Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Overreacting to Fictionally Frightening Sentences

"Should there be a government task-force delegated with the duty of allocating superhero resources to the citizens of the United States?"

This question is based on wondering how rational and socially optimal Superman's decision making system is for deciding which of the many suffering citizens of Metropolis to save. There are so many things wrong with the premise of the government doing a better job telling Superman where he should concentrate his efforts that it's hard to know where to start.

1) One commenter points out the speed issue. How is the government going to a) hear about, b) make a decision, and c) give Superman orders before two people at opposite ends of the city have met their demise? Is this going to be a 24-hour emergency hotline panel?

2) Have we completely forgotten how often these cities' or the nation's government are captured by villains? Do you really want the Green Goblin allocating superhero resources? If not, do we want to create a government where that situation could happen?

3) Even when the government isn't being run or influenced by the enemy, what happened to public choice theory? Politicians want to stay elected while Superman (and several other, but not all supers) acts from a Kantian or utilitarian ethic that follows a sense of duty. Would the additional layer really be an improvement?

3B) So you think Superman saves Lois Lane a bit too much compared to other people. Do you imagine that the people close to the governing commission aren't going to get similar favorable treatment instead?

4) If we are going to form a high-minded commission of the great and good whose selection is somehow immune from public choice theory, does Superman get any say about his own preferences?

5) What is the government going to do if Superman refuses to play ball? Tax him for each time he saves Lois Lane instead of the media mogul who contributed to the reelection fund? Jail time for actually working at his day job or sleeping when their sense of priorities differ from his? (Basically all principal-agent theory)

6) Rather than being punitive, let's say we offer the superheroes subsidies to get them to provide more services. A) How are you going to determine if a super receives the subsidy? Ecocomics have often pointed out the problem of so many supers these days that it's hard for them to make a name for themselves. Shall we have small business super subsidies? Or shall we create a superhero monopoly/union to the detriment of outside supers?

6B) Solely from an ethics standpoint, suppose we use subsidies to nudge Superman to save the people we want him to. Do we really want to replace his own ethics with monetary incentives? Monetary incentives have been known to undermine social norms and ethics-based incentive structures. Imagine a world where supers save people because it pays them to! How far are we then from supers who cause problems in order to resolve them to get the stipends? We could be subsidizing supervillainy! ... or the next Spiderman issue where Parker debates causing a little mischief so he can get his aunt a needed surgery....

Bad idea. Really bad idea.

PS - While the current system might be private, it's not market-based either. I think markets for supers would also be worse overall. I doubt that the binding constraint on making the fictional world a better place is a lack of high-powered monetary incentives for supers. While we might nudge some supervillains over to more socially optimal activities, the chance for abuse is the same as in the subsidies case above.

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