Friday, June 26, 2009

Question for Readers: How Can Superhumans Use the Market to their Advantage?

(The person who comments with most creative 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).

Reprinted from

Earlier, we discussed the notion of superhero externalities in our post about "reigning" in superheroes. Specifically, I had mentioned the following:

One involves the damage to public and personal property caused by super-battles, which we discuss at some length in our post about superhero insurance. Another is the constant violation of civil liberties. Often superheroes, such as Batman, will forcefully "coerce" criminals for information and will use sophisticated spy technology (see The Dark Knight film) to monitor suspicious citizens. A third involves the notion of escalation (this is particularly evident in Batman -- see Batman Begins, The Dark Knight Returns, Ego, the Killing Joke), whereby the mere existence of a superhero actually breeds more creative and dangerous supervillains.

However, superheroes and supervillains (and all metahumans) have the potential to do much more than this. In fact, there are many ways in which those with access to specific powers or technologies could take advantage of the the market and economy. Of course, many superheroes choose not to, viewing such acts as violations of their vows to uphold the law.

Nevertheless, it is generally regarded that as more metahumans turn up, there is a significant danger of having them abuse their powers. And not just in your standard, smash-and-bash, hold-em-up-for-ransom ways. Lex Luthor has often paid vast amounts of money to weaker metahumans in exchange for new, alien technology, which he would then use simultaneously to promote his villainous schemes and to profit his billion-dollar company, Lexcorp. In a recent Detective Comics storyline, Hush (though not a metahuman) used his surgical prowess to disguise himself as Bruce Wayne and siphon off millions of dollars from Wayne enterprises. In Garth Ennis' The Boys, superheroes are portrayed as careless automatons, who receive millions of dollars from comic book publishers and toy companies, as well as government pardons. All they have to do in exchange is occasionally save a hostage and support certain political candidates.

Here are some other ways that heroes, villains and metahumans could use the market to their advantage:

1) Insider Information. The superhuman community has access to a wealth of valuable information that is kept comfortably hidden from the general public. Every superhero in the Marvel universe is kept abreast of Reed Richard's latest gizmos or Dr. Strange's latest potions or Tony Stark's latest weapons upgrade. This goes on in the DC Universe as well. The Justice League watchtower contains technology that most humans could not even wrap their minds around. This includes technology that was given as gifts by the New Gods. Also, let's not forget Batman and his Brother Eye, an autonomous, global surveillance system that has the capability of watching over every superhuman on Earth.

Suppose that you were a recently admitted member of the Justice League (or of Checkmate) and had access to this technology, as well as, possibly, plans and schematics for constructing new, similar devices. Or suppose you took a call for a space battle and as a result gained access to an entirely new gadget that not even the Justice League had previously seen. You would stand to make a fortune from selling these plans to Earth companies, especially Lexcorp. This would ensure your termination from the League, but as we all know, fighting crime doesn't pay.

2) Insurance and Asymmetric Information. One of the biggest problems with market insurance systems is the notion of asymmetric information. Often those who take out individual insurance policies have access to information about themselves that insurance companies do not. If you are a heavy smoker, for instance, you pose a significant health risk that would warrant your insurance company to charge a higher premium. Of course, many people do not tell their insurance companies that they are smokers. Extrapolate this scenario for the superhero community. If you are someone like Spider-Man, who often gets injured in battles against supervillains, you are a risky candidate for insurance. However, to my knowledge, insurance companies in the Marvel Universe do not yet underwrite for superheroes. That is, there is no question on the insurance application that asks, "Are you a superhero, supervillain, metahuman, crime fighter, or vigilante of any kind?" As such, Peter Parker would likely be able to get away with utilizing more health care for a cheaper insurance premium.

I am sure that there are plenty of other ways that superhumans, heroes and villains could use the market to their advantage. I open it to the readers to name some others. Again, the most creative answer will win a prize.


Chris Milroy said...

Superbitrage: a super with either technological prowess or extreme speed (the Flash?) can perform perfect arbitrage worldwide, in financial and physical markets, respectively.

Unknown said...

Non-superhuman A-Rod made a half-billion or so playing for the yankees. If superhumans had any sense at all they'd just barely out-perform the best athletes in any given sport so as to command the top prices without arousing suspicion. No need to rob banks or unduly exert themselves.

Will said...

Before I answer, one problem with your second point is that super heroes, in order to maintain a secret identity cannot go to doctors or emergency room frequently with obviously violent injuries without raising red flags. In addition, many super heroes, including Spider Man, have improved healing and durability and also might be "discovered" during routine medical exams, so, in fact, they likely use medical care less frequently than the average person. Going back to Peter Parker, his blood contains radioactive isotopes and certain spider qualities. I can't imagine he does routine blood testing. Even a known super-hero would be an interesting test case for an insurance underwriter. What kind of premium would you apply to Spider-Man? He is in a high-risk hobby, but his heightened healing, spider sense, and endurance probably means he avoids many common injuries, would have shorter hospitalizations due to his healing, and also might be immune to certain catastrophio (and, therefore, most costly) health problems. I can see giving him a lower premium than the average person despite the risky behavior.

As for the question, I would think a superhuman could make a profitable business working in construction. Almost all superpowers could be useful in construction work and many could replace expensive machinery (that needs maintenance). In addition, the smaller crews of superhumans would mean fewer risk, so lower insurance costs, combined with higher wages for the workers. Picture how quickly the Fantastic Four, for instance, could build a building utilizing each of their skills.

SF said...

I like the idea of Wolverine selling his internal organs on a regular basis. (I know, illegal in the US, but still...) How many kidneys could he grow a day, do you think?

kmitcham said...

All the hi-tech heroes have energy sources/storage devices that dwarf the current technology. The Iron Man armor uses power at a huge rate, but has no large battery pack. Imagine what that could do for a laptop? Or electric cars?

Transmutation powers could also have lots of applications. Super strength could be good in construction, as noted.

Many heroes would be good for 'extreme salvage' into environments that are unsafe, or expensive, for normal people and machinery to enter- shipwrecks, radiation accidents, etc.

Norman said...

I tell my microeconomics students that the best way to beat the market is to become an unregulated monopolist, especially for a product with huge and highly inelastic demand.

Storm of the X-Men could do pretty well. By controlling rainfall, her services could be a key input in all agricultural production (and thus all food markets), outdoor professional sporting events, and alternative energy production (wind power). By herself, she could earn absurd monopoly markups, or with Professor X's help, she could perfectly price discriminate and capture unprecedented "windfall profits" (pun intended).

Her monopoly power isn't absolute, though, as firms will generally still have the option of things going as they are (unless Storm decides to run a protection racket and supply drought to any farmer who doesn't pay).

Juan Ignacio Gamboa said...

Well, I think there is also a possibility for superheroes to manipulate the market in several ways. They can for example, in the case you proposed before about superhero insurance, make deals with someone they know and trust in order to commit insurance fraud, in the same way people do in real life, they would blame the superhuman instead of a disaster like a fire, etc There is also the possibility for a superhuman to use their powers to alter the market tendencies. They could gain profit by investing and making the price of certain products and stocks to change. They could for example, use their power to discretely destroy or damage the supplies of a product such as crops or cause some sort of incident that would rise the price of oil. Also they could work an agreement with a company to take/buy out a rivaling companies, they could make the other companies stock to drop by injuring/killing the ceo of the other company.

Blue said...

Most of the ideas you are proposing are relatively hostile to the market. If the market or public knew about them, they would try to stop the meta-human. If you're willing to have a meta-human act in a clearly illegal way, most of them would have little trouble with Identity Theft and should just siphon large amounts of money from any rich person.

So let's think along mutually beneficial relationships with the market.

I would say any meta-humans with intelligence related abilities (or any abilities with a plausible claim on such), should take the path of Ivy League math students and go work for hedge funds. It doesn't matter whether they can actually beat the market with their super-prediction power, what matters is that they'll get paid millions a year for their pedigree that the hedge fund uses to convince investors they can use.

Anonymous said...

The problem with Reed Richards's hedge-fund equations is that they work:

1/8P^3 * Yr(P^3) = Tomorrow you will eat broccoli for lunch OR the market will crash

Spider-Man could handle all sorts of jobs, but would probably be best in an emergency response/rescue job. Determined, smart, fast, tough, and able to carry lots of rescue gear. He'd be a great paramedic.

Superman would crash any economy he chose to fully participate in. This wasn't always the case. Before he could shrug off nuclear blasts and throw planets out of orbit, Superman used to do a lot of volunteer work: Demolishing slums, digging wells and mines, building homes, and other activities.

The Flash draws energy from an extradimensional Speed Force. Put him on a treadmill generator and you could probably power North America.

The Spectre would be excellent in a regulatory roll. Just turn him lose on Bernie Madoff and no one would cheat a client again...

Unknown said...

Any Meta human or person with access to mind reading/mind control powers or devices could single handedly run the stock market, even if they just project a general notion that 'stock X will be a good one' and half the brokers on the floor follow it, they would be able to amass obscene amounts of wealth. Perhaps this is how professor X got the initial bankroll for his schools' expensive toys

TheOddNumberedMan said...

Let's be honest, gentlemen; the first thing people would actually do if they discovered super powers would be to find ways to use them for sex. Imagine the possibilities; Scarlet Witch running a brothel where you can literally live out your fantasies, Dr. Manhattan guaranteeing you an orgy of however many participants you like, and Elastic Man...well, doing his thing, if you catch my drift. The super sex industry would be massive.

Dorukai said...

Any super with super speed could make an absolute killing transporting perishable foods.

For example, the Flash offers to catch fish in New Zealand and run them to New York, delivering them alive and without the need for refrigeration. Suddenly, regional specialty foods can be had in any location, at any time of year, for an exorbitant price.

Anonymous said...

Barring the focus on individual superpowers in this conversation will keep things from getting too insanely specific and easy (example: would the team-up of Nightcrawler and Longshot ever lose at a scavenger hunt?). So let's try to leave powers out of the conversation.

Advertising and Branding: This is played with in Mystery Men. Superheroes can function like race cars, covered in sponsorship tags and thanking, say, Coca-Cola whenever they win a fight. Superheroes could also function as localized associations. Think city hopping among sports teams. Cities with the most money could afford the best heroes (and villains) which would both function as drivers for tourism given the right angle.

If you want something very market oriented, focus on equity-based endorsements. 50 Cent got an equity share of the makers of Vitamin Water when he endorsed the product. When the company was sold to Coca-Cola, Fiddy made millions. Apply that to any superhero or supervillain and they could all make enough to get by. Think "It gives you wings commercial" from Redbull with Hawkgirl or Angel in it.

JLBeck said...

Well, Weapon X has made it apparent that superhuman DNA for experiments is in demand, giving "selling blood" a whole new meaning.
I think the real financial gain to being a superhero is simply working for the prestige and fame to use toward advertising or appearances, maybe even turning it into a successful career in acting, but perhaps heroes decide to go for the big money. Imagine Reed Richards, Tony Stark, and the Black Panther forming a sort of trust, with security juggernaut SHIELD buying from them exclusively (which really isn't far from what it seems to be...).

N/A said...

This thread has been great and all, but we really need to talk FUNDAMENTALS: Supply and Demand. What do Superheros have a large supply of which has a correspondingly HUGE demand?

The Superhero Experience

Recall how much money celebrities and other rich guys are willing to pay to fly into space. Think about the corresponding desire almost every person, especially those of us who read comics, to engage in the superhero fantasy.

Tony Stark could rent out armors (with safety protocols in place, of course) to take out street criminals. Reed Richards could sell seats on the fantasticar for some of his less intense extradimensional visits. Spider-man could take pedestrians out for a leisurely afternoon swing and Wolverine could let anyone hit him as hard as they can, for a price.

The Superhero Experience would be a scaling luxury good (a ride with spidey would be expensive, but not nearly as much as an extradimensional voyage) and wouldn't completely disrupt the regular economy. The only real consequences would be a decline in the vacation industry for really rich people.

There would also be a new subsection of the insurance market - superhuman travel insurance. Because of the dangers associated with being near superheros, if the Superhero Experience takes off, the government will undoubtabley legislate mandatory insurance, with insanely high premuims, corresponding to the risk of encoutering Skrulls or Galactus.

Dr Obvious said...

Many (most?) super powers involve the creation of new energy. I was thinking the other day before bed, If I had energy creation powers like the human torch or cyclops, I'd rent myself out for 8 hours a night, 6 days a weeks, to some alternative energy entrepreneur. Capturing that energy, converting it to thermal energy, and using that to run turbines would generally be pretty trivial. Maybe I'd do it for a few hours during the day at a higher rate while I read, watched a movie, or played a game.

I would assume I could bring in *at least* what I make now for real, actual work, and I'd still have 14 hours worth of stay at home dad time a day.

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