to serving their lords and would rather experience death before suffering the dishonor of disobeying it. Yet, it's not always enough. We can already see the seams falling apart on New Krypton with Kal-El's presence. Lower-class Kryptonians desire to be equal to that of the nobility. They want to see their families. They don't want to be sick. Nobles want to sit around while laborers tend the fields for sixteen hours. What to do? Assuming Alura grants them shorter hours and medical care, what do you suppose comes next?

That's right! Labor unions! Supposing that laborers work for different employers (scientists, etc.), certain labor forces are going to band together in order to collectively bargain with their superiors for more benefits and better working conditions, to prevent against discrimination, and to be involved with political activity of the state (such as having votes on the Council).

The other issue that concerns me is moral hazard. The medical scientists in the science guild need to take time and resources to heal the sick. If the workers get continual access to health care from the science guild, what is to stop them from abusing this? I think that eventually Alura and Zod will need to introduce some system of payment. And what comes next? Markets! Workers will have more access to health services, but they will have to shell out some serious ice crystals in order to get it.

The point is that it does not seem that New Krypton can continue suppressing the labor guild. And that's not a bad thing. Kal-El is champion of the workers. He's like FDR. Better yet, he's like Upton Sinclair, laying upon the masses his masterpiece, The Ice Crystal Fortress.


TJIC from HeavyInk said...

Awesome new blog!

I saw a link from somewhere in the economics-blogosphere (maybe Tyler Cowen).

As a fan of economics and comic books, you're right in the sweet spot of what entertains me.

Have you read Engine City by Warren Ellis yet? It's an alternative mid-20th-century semi-steampunk world where government regulation is shutting down private spaceflight. I think that it's fertile ground for some economics analysis.

Travis, President
Heavy Ink

Your Comics Are Here!

TJIC from HeavyInk said...

P.S. Mark, ShadowBanker,

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philippos42 said...


The Kryptonians haven't figured out yet that while they can avoid the obvious immediate effects of lack of food & of sleep--that is to say, exhaustion--longterm, they still have to do those things. They must dream or their brain processes go awry, as Clark has found in the past; & I'm not sure how reliable the photosynthesis is at protein synthesis, particularly for those indoors, clothed, &/or new to a yellow sun environment.

The bosses' ambition is incautious.

__marcelo recommended you, this is neat.

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outlawpoet said...

I think the analysis is rather backwards, Labor Unions, capitalism, and rights movements are logically in Krypton's past, not it's future.

Krypton is a post-industrial society, they have massively advanced science and technology, their collective capability isn't limited by resources or knowledge, but by time and attention.

I think the simplest explanation for their current difficulties is that they developed all their social structures a very long time ago, as an local optima of rituals, quasi-religious beliefs, and hierarchy that kept everybody mostly happy with what was happening, and society moving forward.

Their big problem is that it worked too well, and now they've had the same system for so long that they no longer have the culture and structures that developed that system.

Now they're in a radically different environment, and nobody remembers how they arrived at their way of doing things, and they have nothing adaptive left in their social mores. So old practices get misapplied, and people get hurt.

The added wrinkle being that now they all hardly need society at all. They're all now self-sufficient yellow sun metabolizers who can survive in a vacuum indefinitely. It's hard to imagine why they would need an economy. Everything takes on the character of a hobby.

ajay said...

"The medical scientists in the science guild need to take time and resources to heal the sick. If the workers get continual access to health care from the science guild, what is to stop them from abusing this?"

How would they abuse it? Seek unnecessary medical care? No one really enjoys receiving medical care, do they?

Ben said...


ajay said...

Not really. Hypochondriacs falsely believe that they're ill, but they aren't always as a result large consumers of medical care* because they get as far as a diagnosis** and are then told "you're not ill, go home". Performing unnecessary treatment is, apart from anything else, unethical.

I've noticed this erroneous suggestion a lot from Americans: because Americans have to pay for medical care in the same way that they have to pay for a trip to Disney World, they assume that it's the same in other ways - ie if it was free, people would just go to Disney World lots and lots. This is not the case.

*except for psychiatric therapy. And in a psychological sense, of course, they really are ill! It's associated with other forms of mild depression.

**not all hypochondriacs even seek medical attention.

MikeRussellMcK said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MikeRussellMcK said...

ajay, here is an interesting and recent post regarding people seeking unnecessary health care.

Gerald Fnord said...

The New Kryptonians are missing something we had: the threat of first unions and then Marxism.

I have always heard that the minimal welfare state initiated by Bismarck was designed precisely to pre-empt union and then Marxist agitation; in the U.S..

(This is similar to the way that some thought that Martin Luther King benefitted from Malcom X's being out there to make him look like a preferable alternative...Arrow's Theorem freed from the committee?)

The existence of Real Live Bolsheviks was a part how we got some Leftish reforms. For one thing, the same dynamic as obtained for unions worked double for the C.P.U.S.A; for another,the Communist Party served to mark an unacceptable edge to the Left---one could accuse someone of being _like_ a Communist, but (for example) the consistent diatribe against all U.S. presidents---if Truman _had_ in fact got his desired National Health for the U.S., you can bet that the next day's Daily Worker would have attacked it. This provided some political cover.

ajay said...

mike@pvl - that's a great example of something I wasn't talking about. The article does not describe patients frivolously seeking unnecessary free medical care, but doctors overprescribing useless treatments to feather their own nests. There's no such significant problem absent the profit motive for the doctors - as the article you link to points out by referring to the Mayo Clinic!

Anonymous said...

Regarding moral hazard, that's to say that if the doctors were mandated to give everyone free health care, it would encourage individuals to take unnecessary health risks.

ajay said...

if the doctors were mandated to give everyone free health care, it would encourage individuals to take unnecessary health risks.You'd have to come up with evidence that this actually happens. I think it unlikely that people in Britain, say, are reasoning "I will smoke, because, although I am likely to get lung cancer, at least the treatment will be free!" Lung cancer still isn't much fun. Illness generally isn't much fun, even if the treatment is free. Sounds like market-fundamentalist nonsense to me.

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They must dream or their brain processes go awry, as Clark has found in the past; & I'm not sure how reliable the photosynthesis is at protein synthesis, particularly for those indoors, clothed, &/or new to a yellow sun environment.

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