Thursday, November 17, 2011

Can Wolverine Build a School?

Wolverine #17 by Jason Aaron and Ron Garney
Marvel Comics, 2011

Where does Wolverine get his money from? If he has managed to save up enough to start a new school for mutants in Westchester, he must certainly have exercised several lifetimes of prudent money management. Here is what we had to say about this before:

Throughout his long, long life Wolverine has shown very little interest in matters of an economic nature. He's spent most of his time living in cabins, hovels, and sleeping in the beds and houses of others. His worldly possessions seldom exceed the clothes on his back (usually a jumpsuit made of spandex or leather), a cache of cheap cigars, a motorcycle, and a six-pack of beer. This is the sum of the worldly possessions he has accrued in over 100 years of life. Granted, a large part of this life was spent being mind controlled and experimented on, but in the years since he's escaped from Weapon X, Wolverine has made a series of life decisions which placed him in financial jeopardy.

We know Wolverine likes to live a life of modesty. Previously, I thought this was due to the fact that, despite living the equivalent of several lifetimes, he never took a job that was lucrative enough for him to splurge on things like mansions and jets.

Evidently, this is incorrect. Turns out that Wolverine has been slowly saving for years and has now accrued enough funds to open a school.

I haven't the fainted idea of what it costs to open a school. I doubt that the Xavier Institute was a charter school or received any sort of public funding. In today's Marvel Universe, mutants are still highly stigmatized so it is unlikely that Wolverine will be able to receive any sort of grant or government assistance, unless through nefarious means (snikt snikt). I do, however, know that it is extremely expensive, probably requiring initial funding of upwards of $500,000 to one million dollars. Westchester County, New York, also seems like it would be particularly costly.

Is it possible that Wolverine managed to save up this much money? Actually, it doesn't seem that crazy. Let's assume all assets that he had saved up prior to his kidnapping by the Weapon X program had been wiped (it is unlikely that the sinister Canadian organization let him keep his money). Then, once Logan escapes the program (well after World War II), he had to start with nothing.

He then met Charlies Xavier and joined up with the X-Men in the 1970s. I think it's safe to assume that he started his savings at this point. Assuming that he had been paid a salary for his service (something of which I am not sure, though I imagine he needed some form of income to, you know, eat) and that he served continuously through the present (a stretch, but it would be difficult to account for all the gaps in his time with the X-Men), it is certainly feasible that Wolverine had saved the amount required to at the very least put forth the initial funds. He had been actively working for four decades (longer if you count the time between Weapon X and the X-Men, where he was employed with Department K and probably earned some sweet government pay) and his expenses were minimal (for a while, he took up free residence at the X-Mansion and, as mentioned above, spends very little on material things).

Therefore, it would appear as though Wolverine's modest lifestyle is evidence of prudence and thrift, rather than of having little assets.

Hell, Logan might even be part of the 1%.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Arkham City Part I

Mayor Sharp unveils Arkham City.
Batman: Arkham City #2 by Paul Dini and Carlos D'Anda
DC Comics (2011)

What a bizarre concept this is. So, the Joker and his pack of ruffians take over Arkham Asylum, riots ensue, and then Batman has to save the day. There were many casualties. So now, Mayor Sharp decides to let these prisoners loose from Arkham Asylum and have their own, heavily policed section of Gotham City, where they can run around and, apparently, rehabilitate.

The benefits of this plan are...let's say dubious. Yes, Mayor Sharp is being controlled by larger forces (which I will not reveal for fear of spoiling), but he still had to convince the City Council--and Gotham citizens--that this plan is not only economically feasible, but that it has any benefits at all.

First of all, how many inmates does Arkham Asylum actually have? A quick count of notable (and other) inmates on Wikipedia suggests about 60 inmates. And these guys aren't ever in Arkham all at once. But still, let's be a little liberal with our estimate, and say that we have about 75 inmates at Arkham at any given time. If anyone knows of a better estimate, feel free to let me know.

Why exactly do these 75 people need half of Gotham City--one of the largest cities in the DC universe--all to themselves? It seems like an excessive waste of resources and space on 75 people. Couldn't he have just walled off a neighborhood? The equivalent of, say, the east village in NYC? And even that's being generous!

While we're talking about space issues, I'm also a bit confused as to how the government acquired this space. If half of Gotham is being declared a war zone and sectioned off exclusively for Arkham prisoners, then what happens to the citizens formerly living in these areas? What about the businesses formerly operating in them? Well, they can't possibly still be there once Arkham opens, right? No one would willingly choose to reside in neighborhoods where the most dangerous villains in the world are free to roam. And, unless your business is selling death rays, no one would choose to continue to go to work in Arkham City.

This means that, most likely, every citizen and business formerly operating in the now Arkham City has to pack up and move to another location. This has major economic implications. First of all, it is very likely that the government needs to subsidize the cost of moving for these guys. So that's an area of half of Gotham City that the city needs to finance. I suppose, alternatively, that Gotham could subsidize people for staying in Arkham City and willingly exposing themselves to danger. But then that would be more or less equivalent to just setting the prisoners free in society.

Here's another thing: moving people from one half of Gotham into another would almost surely cause major congestion and overpopulation problems. Not only that, but I imagine that many citizens and businesses will simply be lost in the transition. Small businesses might close if not fully subsidized and individuals might simply move outside the city limits. Gotham is losing a chunk of its tax base by creating Arkham City.

And that's nothing to say of the enormous amounts of money being spent to maintain this large prison. For one thing, Gotham needs to commission task forces and experts in order to determine the appropriate plans, and estimate the appropriate subsidies. Moreover, the wall needs to be constructed. The private military securing Arkham City's borders need to be paid.

Oh yeah, and let's not forget that the Mayor is also providing health care and essential social services to these former inmates.

It has been clear for many years that politicians and citizens of Gotham City have been prone to panic and mass hysteria. They have been portrayed as corrupt, fickle, and ignorant. But even in the grand scale of Gotham's historical blunders, Arkham City almost surely nears the top. Maybe top five.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Zatanna and Behavioral Economics

Zatanna discusses her fear of puppets
Zatanna #8 by Paul Dini and Cliff Chiang, DC Comics (2010)

In a recent issue of Zatanna, we learn that our hero has been struggling with a paralyzing fear. A fear of puppets. This is due, for the most part, to childhood trauma with puppets (plus, they really are scary as all hell. See the classic Goosebumps story on the subject).

Zee has been largely unsuccessful in dealing with her fear throughout her adult life. However, as she points out, in situations where the stakes were high enough, she has been able to temporarily overcome her fear in order to realize greater social benefits. A specific example includes a recent adventure alongside Batman, wherein she helped the caped crusader defeat the second Ventriloquist and a revamped Scarface.

This beautifully illustrates how certain incentives and rewards can motivate individual behavior towards outcomes that our socially optimal, even when those outcomes come at their own expense. The right incentives can even cause Zatanna to overcome a crippling fear.

Guiding behavior through incentives is a big topic in behavioral economics. Most of these occur to minimize behaviors that pose a significant negative externality on society. We see it all the time. For example, "sin taxes" on cigarettes are designed to curb a habit which has plenty of external consequences, including second-hand smoke, higher utilization of medical services, increases in medical care and insurance costs, etc.

However, even mechanisms like sin taxes raise the stakes in terms of costs for the individual committing the behavior (not the social cost). The government, to my knowledge, doesn't generally come in and say, "Hey you better stop smoking or else 30 people will die tomorrow from second-hand smoke." Where Zatanna's situation differs is that the stakes in her situation actually refer to these social costs. She's motivated by the potential death of a large number of people that would result from her inaction to stop a bunch of puppets.

This gets us into the notion of altruism. Is Zatanna behaving altruistically here by having her behavior be so amenable to social stakes? I would argue that this is not the case and that she actually reaps many hidden benefits that lay beneath the surface (though, no doubt, she is aware of).

For one thing, if Zatanna had bailed on Batman because of her inability to face a puppet, she would have likely been ostracized from the superhero community. Well, probably not actually, since her and Batman have a kinda-sorta love thing. But she would have certainly been embarrassed enough to think this would be a potential consequence.

Second, and on a related note, she is aiding one of the top superheroes of the DC Universe. There are definitely benefits to helping Batman. He is more likely to return the favor in the future and recommend Zatanna for future missions with the Justice League. So, her being able to shape up and spring to action regardless of the circumstance has professional implications.

Third, she is saving herself the guilt of living with the knowledge that innocents may have died as a result of her hesitation.

So, selfless superhero or not, it would appear there are plenty of personal benefits for Zatanna here. In fact, if one of her reasons is indeed reciprocity from Batman and the Justice League, there is a related concept in behavioral economics and evolutionary biology known as "reciprocal altruism" that deals with this idea. Reciprocal altruism basically refers to an act of selflessness towards another with the anticipation that the recipient of the benefit will one day return the favor.

This can be thought of in the context of the famous Prisoner's Dilemma. Recall that the basic lesson of this exercise is that the rational choice for the players was to defect, even though the pareto optimal strategy for each was to cooperate. There is, however, an alternative version of the prisoner's dilemma that is repeated infinitely, rather than played only once. In a repeated game, the Nash Equilibrium would still be to defect every round. However, in actual experiments, it has been shown that if players remember the actions of past rounds, cooperation fared as a potentially good strategy. The reason? Players would punish each other in subsequent rounds for defecting. In order to avoid this punishment, people would cooperate.

Thinking back to Zatanna's situation, she might be doing something similar. The knowledge that her actions would determine future treatment towards her could be guiding her incentive to help Batman, and thereby face her fear of puppets.

Of course, this isn't easy to hear. Sure the stakes of having innocents die on her watch is a big motivator. But it's not entirely altruistic. I'm betting that if Batman suddenly declared that she would be severely punished for inaction, while she would be handsomely rewarded for puppetry, Zatanna might become a great ventriloquist. Great strategy for dealing with fear.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Externalities: Invincible Iron Man 33 Edition

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

At least Tony Stark knows his recklessness causes damage.
The Invincible Iron Man #33 by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca
Marvel Comics (2011)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Comics Professor

Here's a blog written by one of the editors of Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series (including books such as Batman and Philosophy, Watchmen and Philosophy, and others). It features news, commentary, and reviews of current superhero comics, as well as insightful philosophical analyses. I've personally read the Batman and Philosophy book and learned a great deal about his deontological and utilitarian bents.

Here's a snip from a recent post about whether superheroes should take political positions

Why did this concern me so? Contrary to what Mr. Rucka says, I don't think defining a superhero as liberal or conservative would imply that he or she would help some people and not others in an emergency (though examples do exist, such as Ollie early in O'Neil's run), but making a hero's politics explicit does reduce the appeal of that character to a significant portion of the fanbase.

Furthermore, it contributes to the perception that our political affiliations define us. If Superhero A is conservative and Superhero B is liberal, many people will take those facts to determine much more about their characters than seems appropriate. There's a lot of room for widely different types of liberals and conservatives in this world (not to mention all the people who reject both labels). And I like to believe that most liberals and conservatives (excluding the ones on the extreme fringe of each group) have more in common than not.

More at the blog.

More Wasted Tax Dollars

With great power, Spidey
"Another Door" in Amazing Spider-Man #647 by Fred Van Lente
and Max Fiumara, Marvel Comics 2010

I've been saying for years that the United States government should stop funding the Smithsonian. It poses an extreme risk to the taxpayers.

Also, when did the Spidey mobile get in there?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


Irredeemable #19 by Mark Waid and Peter Krause, Boom! Studios 2010

Another example of technology that's being kept from the general public. Innovation economists would accuse Qubit here, who seems aware that this technology existed and still hasn't shared this information, of hindering economic growth.

Aliens get all the cool weaponized teleportation devices, while we here on Earth still have to make due with nothing but fancy toilets.