Monday, April 06, 2009

An Economic Theory of Super Villains

Watching Watchmen (my Watchmen review here) recently reminded me of a theme of Batman (at least of the higher brow batman) found in Miller's Dark Knight Returns, and the more recent movie version, The Dark Knight, is that Batman "creates" his enemies. In Miller's Dark Knight Returns, it was a post-modern form of creation, a Hegelian thesis creating its antithesis (this was in the heyday of post-modernism, when people believed that the rules of literature could somehow be applied to reality). In Burton's film, it was a literal creation, Batman, dropped Jack Nicholson into a vat of chemicals, that turned him into the Joker. In the recent movie with Heath Ledger, it was somewhere in between, less literal, but also less literary, more sociological perhaps.

But I was wondering, could we have an economic theory of super villains. What would happen in our society if a super hero suddenly showed up. Can we think about this, Gary Becker Economics of Crimes and Punishments style. In some sense, a Batman, would effectively massively up the productivity of crime fighting technology, putting most crooks out of business. Essentially, by shifting up, the marginal cost of crime, Batman reduces the quantity of crime, but that also increases the marginal benefit of crime. Then, it becomes quite plausible that if the payoff to crime has gone up, the impact of Batman will cause talented people in other fields to shift professions, to take advantage of the high marginal benefits. Thus creating supervillains, villains who would have stayed out of crime before because the competition with the small time crooks kept profits in the crime industry too low.

This makes us wonder if it is possible then, that Batman actually makes crime worse. In a static world no. We are still at a low equilibrium for the quantity of crime. However, if talented people (who would otherwise have been at hedge funds or something) have now shifted to crime, and find that they are exceptionally good at it, thereby shifting the MB curve out, or the MC curve in, then maybe Batman can make things worse.


James Lin said...

You don't need superheroes (or supervillains) for hedge fund managers to become crooks. =/

Would Batman really cause profitability of crime to increase? There's less competition, sure, but I wouldn't expect that to be a gating factor. And even with higher payoffs, criminals' expenses must be significantly higher too.

I do buy that criminals would need to step up their game, though. I think it's implausible that Batman could make crime more lucrative to entice law-abiding citizens to turn to crime, but I think it's more of a natural selection thing. The dumb, incompetent criminals get weeded out. The reduced competition allows evil geniuses to prosper and gives them a cheaper supply of henchmen (people who would otherwise be unemployed criminals). Okay, I guess the criminal job market aspect is economic.

BTW, your misuse of commas is atrocious.

HoBs said...

good. i tried out this argument in class last week complete with supply and demand graphs. they poked a million holes in it too (a big one was the higher costs that you mention). your comment would have been helpful earlier to help me refine the theory.