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Superman Needs an Agent

  • Superman
July 11, 2006

Tags Free MarketsMedia and CultureEntrepreneurship

It's tough to be an economist. Not only must you endure years of stultifying lectures and readings, you must also brave the feigned approval of those who had innocently asked, "Oh, a professor? What do you teach?"

But beyond this, there is a deeper problem: I can't help watching certain movies without being distracted by nagging problems that would trouble only an economist.

Take the case of Superman. Here is this extraterrestrial with amazing powers. Among other things, he can fly; he has super strength and super breath; he can run and perform other tasks with super speed; he has x-ray, telescopic, and heat vision; he has super hearing; and, famously, he is virtually invulnerable save for exposure to kryptonite. Compared to the average human, the guy's super.

As with any other viewer, the economist who watches Superman can appreciate these wonderful powers, and recognizes their potential for helping humanity. In particular, someone like Superman is indispensable for dealing with "super villains" such as Lex Luthor and the three exiled Kryptonian criminals (from Superman II).

Yet the economist can push the analysis much further, for ultimately Superman is a worker with incredible productivity. That is, Superman has valuable skills that other workers lack, and potential employers would be willing to pay dearly for his services. Considering just the feats chronicled in the first four Superman movies (i.e., the ones starring Christopher Reeve), the following are plausible jobs that Superman could perform:

  • Payload delivery In Superman II, our hero carries an elevator, loaded with a nuclear bomb, into space where it explodes harmlessly (and releases the three super criminals from the Phantom Zone). Superman accomplishes this feat in under one minute.[1]

  • ABM defense In Superman, the Man of Steel intercepts one of the nuclear missiles[2] that Lex Luthor has reprogrammed and directed toward Hackensack, New Jersey (where Miss Teschmacher's mother lives).

  • Emergency response After the detonation of the second missile hijacked by Luthor, Superman provides disaster assistance by using his own body to mend a railroad track, lifting a school bus teetering on the Golden Gate Bridge, and causing an avalanche in order to prevent flooding (after the Hoover Dam bursts).

  • Tectonic repair Following the catastrophic strike of the second missile, the very first thing Superman does is repair the San Andreas fault. Working with seismologists, it is possible that he could prevent or mitigate naturally occurring earthquakes as well.

  • Weather control In the early stages of III, Superman rescues the coffee crop of South America by undoing the attempts of a super villain to influence the weather. Presumably he could use his heat vision and/or super breath to manipulate naturally occurring hurricanes, tornadoes, etc. Also as demonstrated in III, Superman can bring rain to a small area by freezing the surface of a lake and carrying the ice sheet. This might prove useful to farmers in drought-stricken areas.

  • Oil discovery / drilling With his telescopic and x-ray vision, Superman presumably could fly over oil rich regions and pinpoint (or at least greatly assist in the determination of) optimal places to drill a shaft. Moreover, he might also be able to do the drilling himself, or at least the initial stages of it, as he demonstrated in Superman when he spins and burrows down through the street to reach Luthor's underground lair. (The same analysis applies to the location of gold, silver, and other deposits.)

  • Diamond production As demonstrated in Superman III, Superman can use his bare hands to transform a piece of coal into a beautiful diamond in mere seconds.[3]

  • Medical diagnosis Superman could use his x-ray vision to instantly check for tumors or other ailments, as when he informs Lois (in the original movie) that she doesn't yet have lung cancer.

  • S.W.A.T. team Superman would obviously make an excellent member of a bomb squad, both because of his x-ray vision and his endurance. He would also prove excellent in hostage situations, because of his super speed and teleportation ability.

  • Weapon of mass destruction Although it would not be consistent with his strong moral code, Superman would of course make an excellent weapon in the service of a government. He could single-handedly wipe out rival armies, or, if secrecy were paramount, he would be the ideal assassin.

  • Professional thief In a similar vein, Superman would naturally be a perfect thief. His various powers would allow him to penetrate most vaults undetected, and even if the police did show up, so what?

  • Schoolteacher Superman received a fantastic education from his biological father, Jor-El, both in transit to Earth and also as a young man in his first visit to the Fortress of Solitude. (Recall that he uses "high school physics" to foil Luthor's plot in IV.) Of course Superman would be a hit with the kids as he could levitate, snap handcuffs, and perform all sorts of other tricks to win their affection. He would also be ideal for tough inner city schools with gang problems.

  • Food delivery Superman would be wonderful at delivering food in virtually no time at all, particularly in a big city where he could leap tall buildings (and get the burritos to the 40th floor) in a single bound. Not only would Superman deliver a given item more quickly than any other employee, but he could also handle dozens of pizzas without needing a car. (Recall the ability of General Zod to lift people with a beam from his hand.)

  • Athlete Whether it's football, basketball, or any other pro sport, or even just about any Olympic event,[4] Superman would be the hands-down best participant in the history of civilization. Indeed, he would undoubtedly have to restrain himself if he even wanted to be allowed to compete.

  • Touring entertainer He might learn the ropes by joining a circus, but soon enough the Man of Steel would headline his own one-man extravaganza. They said Sammy Davis, Jr. could put on a good show. But could he bench press locomotives? fly around the stadium to be sure everyone got an up-close look? juggle lions? play tug-of-war with the Green Bay Packers? allow select members of the audience to try to jam an ice pick in his (good) eyeball?

  • Hibachi chef Superman would make a wonderful chef in a Japanese steakhouse. After slicing the onions at super speed, he could form a tower, douse them with cooking oil, and then ignite them with a quick burst of heat vision. He could also use force beams from his fingers (demonstrated by General Zod in II) to lift tasty morsels to the mouth of each of the diners.

  • Reporter This is of course the profession chosen by Clark Kent. As Perry White explains, Kent is actually quite suited for the job: "Not only does he have a snappy, punchy prose style, not only does he treat his editor-in-chief with respect, but he is, in my forty years of experience, the fastest typist I have ever encountered."

Does This Look Like A Job For Superman?

Now some of the above professions seem appropriate to Superman, while others do not. For most readers, I imagine that there are two distinct criteria for the classification. Most people would rule out Superman as an assassin or thief because "obviously" he shouldn't do things that are illegal (or, more specifically, that hurt innocents).

Beyond this, I imagine many readers would reject the more commercial occupations. To them, it would seem that Superman isn't really helping people if, say, he just puts a telecom satellite in orbit. Such readers would undoubtedly prefer that Superman spend his time saving people from burning buildings or train wrecks.

But what is the basis for this judgment? Does it apply to normal human beings as well? That is, should everyone in the telecom industry quit tomorrow and go volunteer for the fire department? (If not, why not?) And just why isn't it a genuine contribution to help millions of people to communicate with loved ones, or to provide entertainment for millions of sports fans?

A little reflection shows that most of the occupations in modern economies are not related to "essential" goods or services, but are rather part of industries that merely elevate the standard of living. People have different aptitudes and training, and tend to go into those areas where they have the relative expertise. Most readers will understand the sense in which it would be "wasting" Michael Jordan's skills if he were an accountant or even a social worker. In the same way, the economist watching Superman worries that it is almost certainly "wasteful" if the Man of Steel spends his time flying around looking for petty thieves, not to mention kittens caught in trees.[5]

The problem of the allocation of scarce labor resources is a general one; it's just particularly pronounced in the case of Superman. Even if he wants only to help humans as much as he can, Superman is still at a loss, because "help" is such a vague verb. Jor-El instructs his son: "Live as one of them, Kal-El, to discover where your strength and your power are needed." And presumably this is why he maintains a secret identity and works at the Daily Planet (in order to be informed of world events the moment the news breaks). Yet the economist knows that this isn't enough: Superman needs an agent!

To best exploit his amazing potential, Superman should hire an agent (or even a team of agents) who is fully briefed on the Kryptonian's various powers, and then works around the clock finding potential employers. If the world of the Superman movies really existed, I would find some way of contacting him and make him the following offer: "Mr. El, if you let me be your agent, I can guarantee you $100 billion in pretax earnings the first year, or else I work for free. If we do meet the target, though, all I ask is a measly .01 percent commission on everything you earn above it."

If he took me up on this offer, I am quite confident that I'd be rich. Consider payload delivery: In 1990 Arabsat Consortium paid the Chinese government $25 million to launch a satellite into orbit, and this was considered an unfairly low price in Western countries.[6] Because of the reduced risk (Superman won't explode on the launch pad) and scheduling convenience (he can do it tomorrow if you really need it done quickly), Superman could easily charge this amount. Since he was able to deliver the Eiffel Tower elevator (containing the nuclear bomb) into space in less than sixty seconds, Superman could leisurely put a dozen satellites into orbit per hour.[7] At that rate (and assuming a forty-hour work week and two weeks vacation per year), Superman could earn $600 billion annually.

Now it's true that Superman couldn't work full-time doing this, as the number of paying customers would probably dwindle a few weeks into it. He would have to space out the gigs or charge a much lower price. But there are all sorts of other ways he could make money, as I've outlined above. For example, when he's not busy lifting a satellite into orbit, or repairing a damaged one, Superman could crank out diamonds. (Heck, he could even do this on his lunch break if he's really hard up for cash.) Assuming that the diamond he creates in III for Lana has a price of at least $5,000, and that he can make one every ten seconds, Superman could churn out $1.8 million worth of diamonds per hour, which translates into annual earnings of $3.6 billion.

It's hard to estimate how much Superman could charge for things like earthquake prevention. However, insurance companies alone paid out over $10 billion following Hurricane Charley, so Superman could charge insurers at least this much if he could use his powers to redirect a major hurricane while it is still at sea. The National Drought Mitigation Center estimates the average annual costs of floods, droughts, and hurricanes at over $10 billion, and that is just for the United States. Superman could easily earn this much annually either responding to or preventing such natural calamities, and as the movies demonstrate, each particular remedy wouldn't take up much of his (incredibly valuable) time.

Although it seems frivolous, Superman's role as entertainer shouldn't be dismissed. If he limited his appearances, Superman could easily fill a football stadium at $25,000 per ticket. (After all, Barbra Streisand plays Vegas for up to $2,500 a head.) Assuming he sells 160,000 tickets[8] at this price for a two-hour performance, Superman would earn a cool $2 billion per hour (neglecting expenses such as lion rental and tank shells). Of course he couldn't hold such performances very often if he wanted to charge such exorbitant prices, but they would nonetheless bring in income at the astounding rate of $4 trillion per year, more than the total revenues collected by the US federal government.

As the above examples illustrate, Superman could earn exorbitant fees selling his services to the highest bidders. This by itself isn't surprising, though the reader probably never really thought about exactly how much he could earn. The more important point is that even Superman himself wouldn't know; indeed, no one would know how much Superman's amazing powers were "worth" until his agent(s) interacted with prospective employers to truly discover the (economic) value of his services. Only after getting such feedback, in terms of bids from various lines of work, could Superman hope to deploy his abilities in a rational manner, in order to avoid the "waste" that we discussed earlier.

Crass Materialism

Now at this point the reader may object. Surely a superhero shouldn't fall prey to crass materialism! It is completely irrelevant, the objection may run, how much money Superman could earn from one task versus another. Kal-El should use other criteria to decide how he should spend his precious time.

I would agree with such a critic that money isn't the only consideration, but nonetheless money is a consideration, and a very important one at that. All other things equal, it is definitely a point in favor of a given task that it will yield more money. So yes, Superman might prefer babysitting over bank robbery (even though the latter is more lucrative) because he has moral qualms about theft. But when trying to decide whether to build a restaurant in California versus Alaska, he definitely should consider the amount of money each client is offering.

Why? Because the offered bid is ultimately an indication of how much other people value the completion of the task. If Superman can earn more erecting a restaurant in California, it's because more people would pay more money to dine in California than Alaska. That is why — insofar as Superman wants to bring happiness to others — it is definitely a point in favor of the California site.

In a market economy, consumers run the show through their spending decisions. Why doesn't Ford make purple cars covered with green polka dots? Ultimately it's because, for the same expense, Ford could make solid red (or blue, etc.) cars and sell them for a lot more money. Now does this reflect a completely arbitrary feature of the capitalist economy? Not at all. It reflects the fact that the vast majority of consumers would rather drive solid red (or blue) cars than purple ones covered with green polka dots, and consequently they are willing to pay more for their preferred cars (than for purple cars covered with green polka dots).

The example of Ford might seem obvious; everyone knows that it would be ridiculous to mass produce purple cars covered with green polka dots. But other decisions are not so clear cut. Indeed, one of the fundamental problems with a centrally planned (i.e., socialist) economy is that there would be no price signals to indicate whether a given line of production were profitable or not. Even if the central planners were benevolent angels, they couldn't help but squander scarce resources when drawing up production orders for everyone in the society. They might decide to produce more shoes for children, but this might be a mistake; the resources used in the extra shoes might have otherwise been devoted to the production of housing.

Of course, money isn't everything. Besides the bank robbery example mentioned above, Superman would also presumably abstain from fertilizing tobacco fields, or delivering pornographic magazines to subscribers (even where this is perfectly legal). In these cases, Superman would adopt the paternalistic attitude that he would not cater to the desires of smokers (or lonely men, etc.); even though they would themselves prefer to spend their money on cigarettes, they really don't know what is good for them.

Nonetheless, Superman (if he really does intend to help humans as much as possible) cannot ignore market prices, and in particular how much money he can earn from various tasks. Superman's annual output could be well over $100 billion if he so chose, and in that respect he would produce more than many countries. No one would expect even the Kryptonian to be able to draw up the plans for a centrally planned economy; there is just too much information that needs to be processed, and only with the help of market prices (and the profit and loss test) can an economy function efficiently.

Yet this is exactly why Superman needs an agent (discovering the various bids for his services) to help him draw up plans for himself. The Superman movies are incredibly unrealistic in two senses: First, there is the obvious unrealism of a man who can fly, lift trains, shoot heat rays out of his eyes, etc. But they are also unrealistic to suppose that the world would continue to look anything like the present one if there really were such an amazing man. As Superman would discover through the help of his agents, he would no doubt be used to colonize the Moon, explore the ocean floor, irrigate vast stretches of desert, etc. Consequently, we can only conclude that the Superman depicted on the screen is committing a terrible waste of his precious talents. The economist feels the same as if he were watching a biography of Einstein in which the brilliant thinker chose to remain in the patent office.

Final Worries

Before closing this article, let me address one pair of worries. Wouldn't my suggested approach cause Superman to cater only to the rich? And, related to this, what if Superman felt unseemly accumulating such vast sums of money? The solution to both concerns is that Superman could donate his earnings to various charities. This is yet another way of seeing the benefits provided by market prices. For example, suppose Superman's own value scale informs him that providing food for hungry children is far more important than providing crystal-clear conference calls to capitalists. Nonetheless, it doesn't follow that Superman should devote his time to planting crops. Depending on the relevant prices, Superman could probably generate far more food by putting satellites into orbit (and charging as much as the market will bear), and then using the generated funds to pay other people to grow more food.

In a sense, Superman would be striking a bargain with thousands of other people: "I will agree to lift these satellites into orbit, if you agree to grow such-and-such more food and give it to hungry children." It's true that Superman might regret the need for such bargaining; in a perfect world, he might think, everyone would unilaterally work to end child hunger before worrying about corporate culture. Nonetheless, if he wants to respect existing property rights and the preferences of others, Superman can help more children by catering to the desires of others, i.e., by hiring an agent and responding to price signals.

I hope by now I've convinced you, gentle reader, of two things. First, Superman clearly needs an agent. Second, a background in economics sometimes makes movie viewing difficult. Tune in next week when we discuss the difficulties of pricing a life insurance policy for Superman.

[1] One of the terrorists says to his co-conspirator as he handles the bomb, "I hope you don't have many sins left to be forgiven, because if you let go of that, you'll only have sixty seconds to list them."

[2] In Superman III, he also explodes rockets and is only stunned when hit by an MX missile.

[3] It occurs to me that even with superhuman strength, one really couldn't make a diamond this quickly. Then again, it's also implausible that someone could be more powerful than a locomotive and leap tall buildings in a single bound.

[4] In the summer Olympics, Superman could easily get the gold in every event except those in the games of archery, shooting, equestrian (unless he just picked up the horse and flew), and possibly gymnastics (since he could of course levitate and execute a particular maneuver, but it still might not look very elegant).

[5] The reader shouldn't misunderstand: In a free society, Superman would of course be legally allowed to do whatever he wanted with his time (so long as he respected property rights), and I for one wouldn't begrudge him for helping little girls get their kittens on occasion. But if he were to spend several hours a day doing this, I might ask him to read the present article.

[6] Thanks to Dick Clark for locating this reference.

[7] We should be conservative since he may need to communicate with ground control to ensure the proper placement of the satellites.

[8] Paul McCartney was able to attract an audience of over 180,000 in Rio de Janeiro in 1990.


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