Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Alternate Future Financial Planning

These are uncertain times. Times when financial models have been exposed as wildly inaccurate and missing crucial elements that can tip the scales of financial stability from solvency to utter ruin. In trying to develop accurate financial models, we are crippled by what we do not know and what we haven't accounted for.

But what if we knew the future? What if we knew world financial trends before they occurred and could adjust our investments accordingly?

In comics, we frequently do. We think. The problem in comic books is not knowing the future. It's knowing too much about the future. In fact so much is known about the future and its possible iterations that investors will likely be more confused about what to do than if they only knew about the present.

Let's take one of the X-Men for example. Warren Worthington has been to the future before. He knows what will happen in the next 20-30 years. Maybe...

You see, Warren and his X-Men have been around the block enough times to know that the futures that they have been to may or may not occur. It's possible that in 20-30 years all the heroes may be dead or underground and the Red Skull may be running the United States. In which case Warren should now start investing in Nazi-themed furniture and vehicles. He should also invest in an admantium bodysuit to protect him from brainwashed colleagues so he could recoup his investments. However, its also possible that the future may be one where all continents except North America have been decimated (thank you very much Bishop). In this case Warren should spend money investing in bunkers and guns that can be easily used by sentient roach soldiers. So with this knowledge Warren should likely try to hedge his bets while avoiding the dozens of futures where he is incinerated by Sentinels.

So while its been established that comic book characters do know the future, it's clear that the future is highly variable. In one incarnation you're dead, in another you're a cyborg leading a rebellion with your daughter Ruby while watching Multiple Man engage in a quasi-pedophilic relationship with a girl who "knows things" (I don't want to think about the implications of that comment). There's no certainty, but at least you know some possible outcomes that you can plan and predict for.

But the level of uncertainly still exists. Bruce Wayne needs to think about whether he will be living in the future where Superman is a tool of the U.S. government or where Superman is farming in radioactive Kansas. These kinds of things really affect a portfolio.

What's Worse than the Depression?

Captain America says that he would rather be living through The Great Depression again than be frozen in a giant block of ice as Inuits worshiped his body as some sort of ice god. And you thought you had it bad.

Captain America: Reborn #3 by Ed Brubaker and Bryan Hitch (2009)

I think there are some noncomparability issues here, but Cap manages to pull it off as he always does. The obvious economic lesson is no matter how badly you're affected by dips in the financial climate, no matter how high the unemployment rate climbs, and no matter how poor the housing market gets, never ever ever under any circumstances get shot by a magic bullet that sends you spinning through some temporal loop for eternity. There are better ways to manage stress. I hear Yoga works.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Questionable Logic of Scott Summers' Utopia

Recently the X-Men have come up against the Dark Avengers in the Utopia crossover. Norman Osborn flexed his military muscle and tried to replace the X-Men we all know and love with his hand-picked Dark X-Men. This villainous team includes Emma Frost and Namor the Sub-Mariner. As in all things Dark Reign, Norman desired to replace the unpredictable and uncontrollable X-Men with his evil puppets and further cement his control over all things Marvel. Cyclops takes issue with this and makes plans to protect not only the X-Men, but all of mutant kind.

The end result of all this (SPOILERS ENSUE) is that Norman gets betrayed by Emma and Namor, his Dark Avengers (and Dark X-Men) get smacked down and Scott Summers unveils his grand plan for the future of mutantkind. The plan he has been carefully developing for the duration of the crossover and patiently waiting to unleash.

And this plan is... from now on all mutants get to live in the San Francisco Bay on Alcatraz island which is propped up by the remains of what appears to be Asteroid M. Well done Scott. Mutant problems are clearly halted and everything is now candy and jelly beans of joy.

Let's stop and think about this for a second. The purpose of this Utopia was to remove the X-Men and all mutants from the territorial boundaries of the United States as well as the oppressive regime of Norman Osborn. I'm not sure that this Utopia fits the bill.

Granted the mutants are on an island that is not part of the US mainland, but this doesn't mean they're a separate nation. When I go to the New Jersey shore and swim out into the water, I'm not traveling internationally. In fact I haven't even left New Jersey. Those waters belong to the United States. Being 1.2 miles from the San Francisco shore doesn't seem like the most insurmountable of barriers and doesn't make you a separate nation. The X-Men are also living on Alcatraz Island which was formerly a federal penitentiary and then a national park. If you want to explicitly remove yourself from the influence of the United States government there are a few places you could choose that wouldn't be so connected to US influence. You could argue that raising Alcatraz island via Asteroid M makes Alcatraz no longer a US island but I'm not buying that either. I can't put my house on stilts and have gambling and prostitution inside because I'm "no longer on US soil." It doesn't work that way. I've tried. The stilts were too expensive and the police were on to me from the very beginning. But I digress.

Now the X-Men face the daunting task of converting a prison/military base into a mutant mecca that will house, feed, and educate the remaining hundreds of mutants from around the world. That means creating an entirely new infrastructure out of decommissioned military ordinance and space rock. How does Scott Summers intend to feed, clothe, and support the hundreds of individuals who will soon be arriving at his declared paradise? Even Scott himself admits he has no idea, despite the fact he had weeks (while watching Norman Osborn hold San Francisco under martial law) to plan it out. Granted he does have a lot of resources at his disposal in the form of his other X-Men. Iceman and Storm can provide water, Surge can provide electricity, Magma can provide heat, Maddison Jeffries can build machines to keep the island running, and Beast could act as tutor and supervisor (if he weren't going into space to be with Agent Brand). But where will the food come from? Every now and the Namor could lead a giant fish astray and beach it on the island, but who wants to eat gargantuan octopus every night? Of course Utopia is so close to the California mainland that Angel could fly over and pick up take-out every night and wouldn't be gone half an hour. Which only further points out how absurd it is to think of Utopia as a separate nation.

Perhaps I'm being a naysayer, but this doesn't not sound like the most well-thought and brilliant of plans. It's certainly not the kind of masterstroke you wait several weeks (in story) and 6 issues (in reality) to unveil. Moving from San Francisco to Alcatraz Island seems akin to setting up a tent in your parent's backyard and declaring independence from them.
You could argue that Scott only needed to move the X-Men slightly off US soil in order to allow Norman Osborn the ability to say that his Dark Avengers "banished" the X-Men when talking to the press. But if I was living in San Francisco and I could see Emma Frost in the shower from the Golden Gate bridge with any decent telescope, I wouldn't feel very isolated from the X-Men. I might certainly have some other feelings, but isolation would not be one of them.

In short, the new mutant Utopia is one with questionable legality and utility that benefits mutant kind in only the most superficial of ways. And maybe not even superficial benefits may be derived from it. If anyone can find value in this turn of events, I would truly love to know it.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Economics and Ethics

This is the name of a new blog, which aims to:

  1. Showcase and discuss new work in ethics-and-economics by scholars around the world,
  2. Discuss ways to include treatments of ethics in economics education,
  3. Announce new projects and initiatives in ethics-and-economics, including calls for papers for books, journals, and conferences,
  4. Highlight the often ignored or overlooked ethical aspects of economic arguments, whether in the world of academia or policy, and
  5. Have a good time!
Among the founders is Mark D. White, professor of Political Science, Economics and Philosophy at the College of Staten Island. Professor White is also an ardent comic book fan, having written essays and served as an editor for books such as Batman and Philosphy: The Dark Knight of the Soul and Watchmen and Philosophy: A Rorschach Test.

All of this is worth checking out. Enjoy!!

Job Creation: Project Super-Runway

Amazing Spider Man #605 by Fred Van Lente and Luke Ross (2009)

Remember when we wrote about consulting and publicity for supervillains? We had mentioned just how important a villain's costume design is to his or her overall success. A villain is only as good as the evilness he is able to project upon the public. Within the context of the Batman universe, for instance, the successful villains include Joker, Two-Face, Scarecrow, Poison Ivy, etc. All have thematically fitting and terrifying costumes that unequivocally demonstrate that these are guys you do not want to mess with. However, guys like the Calendar Man...well, not so much.

reprinted from

It's not that the Calendar Man doesn't have potential as a villain. Here is someone who commits gruesome murders corresponding to particular dates and holidays. Think about that. It sounds pretty lame, but it actually is quite chilling. It spreads panic around every major holiday, thus making something that was once enjoyable no longer a cause for celebration. And though it might eliminate the element of surprise, it actually creates a certain anxiety and paranoia that lasts year-round.

Still, no one is at all afraid of the Calendar Man. Why? Well, look at him. Apart from the dates, I used to dress in a similar way when I used to wander around the woods in my neighborhood and pretend to be an explorer.

And analogous to how supervillains need to look the part, the more respectable superheroes are the ones that have the most superheroic costumes too. This actually ends up being a problem for many of them. Not everyone as Martha Kent to sew costumes or a technical-savvy butler like Alfred to help out with wardrobe. Up-and-coming superheroes, in particular, who are trying to establish themselves in a world dominated by the classic ones (see the Super Young Team from Final Crisis: Dance for an example) have to worry a lot about their appearances. They need to establish a sense of security, confidence and trust. Usually, they won't achieve this desired effect with a costume quickly hobbled together using household towels and bedsheets. What's more is that these heroes usually don't have the time to work on costumes since they're out fighting crime all day.

That is why ideas like the one portrayed in last week's issue of Amazing Spider-Man are completely reasonable if not good. Big name fashion designers would start developing lines exclusively for newer heroes. Private self-employed designers would start customizing costumes for specific superheroes with whom they have contracts. And, of course, television shows flaunting this very profession would become extremely popular in comic book universes.

Television shows like "Sewn Up," in particular, might actually have a positive effect on the community. First, it encourages competition among the superhero fashion industry, which in turn breeds more production of clever and effective superhero costumes. Second, these shows would serve not only to promote the designers and entertain viewers, but also to increase awareness about the heroes (I think the models of Project Runway actually have their own show now). If you randomly heard about someone named "Most Excellent Superbat," a native of Japan whose power is "being rich," you'd likely think the worst However, if you saw him on "Sewn Up," you might suddenly find him more legitimate and trustworthy.. Of course, whether this trust is warranted is another question.

It is not such a stretch to imagine a superhero hiring a fashion designer. After all, if supervillains can hire a real estate agent to sell them abandoned warehouses and carnivals for a fee, why would heroes not be able to take advantage of the fashion trade? The only problem I can foresee is that it won't be cheap. Batman can afford a revamp to his costume, but Spider-Man can't. Perhaps this would be a market better suited to villains like the Calendar Man, who either make their money throug illegitimate means or just turn back on deals and don't pay altogether. As Spider-Man himself put it...

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Iron Man and Health Insurance Costs

Invincible Iron Man #18 by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca (2009)

It's true--many former employees who were fired from S.H.I.E.L.D. after Norman Osborn took over and renamed the organization H.A.M.M.E.R. are now without health care coverage. Recall that Pepper Potts was similarly complaining of her lack of insurance. The latest victim is Maria Hill.

As mentioned in another post, we already have COBRA coverage, which allows an employee who is eligible through certain qualifying events (including voluntary or involuntary termination of employment for reasons other than gross misconduct) to maintain continued coverage for a period of up to 18 months.

Alternatively, Hill could just purchase non-group health insurance. As far as I am aware, she does not have any preexisting condition that would disqualify her for coverage (and even if she did, I believe California does have a high-risk pool for medically needy individuals, and guaranteed issue for certain individuals and certain base benefits).

Why wouldn't Hill do either of these things? Well, the obvious reason is that both forms of coverage are just damn expensive. For example, here is a news item from the Commonwealth Fund I remember reading a while back, which reported the results of a Families USA study showing that family COBRA premiums present an extreme cost burden to the unemployed:

While unemployment insurance benefits vary according to state, the report found that the national average unemployment insurance benefit is $1,278, but the average COBRA premium for family coverage absorbs about 84 percent of those funds, or $1,069. [...] In nine states, the cost of COBRA premiums equaled or exceeded the unemployment insurance payment. In Alaska, the state with the largest disparity, the average COBRA premiums for family coverage consume 132 percent of unemployment income.

Ouch. This is why President Obama had proposed that the government subsidize 65% of individuals' COBRA costs for up to nine months. It sounds like a good thing for someone like Maria Hill, but remember that during a recession there is widespread unemployment and many people remain without jobs for longer than nine months.

If COBRA insurance is not affordable for many unemployed, then individual insurance is definitely not an option. There is no great national survey or database like the MEPS from which I can pluck an accurate average non-group premium as well as I could an average employer insurance premium. However looking at New York State's Insurance Department website, you can get an idea of just how expensive this coverage is. Take a look at this report of HMO rates for individual health plans by county as of September 2009. Even in counties that are not New York County, the premiums seem to be at least $800 per month, or $9,600 per year.

To be fair, New York State employer a pure community rating policy, which means that insurers are required to issue the same premium to all individuals regardless of age and health status, i.e. without medical underwriting. The effect is that the average cost of individual insurance in NYS goes way up. The average cost in California might be something closer to $3,000 or $4,000 a year. AHIP's survey of insurance affordability says even less, but this seems conservative to me.

One might wonder why Maria is fretting at all about not having health insurance. I mean, she does not have a preexisting condition and she's young, right? She can take a few months without insurance. Well, this might be the logic that some people use, but even unemployed, Hill has some pretty considerable occupational hazards. Her current activities in between jobs include smuggling sensitive data out of Tony Stark's secure warehouses, having her mind invaded and nearly wiped by The Controller, and getting into brutal fights with H.A.M.M.E.R. forces. A little insurance might do her some good.

Of course, Hill also differs from your average Joe in that she probably has lots of money saved up. You don't exactly work for S.H.I.E.L.D. for petty scraps of cash. I'm sure she is fully capable of dipping into her savings to sustain her until she finds new employment. That is, unless Osborn froze her assets or something like he did with Stark. In that case, she's screwed.

Indeed, having gaps in coverage is a big problem. There are arguments over it. Big national debates. Town hall meetings and protesters even.

Is there anything that the United States government can do to help out people like Hill and those who did not previously work for a big regulatory agency? Some claim that one way of reducing the temporarily uninsured in America is by allowing for cheap, high-deductible short-term coverage. Many states actually have such short-term insurance plans (New York doesn't though), where an individual can buy insurance for a period of three months to a year. It's watered down coverage, but it's coverage nonetheless. Others champion a more public solution. More subsidies for COBRA coverage, expansion of Medicaid (or other public program) eligibility to include these transitional individuals, etc.

Whatever the solution, it is clear that something must be done. With Osborn in charge, you never know what business will be pumpkin bombed next.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Foreign Hero of the Day: Captain Canuck

According to this article, Canada is the world's number 1 destination for foreign spies:

Led by the Chinese but including intelligence officers from at least 20 nations including allies [...], the infiltrators are stealing an estimated $20 billion to $30 billion annually worth of cutting-edge research in products and technologies, other scientific, business and military know-how and political secrets.

You know who this is a job for? Captain Canuck, that's who!

reprinted from

Captain Canuck, or Tom Evans, was a secret agent working for the Canadian International Security Agency (coincidentally in charge of counter-terrorism and intelligence), until he gained superpowers from some aliens. He then fought for justice in Canada in a fictional universe where it had become the most powerful country in the world and a haven for villainy.

Sure we all know Superman and we all care about Captain America, but not enough love is given to our boys fighting the good fight abroad. I say we take a minute to appreciate Captain Canuck's hard work rooting out terrorism and protecting all of Canada's national secrets. If only he were alive today to stop this threat...

Incidentally, I wonder what secrets Canada has to keep such that it's become such a nexus for foreign spies. Is it really, as the article claims, that it's just easy? Man, those spies are desperate. Even the comic had to invent a fictional Canada for it to make sense.

Hey US Government, Give Superman a Break from Paying Taxes!

reprinted from

What is this guy's deal? Superman's never been asked to pay taxes before because he's not really a United States citizen, is he? Clark Kent is a U.S. citizen. Clark Kent uses public education, roads, etc. And thus Clark Kent pays federal and state taxes. Superman, on the other hand, is not a registered citizen. He does not even really use public services. When was the last time you saw Superman driving a car down the street and paying tolls? Really, Superman's home isn't even in the United States at all. It's all the way up in the North Pole, where he can cleverly dodge U.S. tax laws.

By the way, "you owe the government a fortune in taxes" has the implication that somewhere in the catacombs of the federal government, there exists a file that details what Superman owes. They don't even know what he makes!

I guess it would be understandable if the United States government did not know that Superman had a secret identity at all. If they thought that he was just an alien who, after fighting robots and catching crazy tax collectors, goes to some apartment and flies away every time a bill shows up, then it might be reasonable to ask him to pay taxes. Of course, the only way to do this and preserve his secret identity would be some sort of flat tax system since no one has any idea what Superman's resources actually are. Not only that, but the government would have to employ more tax collectors like this one to show up at his doorstep--or to keep jumping off buildings.

But, come on. I thought that it was common knowledge that he had a human secret identity. Do people really think that he walks into a grocery store in his tights and picks up some potato chips? If not, then the government would be double taxing the poor guy.

Give Superman a break!

Ecocomic Recession Watch: Wayne Enterprises Edition

Batman and Robin #4 by Grant Morrison and Philip Tan (2009)

I bet we're all wondering how Wayne Enterprises is holding up during the recession. After all, many of the big comic businesses are in a bit of a slump. Stark Enterprises, for instance, is pretty much dismantled, albeit for reasons outside the scope of the recession and more in the vicinity of evil alien impersonators tarnishing Tony Stark's reputation. The Daily Bugle is now The DB and isn't doing too well either. Surely, Wayne Enterprises must have felt some shock as well. I mean, Bruce Wayne is conspicuously missing, leaving the burden of the day-to-day business to folks like Lucius Fox and Dick Grayson. Oh yeah, and let's not forget about Hush's diabolical charity scheme (I really do love saying that).

Despite all this, Wayne Enterprises has usually managed to keep enough prominence in the community. In fact, to my knowledge, the business has managed to provide Bruce and his family with enough dough to keep fighting crime for decades, almost without fail. Any catastrophic external event, economics related or otherwise, might at most temporarily affect operations, but it always seems to bounce back. Hell, Wayne Enterprises still is prospering despite a cataclysmic earthquake in Gotham that pretty much leveled the entire city to the point of the US government declaring it a dead zone (by the way, how many of you have read Batman Cataclysm and thought of me. Perhaps a post soon?)

Here, we have a scintilla of evidence suggesting that Wayne Enterprises might be affected by a combination of economics, bad press and shattered leadership. The shattered leadership refers to the real Bruce Wayne being missing and a fake Bruce Wayne handing out all of the company's resources towards questionable business ventures (such as novelty and games factories). The bad press calls back to Morrison's work in Batman R.I.P., where as part of the Black Glove's plan to nab the Batman, they had published phony stories regarding Thomas Wayne's legacy, depicting him and his wife as secret, deviant drug addicts. All of this would certainly go towards corrupting the company's legacy and affecting overall performance.

What about economics? Well, taking a quick glance at the wikipedia page for Wayne Enterprises, we see that the company has branches and subsidiaries dealing with several diverse elements of the market, including steel production, ship building, aerospace, oil and chemicals, biotechnology, electronics and entertainment. That is a huge behemoth of a company.

Though there have been many incarnations of the business (some writers have even portrayed the company as making a substantial amount from selling weapons and arms) and although many of you might think differently, I like to think of Wayne Enterprises as primarily a biotechnology and health-care firm. Thomas Wayne was conceived of the company as a means of doing the research and developing the technology to help as many people as he possibly could. After his death, Bruce continued the mission. It is no surprise that the cornerstone of the business is health-care related and that Wayne Technologies is, by far, the largest division of the company.

Though there's always money in health care, profits are probably falling. By how much, I don't know. But consider Amgen Inc., the world's largest biotech company, who reported ugly losses in the first quarter of 2009 (profits fell by 7.4%)

Here's one piece of data I found interesting regarding biotechnology and medical equipment. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, investment in both has gone down. In fact, investment in biotechnology in the first quarter of 2007 was about $1.5 billion. In the first quarter of 2009, it was only about $577 million. For medical technology, it was $1.2 billion in Q1 2007 and $453 million in Q1 2009.

This means a lot for smaller firms, especially those struggling to compete against the big guns. After all, even huge pharma giants like Merck are now getting into the biotech game.

However, Wayne Enterprises is huge. Possibly too big to fail, even with missing CEOs and looming threats from villainous impersonators. Even though they will face losses, let's not forget that there are virtually no competitors in the DC Universe. Lexcorp used to provide considerable competition, but since Lex Luthor has been shamed and jailed, Wayne Enterprises bought it out. It is generally known as the provider of medical technologies and the biotechnology research firm of the DC Universe.

If Wayne Enterprises can survive an earthquake, alien attacks, and even armageddon, I think it can withstand the great ecocomic recession.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Be Back Next Week

reprinted from

I feel as overworked as Superman this week. Deadlines, report submissions, meetings, conferences, saving the world, curing poverty...AND blogging--it's hard work, you know?

Ecocomics will return next week to its regular schedule. So tune in. Same super time. Same super channel.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Department of Huh? Black Mask and Insurance Fraud

Batman #690 by Judd Winick and Mark Bagley (2009)

I am so puzzled here. Not only does the Black Mask's plan seems like an excessively convoluted one, but I'm wondering whether it is Judd Winick's intent to confuse the reader much like the Black Mask is intentionally trying to confuse Batman.

In the most recent Batman arc, the caped crusader engaged in a long battle with Clayface and Lyle Blanco on the streets of Gotham City, causing mass destruction along the way. Buildings leveled, cars exploded, and people ran.

According to the Black Mask, the city took out private contracts to cover insurance on a certain string of tenement buildings. However, the insurance company was actually a dummy corporation--wait for the twist--for no one! All of this, including the battle itself, was a cunning attempt to throw Batman off course.


First, why and how is the city purchasing this insurance? Does the Black Mask have a marketing team under his employ so shrewd as to be able to persuade the city to trust this strange, unknown company? The other alternative is that the city is somehow involved with this villainous scheme.

Second, I'm confused as to what this dummy corporation actually is. To my knowledge, dummies are created as a front for other businesses in order to hide true ownership, avoid taxes, or fudge the numbers in the books. If this corporation is not a front, then is it an actual, functioning business? I think Black Mask probably meant that the city purchased insurance from a firm that does not really exist--possibly one that he fabricated himself.

I know that Gotham City is corrupt and indifferent, but this seems to stretch the extent of its irresponsibility.

Maybe Batman will figure this out, but Black Mask seems to have done a great job of bewildering me. That is why I'd like to ask the readers. Anyone have any ideas here or are you as confused as I am?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Chew, Elasticity and the Black Market For Chicken

Chew #3 by John Layman and Rob Guillory (2009)

Aw snap, Agent Savoy! You best not make those quips about government bureaucracy to the those health reform proponents.

Ironically, the organization that employs Agent Savoy and Agent Tony Chu (pictured above)-- Food and Drug Administration (FDA)--is anything but the paper-pushing, overly bureaucratic entity it's now stigmatized as on real-Earth. In the world of John Layman and Rob Guillory's Chew, the FDA has actually been granted extremely generous power, which includes the formation of its own Major Crimes Unit. During his first week of the job, Chu was held up at gunpoint by culinary terrorists (yes i just said that) and engaged in combat with a group of Yakuza smugglers in a shady sushi shop. Oh, there may be reports to fill out, but suffice it to say the FDA gets things done and kicks some ass doing it.

Why the sudden expansion of power? Well, in response to a recent bird flu epidemic, the United States government had decided to ban the legal sale of chicken and bird-related meats. Not unlike the market for illegal drugs and the market for alcohol during the US's brief experiment with Prohibition, the sudden moratorium of bird products had led to the development of a massive black market for chicken. Speakeasies and drug kingpins now smuggle drums of chicken in through the docks, sell them illegally on the street, and even use front businesses (such as sushi shops) to launder money. As a result, the government had granted the FDA the nearly unchecked ability to investigate all food-related crimes, many of them being violent ones.

However, one wonders whether this scenario would be as extreme as it is in the comic. Surely when a product is made illegal, black markets pop up. Yet in Chew, this black market is so large and organized that it warranted massive government funds to be used towards augmenting the power and scope of the FDA. I doubt that this would be the case.

The reason is that the market for illegal drugs and the market for chicken are considerably different. Consider the demand for drugs. By and large, I would say that drugs are a pretty inelastic good. Basically, this means that consumer demand for drugs is not very sensitive to changes in price. That is, if the market price of a particular drug were to rise, individual consumption would not fall by a significant amount. A major factor of this, of course, is that hard drugs are massively addictive. Hardcore cocaine or heroin addicts tend to find ways of making more money so as to feed their addictions. A change in price is unlikely to deter them. This is why many proponents of legalization argue that the war on drugs using supply-side tactics (which increase price) are ineffective. Gasoline is another example of a highly inelastic good, particularly because there are few substitutes for it.

The price elasticity of demand for chicken, on the other hand, is more elastic for most consumers. The reason is that chicken is not as addictive as drugs are (except for maybe delicious delicious buffalo wings), but also because there are many substitutes for chicken: beef, fish, lamb, pork, and so on and so forth. This means that an increase in the price of chicken is likely to to cause consumers to look to other alternatives instead of expending more for the chicken. At the very least, consumers will be dissuaded to a much lesser extent than they would be for a change in price of illegal drugs or alcohol.

Elasticity is important in the case of Chew because it is a good predictor of the size of the black market. When a product is illegal, it becomes more expensive on the black market than it would be if it were legal and open up to free market competition. Consumers pay exorbitant prices for illegal drugs because suppliers have to figure risk, cost of illegal transportation, etc. into the cost of the product. Further, less competition means that sellers can charge higher prices and consumers will still pay so long as there are relatively few alternatives.

reprinted from

So, if a product is relatively elastic (chicken), then if it is made illegal and prices on the black market skyrocket, those individuals will probably reduce their expenditures and seek substitutes. If a good is relatively inelastic (drugs), quantity demanded would decrease by a much less substantial amount.

All of this is to say that the black market for chicken in Chew is highly exaggerated. Though there would be many consumers who would be willing to throw down some hard-earned cash for a buffalo chicken sandwich or a grilled chicken Caesar salad, I believe this market size would not be so extreme and foment such a spark in violent crime that it would actually require a massive expansion of government authority.

The problem is that this means the FDA wouldn't be as badass. And this would be a horrible shame. I'm willing to suspend my disbelief for the benefit of getting to read about Yakuza fights, food psychics, left-wing food extremists, cop cliches, body parts in hamburgers, and so on.

September 11

I now realize that I probably should have posted yesterday's article (which had a lot to do with 9/11) today. Oh well.

For now, here is some wonderful art from Alex Ross (via ComicMix)

reprinted from
Art by Alex Ross

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Supervillain Attacks and Hospital Capacity

Umbrella Academy: Dallas #1 by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba (2008)

Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba touch on something pretty interesting here in the first issue of the second arc of Umbrella Academy. After the superhero squad saves the world from annihilation at the hands of violinists and raining meteors (yeah this book is that good), the downtown area of the city--I don't actually recall which city and I don't remember whether it was mentioned--was left in shambles, with buildings destroyed, thousands left homeless, hundreds dead, and what I imagine to be thousands of injuries (though again I don't recall whether this was explicitly stated).

In the panel above, the television reporter mentions, "--hospitals unable to deal with the sheer volume of injuries as triage units scramble to cover--." This is pretty significant. Personally, if I lived in a comic book universe that suffered cataclysmic disasters once every month, I would want to be sure that we had enough hospitals in my city to care for me should I ever be taken over by an alien life force, turned evil by a mathematical equation that unmakes existence, or have a meteor land on my head. In fact, would we be able to look at provider capacity data from the American Medical Association or American Hospital Association and deduce how well a major city would be able to handle such a catastrophe?

Well, we would need considerably more information than what is offered in the panels above. However, I came across a fascinating study in the Annals of Emergency Medicine regarding hospital capacity in New York and the effect of 9/11 on discretionary reduction in occupancy. Then let me outsource this to them:

In New York State, 242 hospitals cared for a peak capacity of 2,707 children and 46,613 adults. Occupancy averaged 60% of the peak for children and 82% for adults, allowing an average statewide capacity for a surge of 268 new pediatric and 555 adult patients for each million age-specific population. After the September 11, 2001, attacks, in the New York City region, a discretionary modification of admissions and discharges resulted in an 11% reduction from the expected occupancy for children and adults.

What do these numbers actually mean? Well, according to the study, national policy as of 2004 dictates that hospitals be able to accommodate surges of 500 new patients (children and adults) per 1 million population above the current bed capacity in the event of an emergency. That is, the authors suggest that 500 new patients per million will likely overwhelm hospitals in such situations, particularly so for children since there are fewer pediatric beds per age-specific population than is the case for adults.

However, the study also suggests that more beds could be made available if needed. In fact, the data on discretionary reductions in occupancy and interviews with nurse practitioners and physicians revealed that as much as 1/3 of hospitalized adults could be discharged to accommodate new patients in the event of an emergency.

Beyond actual hospital capacity however, there are other factors. A study published by the New York Presbyterian Hospital and Cornell Weill Medical Center reported EMS communication errors and problems transporting triage burn victims to specialized centers during 9/11. Although an adequate number of beds were available, evidently only 26% of victims were successfully transported.

As far as the Umbrella Academy goes, we don't know how many people were injured and we don't know how many people died while being treated in hospitals. From the looks of it, it seems to actually be less severe than September 11 in terms of injuries and death tolls, so hospitals might have the equipment not to be too stressed. Of course, this scenario involves meteors, violins, robots, and superheroes. It could be that the injuries sustained during this attack were much more severe and required more attention and hospitalization.

The point is that in extremely disastrous supervillain attacks--the kind that has become commonplace in the DC and Marvel Universes--we might be in deep, deep trouble. I wonder if there is a larger health provider workforce and whether more funds are devoted to increased beds, etc. in these universes. There probably should be. In fact, that 500 per million population statistic would likely be greater.

If the increase in utilization from a single-payer health care system would be enough to overwhelm hospitals, imagine a weekly attack from Darkseid, Brainiac, and the Joker. Talk about a need for health reform...

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Holy Act Of Congress, Batman!

Via The Beat, here is a lovely PSA from our beloved Batgirl regarding equal wages between men and women in the workforce:

FYI, the Federal Equal Pay Act of 1963 provided that:

No employer having employees subject to any provisions of this section shall discriminate, within any establishment in which such employees are employed, between employees on the basis of sex by paying wages to employees in such establishment at a rate less than the rate at which he pays wages to employees of the opposite sex in such establishment for equal work on jobs the performance of which requires equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and which are performed under similar working conditions [...]

The impact of the law was pretty significant. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, median earnings of women as a percentage of men's earnings rose from 62.3% in 1979 to 80.4% in 2004 (note Table 16 in the document).

Of course, there is still more work to do. Recently, Barack Obama signed into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Good stuff. I, for one, am glad that Batgirl is on the side of civil rights.

Except, you know, when it comes to catching criminals without probable cause or search warrants.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Metahuman Regulation

reprinted from

Last week, we asked readers to submit their suggestions of top national priorities in comic book universes. Congratulations to our winner, Brian Moore, who proposed superhero/metahuman regulation, writing:

Governments have spent eons establishing a system of rules that are dependent on how things "work" right now. If people start turning up with abilities that lets them get around those rules, then registering and regulating those individuals will be top priority, since you'd (from the government's perspective) need to keep those people in line or none of your rules will work. It's a necessary pre-condition for everything else, and therefore the highest priority.

Sure, it's to the point that this plot device has become trite within "superhero" worlds, but I think that's only because it's an accurate guess about what would happen.

There's plenty of evidence to corroborate this theory (much of which we blogged about previously). Of course, the most pertinent example is the superhuman registration act, which requires superheroes to register with the federal government, thereby forcing them to abandon any insulation from criminal prosecution (or taxation). The Act was so important that it was actually the the cause of an entire Marvel crossover event and sparked a civil war between the superheroes of the universe (and you know it's important when a concept not only gets its own series, but filters into other existing titles as well).

reprinted from

Another example is Proposition X, a bill in the Marvel Universe which would ban unauthorized mutant breeding. Indeed, this is considerably less pertinent than the superhuman registration act for many reasons, not the least of which being that the mutant population has dwindled and mutant births now happen rarely, if ever (not to mention Utopia does not have its own series). Nevertheless, the fact that the prospect of the passage of the bill has fomented such fanatical and extreme responses from the public is reflective of a deep-rooted prejudice, perhaps not towards superheroes in particular, but certainly towards metahumans of a certain type.

If we look to other universes outside of Marvel, we see similar examples of this. In the DC Universe, there exists an organization known as Checkmate, a United Nations agency affiliated with the Security Council. The agency acts as a metahuman monitoring force, charged with preserving the balance between the globe's human and superhuman population.

In fact, the DC Universe at this very moment is plagued with an enormous metahuman crisis--one that is so severe that is has engendered a wave of xenophobia and paranoia. I am referring to the emergence of the 100,000 Kryptonians from former Kandor and the creation of New Krypton. After a failed attempt at assimilating these Kryptonians , anti-alien sentiment grew so strong that they were relegated to Superman's former former Fortress of Solitude, secluded from the rest of the planet's population. After this too had failed, they had moved to a completely separate planet across the yellow sun.

And still, Earth's population remains concerned that the Kryptonians are planning a campaign to destroy or dominate the planet. This has led to the United Nations agreeing to ban any Kryptonians (save for Superman) from so much as entering the planet's atmosphere, and has also led to the creation of yet another covert group, Project 7734, tasked with keeping the alien threat in check. Although this is a secret organization (that not even the President of the United States is aware of), it managed to generate extreme hatred of aliens by strategically denigrating Superman in the public's eye.

Then, of course, there there are the Boys, a covert CIA-backed group of renegades who monitor (and frequently kick the ass of) superheroes who abuse their powers (a problem that runs rampant in that particular universe).

Indeed, superhero regulation might be an easy answer, as Brian noted, since it the current theme of many comic book titles. And yet the concept has been so prominent throughout comic book history that it can most certainly be considered the United States' top national priority. In many titles, people (at least in major cities such as New York, Metropolis, Gotham City, Keystone City, etc.) seem to be much more willing to spend their tax dollars on the control and prevention of metahuman disaster than on any other issue. In New York City, J. Jonah Jameson has directed most of his administration's budget towards commissioning an anti-Spider-Man task force--and his public support seems to remain steady. In the Marvel Universe, people are more than willing to give up large portions of their income towards funding H.A.M.M.E.R. rather than health care. The logic seems to be: what good is health care when at any given moment, the world is vulnerable to Skrull Invasions, terrorists in Iron Man suits, unauthorized mutant births, etc? And what if the superheroes falter (as is believed Tony Stark did with the Skrull Invasion)?

What's worse is that supervillains are very aware of this. In fact, if entire US population were to suddenly devote unconditional trust towards their superheroes, the supervillains of the DC and Marvel Universes would have almost no means of defeating them. Is it any wonder that the best villainous plots have involved turning the public against their beloved heroes? And is it any wonder that they always seem to do it so easily?

The reason is that no matter how many times Superman saves the world, there is always that hint of doubt. There is always the possibility that one day he'll turn the other way (see Irredeemable for evidence of this). At any given time, if you take a public opinion poll on national priorities, I'm willing to bet that metahuman regulation tops the list.

Congratulations again to Brian Moore. Please e-mail us at ecocomics dot blog at gmail dot com with a list of your top five graphic novels under $20 and your mailing address.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Happy Labor Day!

On this Labor Day, let us remember that even superheroes have their day to day...

reprinted from

Friday, September 4, 2009

Does the United States Need More Ore?

I'm actually asking.

Superman #691 by James Robinson and Renato Guedes (2009)

The President of the DC Universe United States is about to sign a free-trade agreement with the nation of Markovia, it seems primarily because of an interest in its ore reserves.

Particularly with iron more, the United States uses most of its stock to produce steel, though this is pretty much true throughout the world. The United States Geological Survey estimates that in 2004 there were more than 800 billion tons of crude ore throughout the world, with 230 billion or so containing iron. The U.S. had about 110 billion crude ore, with about 27 billion tons of iron. They accounted for about 4% of the world's iron ore output and 5% of consumption.

Regarding imports and exports, according to the International Trade Centre, the U.S. accounted for about $611 million in iron ore imports, which is about 1.5% of the world's total. This ranked it number 11 in imports in 2005. It exported about $580 million.
What does this actually mean for whether the United States actually needs more? Steel production is cheaper in foreign countries, so in tough times the United States has been importing more steel from Canada and Brazil.

Furthermore, China's demand for ore has been rapidly growing in recent years, accounting for an astonishing 45% of imports. This has had a considerable effect on ore exports not only in the U.S., but also in Brazil and Australia, who continued to invest large amounts of funds towards increasing production. Taking a look at the ITC data for exports, we can see that from 2001 to 2003, the United States had maintained about $230 - $250 million in iron ore exports. Then in 2004, exports rose to $337 million, and shot up again in 2005 to about $580 million.

Of course, imports also significantly increased in 2005 from 2004, going from $451 million to $611 million.

I wonder if there's another reason the United States is so passionately interested in Markovia. Any ideas?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Superman is Buying New Underwear: Good News for the Economy?

reprinted from
According to the Washington Post, another unfortunate effect of the recession has been a slowing in the sale of men's underwear. In fact, it is predicted that sales are to fall 2.3% this year, which is the first drop since the company Mintel had begun collecting data in 2003. As they put it:

Here's the theory, briefly: Sales of men's underwear typically are stable because they rank as a necessity. But during times of severe financial strain, men will try to stretch the time between buying new pairs, causing underwear sales to dip.

That is unfortunate for heroes like Superman, who wear their underwear on the outside. If Superman is forced to purchase less underwear and wears the same few pairs each day as part of his crime fighting routine, I think this poses are pretty significant hygiene issue. Plus, it's disgusting. That is, unless he just spends more time doing laundry. But he's Superman, remember? He has no time for laundry!

Worry not, however, citizens of Metropolis. There is good news.

But the men's underwear index -- or, conveniently, MUI -- may also have a silver lining. Mintel predicts that next year, men's underwear sales will fall by 0.5 percent, and as with many economic indicators, a slowing of a decline can be welcomed as a step in the right direction. Retailers are reporting encouraging signs in the men's underwear department.

If underwear sales is indeed an adequate economic indicator, then Superman should be back to his regular, clean self in no time.


Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Drug War and Comic Books

Batman and Robin #3 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly

The war on drugs in comic books is interesting for a variety of reasons, including that there are actually many differences between the trade in comics and the trade on real-Earth.

One thing I realized while reading Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly's latest issue of Batman and Robin, is that villain motives are usually different. When we think about criminal activity and drugs, we tend to think that dealers, gangs and mobsters are primarily interested in making money. They use the profits earned from drug dealing towards gaining power, prestige, and influence in their respective cities. We reason that these drug dealers commit crimes in addition to the illegal sale of narcotics as an unfortunate externality to the illegality of the business (if you watch The Wire, you know these crimes include but are not limited to extortion, racketeering, several types of fraud, and even murder). Organizations have to "take care of" potential snitches to prevent the authorities from becoming wise to their operations. Mobsters often start phoney businesses and front companies to launder money made through illegal activity, thereby hiding it from the authorities. Police and politicians can often be bribed. All of this seems to exist in order to ensure the continued success of the business and to maximize profits.

Yet, in comic books, most supervillains (I'm not talking about your run-of-the-mill drug dealers) in the drug trade have reasons that go far and above making money and gaining prestige. Particularly in Gotham City, it can be argued that these villains are using drugs as a mechanism to fuel their insanity and commit even more crimes! If the Joker were to start selling his laughing gas in the form of a drug (which had happened before), do you think it would be so that he could settle down in a nice home in Nantucket? He would use that money in order to construct elaborate schemes of producing chaos in Gotham and capturing the Batman. If the Scarecrow began selling a low-potent version of his fear gas to gangsters, he would probably just take all that money to develop a substantially more dangerous version of the gas, which he would then unleash upon the city and watch it degenerate into panic. If Two-Face made all the money in the world, his neuroses would not be able to stop him from robbing a Double Mint Gum factory. In the panel above, who even knows why Professor Pyg is selling his drug? Other than him being completely insane.

What we see here is that the sale of narcotics in Gotham City seems closer to a front company for the real crimes. And, as it happens, these supervillains are the ones controlling the trade; most mobsters have been marginalized a long time ago.

So, what would be the effect of decriminalization in these two worlds? Note that I'm not talking about full-blown legalization, including government regulation of narcotics, taxation, and the ability to buy marijuana from your local supermarket. This would simply put most former suppliers out of jobs. I'm referring to decriminalization in the sense that it would allow the drug dealers to continue controlling the supply and sale of the narcotics. This is sort of like what goes on in Amsterdam with marijuana sales. Holland never technically legalized the sale of the drug--the authorities just don't enforce their laws against them. So despite the fact that there are now shops, there is still an illegal market for the drugs.

Now, I confess that I, myself, have never led or even been a part of any drug organization or criminal gang. Yet, I think if legality were no longer a concern and that these dealers were given a free pass by the authorities to continue their operations without hassle (and assuming they could make the same profits), these sorts of extra crimes would diminish. No snitches, no murdering witnesses. And I'm not the first to make the argument that decriminalization could potentially reduce crime. However, in comic books, crimes could potentially increase, since decriminalization would actually be providing supervillains with an even easier means of obtaining funds!

Of course, this need not necessarily be the case. In fact, with the reduction of criminal penalties for selling drugs, this would surely increase competition on real-Earth. New, underground organization would spring up, now unrestrained by the possibility of being incarcerated. This means that the supply of drugs would increase and prices would go down, which could imply that individual dealers would be making less than they were previously. If this is the case, then it is entirely possible that the increased competition would lead to an increase in crime.

However, it is also possible that the market size would increase such that even with the diminished price, dealers would still be selling more quantity and making the same, if not more. Furthermore, the increase in crime generated by the new competition might not be as significant as the reduction in crime from decriminalization. So, there could indeed be a net reduction.

Here's another reason why the sale of drugs is particularly fascinating in comics: there are much harder and much more dangerous drugs on the market. Again, since the major trade is controlled by our most notorious supervillains, many of them happening to be mad scientists or chemical geniuses, there is a constant influx of new, extremely sinister narcotics. One of my favorite examples is from Kevin Smith and Walt Flanagan's Batman: Cacophony miniseries, in which Maxie Zeus obtained some of the Joker's patented laughing gas and combined it with ecstasy to form an extremely potent new drug, called "chuckles." He then proceeded to make a fortune selling this drug on the black market, much to the Joker's anger.

Some of these drugs don't even have a market among the general populace, but rather with gangsters involved in other activities. In the panels depicted above, Professor Pyg had developed a drug/virus that served to actually destroy people's identities. I imagine that even most drug users wouldn't exactly hop on this train. However, gang lords and leaders of prostitution rings who need to poison their enemies/women? There's your market right there.

Even if the sale of drugs was completely legalized in comic books, there would still be a black market for this stuff. I highly doubt that the FDA would approve a drug that erased people's identities. Even still, one of the reasons these drugs are in such abundance and do so well in comics is, again, because they are illegal. Both suppliers and buyers have more of an interest in potent drugs. If the purchase of illegal drugs is such a high-risk endeavor, then it would generally be more worth it to the buyer to get something more substantial. Similarly, it is quite risky for suppliers to transport more low-potency drugs, when they could also transport the harder ones and sell them for a higher price.

Consider the era of Prohibition in the 1920s. As Norman E. Zinberg and Kathleen M. Fraser wrote, "People did not take the trouble to go to a speakeasy, present the password, and pay high prices for very poor quality alcohol simply to have a beer. When people went to speakeasies, they went to get drunk."

In conclusion, drugs in comic books is a more complicated business than i initially considered.