The Superman Question

7 Jun


Tyler Cowen has a thought experiment over at Marginal Revolution:

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).

Even though Prof. Cowen gives us the caveat that our Superman is "altruistic and incorruptible," there are some deep ethical and political quandries that a macro-meddling Man of Steel poses.

Before we start, this might be the place for some perspective from the humanitites—poetry, ahem, for instance—like Bryan Dietrich's 2001 Paris Review Poetry Prize winning collection Krypton Nights. Dietrich's look at a demigod living as a mild mannered reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper reveals a Superman as flawed savior, a paradox that might prove dangerous to the mortals among him. 

kryptonnights.jpgThere's also the contemporary pop-culture view of Superman to consider.  The WB's Smallville (a show about the early years of Clark Kent in the eponymous town) appears to argue that Superman, like any other person, raised in the right environment and guided by a virtuous moral compass, can learn to use his powers for good–as nebulously defined as that is–and provide his own internal check on temptation to abuse his legendary might.

Here's how I see it: the economists' view of a perfectly good Superman whose meta-human abilites we harness for the utility of the market would be like asking Jesus to wave his hands and improve the trade deficit, if it wasn't too much trouble. Wow, all that power and we just want him to make a few market corrections? Why don't we wish for a pony while we're at it.  From the Invisible Hand to the Invincible Hand!

Note that the premise of the Superman question doesn't say that Superman is infalible or inerrantly just, only that he isn't subject to the sort of naked self-interest that you and I harness to drive world economies.  Our Superman is already beyond economics; he refuses to maximize his returns.  We haven't escaped the central question: on whose judgment do we rely (a government's, Superman's)?  If he isn't infallible then he can be duped (he's incorruptable, but perhaps also gullible or naive).  That means he could be used for less than altruistic, perhaps even evil, ends.  Who would govern the ungovernable?

Say we elect an international body, a UN let's say, to give Supes his marching orders.  Such a political body would likely have all the problems of the current real world UN.  Put Superman in the hands of an unscrupulous government and you might get a super savior not unlike the one in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, which depicts a Superman in hiding doing the foreign policy bidding of a cruel and corrupt Regan-like American administration.

So what do you think? Is the idea of a Superman that helps implement marcoeconomic policy a bad thing, or have I just read one too many comic books/philosophy texts?


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