The macroeconomics of Superman

Did you know about the new summer Superman film

Let’s say we had an altruistic and incorruptible Superman, how should he allocate his efforts to improve the macroeconomy?  He is really strong, he can fly very fast, leap tall buildings at a single bound, has incredible vision, and somehow he is immune from Einstein’s theory of relativity and time dilation at near-light speeds (his most impressive achievement, if you ask me).

Yes he should save the world from evil madmen, but fighting ordinary crime hardly appears worth his trouble.  Criminals seek pure transfers, and Superman’s policing doesn’t lower our (inefficient) investments in locks enough to make a difference in the growth rate.  It’s about as silly as having Superman sub in for FedEx when the skies get crowded over Memphis.

And should his alter ego, Clark Kent, really be a photographer for a daily newspaper?  At least that guy is contributing to a reproducible output; he must have read Sherwin Rosen’s paper.

Darfur and the like aside, I have a few nominations for what Superman should do:

1. Become a research scientist.

2. Collect data for the Fed.

3. Fly around and tell people — politely but very pointedly — when they should accept lower nominal wages.

4. Perform amazing stunts on TV, become a big celebrity, and then preach the virtues of economic literacy; this is Dan Klein’s suggestion.

Your thoughts?  Your answer suggests much about where you see leveraged returns in today’s world.  By the way, here is the first edition of the Superman comicbook.


He should spend his non-work hours impregnating women, thereby enhancing earth's human capital stock. Hybrid vigor, itz.

Something for everyone. Fly to Iraq and defeat the "insurgents" - he'll need his X-ray vision
then build a wall at the Texas-Mexico border for the Texas Republican Party, then use his
vacuum breath to suck most {not all} of the greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, then as he
has done many times in past adventures, fly around the Earth at superspeed reversing time to
2000, go to Florida and there "lean" on Katherine Harris and/or Anthony Scalia to do the
right thing and send George W back to baseball.

"He should spend his non-work hours impregnating women, thereby enhancing earth's human capital stock."

There are some difficulties with this. Read "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex":

Enforce property rights and the rule of law. If we're ruling out "ordinary crime," this means fighting "evil madmen" like Mugabe, Putin, Kim, Castro, and company.

He should play for the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals.

He already does #3.

He could stop the ocean levels from rising and help out droughts in other areas at the same time. The levees in New Orleans would have never broken either.

His comparative advantage is to prevent wealth destruction. To be most effective he needs a super villain who is mostly harmless but still scary enough to curb moral hazard.

He might be able to enforce genuinely federal enclaves in which people could sort themselves by economic social preference (a la Nozick). A libertarian/no regs state one place; a crunchy, soft socialist in another; a voluntaristic uber Victorian moralistic state over there, etc. and guarantee that no outside government could interfere by threatening military action. How much the states screw themselves up would be left to the participants subject to the no torture/no genocide constraint.

Need I add that he could build appropriately high walls/barriers for states that want to limit all immigration? But he could also ensure that anyone who wanted to leave (no North Koreas) was free to do so.

I'm surprised no one has figured out the correct answer.

He should work with teams of scientists analyzing his own biology. The aim would be to develop super biotechnology so we can all be immune to injury and disease and fly to work every morning.

Obey the law and offer his services on the open market.

I've always loved Niven's "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex" article.

Superman's very presence prevents nuclear missles from hitting anything that superman doesn't want them to hit. Simultaneously superman can do more damage than a nuclear weapon. Thus superman can prevent the danger of large scale nuclear war just by being around. Superman can take down any conventional army by himself.

Superman thus institutes a monoploy on military level initiation of force. This would allow every country to stop all military spending. It still makes sense to have a police force, and counter terrorism forces but a large military is useless.

Beyond that space exploration, and energy creation seem the biggest deals.

I suppose you could have him go back in time to the creation of the stock market. Invest a dollar. Come back and use the proceeds to pay off the national debt.

Taking the question seriously, it all depends on where the bottleneck occurs in our economy. It's certainly not cheap labor. I really don't think it's innovation anymore. Judging from the amount of time that people are willing to wait in traffic jams, I'm guessing that it's either land or access to land.

If Superman could increase the amount of quality land, that would be nice, but I'm not sure how to go about it. Improving access would be the next best bet. Looking at Phoenix and Las Vegas you have to believe that connectivity is the only thing that matters. He could build parabolic tunnels for capsule-trains connecting the major cities and from the exurbs to center city.

"Fly around and tell people -- politely but very pointedly -- when they should accept lower nominal wages."

Hopefully he will start with CEOs and baseball players.

Did everyone forget to read Adam Smith?

[E]very individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.

Superman's greatest contribution to society is whatever he wants to do.

- Josh

What if Superman made a one-time only, completely unexpected wealth redistribution that left everyone with exactly the same amount of wealth? In theory, incentives to work and produce shouldn't change going forward, but the need for government programs drops drastically and we can finally become a true meritocracy.

1) Use his super vision to find UBL, or Hoffa's Body

2) Support macro-engineering projects (aka lower their costs) like Underground Nuclear Power Network, Bearing Sea Bridge, America Africa Tunnel, etc.


That's why I said that it was a one-time only redistribution. If it only happens once, and cannot be predicted in advance, there should be no change in incentives. And since he is Superman, he shouldn't have any problem convincing everyone that he won't be doing it again.

he shouldn't have any problem convincing everyone that he won't be doing it again

Magically changing everyone's mind is not one of Superman's powers...

If Superman gets involve in geo-politics, he will create incentives for governments and other entities he opposes, or who fear he might oppose him in the future, to research kryptonite-based weaponry. This may be the reason he has prudently avoiding taking on the most resourceful evil-doers.

Maximize his income by holding the population hostage to a genocide. This or that nominal wages stuff.

Having Superman procreate and start a race of hybrid Superhumans would probably be catastrophic to the human race. Remember, absolute power corrupts absolutly, so a race of superhumans would undoubtedly subjugate regular humans to their rule. And why shouldn't they? We would be no more useful than slave workers, since they can't get sick (no doctors, researchers, pharmacists), they can't be intimidated by our armies, they need no money for food and shelter (I'm sure they enjoy it but Superman gets his power from the Sun. So basically we got nothing on them.

But as to the question of how Superman could best improve the macroeconomy (globally anyways), my answer is he should reverse the spin of the Earth, making time go back (like in the movie), and prevent the Agricultural Revolution (circa 10,000 bc) from ocurring. That way there would be no permanent human settlements, no class based civilizations, the Industrial Revolution does not occur, World Wars I & II do not happen, global oil supply does not disappear in 2100 (estimate), and humans, as a species live blissful lives, ignorant of their own tendecy to self-destruct. The best thing for the macroeconomy is to not have one.


Theoretically, that could work. However, I think only if in addition to the creation and constitution of the world government (we'll assume that said government operates in a basically fair, lawful, and democratic manner), he also either provides it with or at least allows it to maintain a sort of 'reserve' monopoly of force. In other words, weapons stockpiles, a standing army, and the like are banned to everyone except the forces of the Super World Government. The SWG is then ready to step in in the event of Supes' incapacity or death.

One notable problem, however, would be the fact that you will be maintaining a purely redundant standing army that, by its nature, will have to be able and willing (in the absence of Superman) to control or pacify a significant portion of the globe. Beyond the expense inherent in doing that, I wonder if such a force would ever truly be 'effective' in the absence of any experience, since Supes would be doing all their work for them.

Of course, Superman could delegate some responsbility to the SWG military forces early on, on the theory that it will at least keep them in fighting trim and not sitting around doing nothing. What increasingly scares me about this line of discussion is that we are also essentially handing our entire existence, security, and way of life over to one being...and an illegal alien at that! Sounds much more on the lines of something General Zod would do...;-)

Too much really depends on the powers that one is assigning to Superman. At his most extreme (but still without using alien technology) he can probably solve transportation problems by bringing massive quantities of metallic hydrogen to Earth from Jupiter's core and laying it down in a global network of subterranean escavated and elevated mag-lev train lines, which he can power in one of the ways listed above. Radically improved global transportation changes an awful lot.
If his strength is actually limitless he can use more of Jupiter to build a Dyson Sphere.

On the other hand, back in the 1940s Superman fought in
WWII, implying that he was far from capable of winning it single-handedly. For such a limited Superman, one "Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locamotive, and able to leap over (not even fly over) tall buildings in a single bound", radically transforming the world is much more easily said than done. His comparitive advantage is still probably not in fighting crime, but it might be in such comic-book-ish staples as athletics, military special forces/anti-terror/SWAT, rescue work, or concievably even construction or demolition (especially rapid replacement of key infrastructure when it was damaged). Super speed might also be useful in surgery even without X-ray vision. (the high end Superman could probably treat blood clots with proper application of heat and x-ray vision). I wonder if it would be practical to mass-produce windmills in factories in China and have Superman transport them to places with stable fast wind, such as parts of Antarctica, then stick them into the ground and have him run wires to Australia for Aluminum smelting and other energy intensive activities. A nearly invulnerable but highly limited Superman could do good field science, exploring hostile climates such as subduction zones. Obviously, even a low power Superman would have tremendous value as a subject of research.

Ironically, other than his value as a test subject, such a minimal Superman's largest contribution might well be as a role-model, provided he promoted positive values. He would be certain of being the most famous person on the planet, and would have the option of being very influential. The other side of this is the risk that his very existance would afflict billions with destructive superstitions or the existential angst of recognizing their world as a comic book story.

Superman would go insane. Faced with the reality that he and he alone could actually solve all of mankind's problems, he would be faced with the impossible task of deciding which ill to end first. And, in the middle of fixing one ill, suddenly his hypersonic hearing detects a plane crashing in Idaho, a Ferry going down in India, a child dying of leukemia because he was busy curing AIDS, a drought in Zimbabwe brought on by the moisture he re-directed to Chinese rice paddies, and so on and so on. Ultimately, in order to preserve his sanity - he'd just leave.

For those who wonder about Superman raised in a different country, there's always the comic book story Superman: Red Son, about what would happen if he were raised in Soviet Russia.

you all take far to narrow a view of the possibilities. "the best possible result for the group occurs when the individual does what is best for himself, AND THE GROUp." - first, have superman go back in time & prove whether or not Jesus Christ is a man, a myth, a mushroom, or our messiah. answer other age old religious questions regarding the meanings & nature of our existence. then go about spreading as much functionable leverageable truth as possible to the masses in part by crushing the media, which suppresses truth by imposing lies & propoganda - brainwashing & enslaving the masses & fomenting unbounded ignorance & apathy. etc. etc. etc.

cycical view of Superman is in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns in which Ronald Reagan gets him to blow up communist planes and get rid of Superman's buddy, Batman, who is causing a bunch of problems in Gotham.

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