Why Superman Doesn't Take Over The World Superman could easily take over the world. But there are some good economic reasons why he doesn't.
NPR logo

Why Superman Doesn't Take Over The World

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/717645608/717653312" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Why Superman Doesn't Take Over The World

Why Superman Doesn't Take Over The World

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/717645608/717653312" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

PADDY HIRSCH, HOST:

Hi, Stacey.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

Hi, Paddy.

HIRSCH: So I wanted to ask you how you feel about superheroes.

VANEK SMITH: I loved Wonder Woman growing up. I used to run around my backyard with, like, the wrist guards. You know, I used to make them out of paper and, like, staple them around my wrists. I loved Wonder Woman.

HIRSCH: That's fantastic. Did you have, like, a matching headband?

VANEK SMITH: Yes.

HIRSCH: Of course you did.

VANEK SMITH: You can't be Wonder Woman without the magic headband, Paddy.

HIRSCH: Well, the reason, I ask you this is because we're always getting these review copies of books by economists, right? And usually, like, they're these huge tomes, these enormous things with, like, unwieldy titles, right?

VANEK SMITH: Yes, and unwieldy subtitles.

HIRSCH: And unwieldy subtitles. But please, keep sending them. Anyway, the other day, I got one by a guy called Brian O'Roark. And it's called "Why Superman Doesn't Take Over The World." Brian is an economic professor at Robert Morris University, and he uses superheroes as a teaching tool in his economics classes. So he sees all of these great examples of economics at work in the superhero world, concepts like scarcity, resource allocation, game theory, even the invisible hand.

VANEK SMITH: Is that the Invisible Man or Wonder Woman's invisible plane?

HIRSCH: It's kind of like - in many ways, it is kind of like that.

BRIAN O'ROARK: You don't think of these caped, masked spandex-wearing folks having anything do, really, with economics. But looking at the basic motivations of characters and how economics drives those storylines, that just got me really, really interested in watching these TV shows and the films a lot more carefully.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEW WORLD SYMPHONY'S "WONDER WOMAN")

VANEK SMITH: This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

HIRSCH: And I'm Paddy Hirsch. And today, what superheroes can teach us about economics and why Superman doesn't take over the world.

VANEK SMITH: He's too busy writing for the newspaper.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WONDER WOMAN")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #1: (Singing) Fighting for your rights and the old red, white and blue. Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman. Now the world is ready for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HIRSCH: Professor Brian O’Roark, welcome to THE INDICATOR.

O'ROARK: Hey, thanks for having me, Paddy.

HIRSCH: So it turns out, Brian, that you've got something in common with my co-host, Stacey Vanek Smith, which is that you are a big fan of Wonder Woman. And I was wondering, is there any particular adventure of hers that stands out for you and that you used when you were teaching econ?

O'ROARK: The one that really jumps out at me is an episode in "Wonder Woman" where - or an issue in "Wonder Woman" where there's a Nazi plot afoot to cripple the children of the United States by monopolizing the milk industry. So Wonder Woman goes undercover to try to figure out why the price of milk has been going up so quickly and what she can do to help single mothers to afford milk. So she dives deep the into the milk industry, uncovers this Nazi plot where...

HIRSCH: They're trying to - they're manipulating the market.

O'ROARK: Absolutely. They're buying up all the milk. And there's a very vivid panel where the milk suppliers are dumping milk down the drain to raise the price. They're - and they make the comment, oh, it's too bad we can't give this milk to the poor children of America. But the people who own the milk supply told us to dump it. And it just happens that they're Nazis.

HIRSCH: Wonder Woman versus the Nazis, that's brilliant. I think my favorite character right now, my favorite superhero right now is Deadpool. And I'd like to talk to you about - for me, when I think about Deadpool, I think about the value - right? - because it's cool to have superpowers, but some of the things that superheroes have to go through to get those powers is a bit intimidating. And it's super intimidating for Deadpool, right? He had to go through the wringer to get his powers. Do those superpowers really have value? Is it worth it to have those powers, given what they have to go through to get them?

O'ROARK: There's a lot of superheroes that find that the opportunity costs of becoming a superhero are far higher than they expected them to be. Deadpool's a particularly interesting situation there because, like you say, he has to go through all this really painful - and his personal life's just a disaster. And then just the physical pain that he goes through as this transformation to his body occurs. So for some of these people, it seems like you dream about being a superhero, but you don't realize what you have to give up to get to that point.

HIRSCH: Which is the absolute definition of opportunity cost, right? Superpowers have obvious utility - right? - to fight crime and avert disaster, but that all seems very reactive. I would like to know why superheroes aren't more proactive. Like, why doesn't Superman use his enormous strength to help build dams or bridges? And also, why doesn't he charge for that?

O'ROARK: Let's address the charging part of it first. And Superman is a great example of this, but you also see characters like Peter Parker and Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. And you see some of these characters who have to go out and get a job. You would think that one of the perks of being a superhero is you wouldn't have to go to work a 9-to-5 job. But there is a lot of these characters who - they go out and they get a job because of the type of service that they're providing.

Essentially, they're providing public goods. And because they're providing those public goods, they can't charge for them. At least they can't charge effectively because think about, you know, an alien invasion is, you know, descending upon Planet Earth. And a superhero is trying to convince a mayor or convince the president of a country to pay them to stop the invasion. As the negotiations go on, the aliens take over, and it doesn't matter what the endgame is. The fact that a superhero is providing a public good makes it incredibly difficult for them to monetize those powers.

HIRSCH: But it seems to me that, you know, a lot of superheroes, they struggle, right? They struggle to survive in the real world because, I mean, Deadpool, for example, his businesses fail all the time. Peter Parker is - he's like a newspaper journalist. Let me tell you, there's not a lot of money in that. So I could understand why, you know, they might want to charge. So why isn't there some kind of solution to that? I mean, why, for example, wouldn't governments pay them like a stipend or something like that? I mean...

O'ROARK: Well, you know, that's an interesting question. That's actually raised in the first Marvel "Civil War" where there is some question about, do the superheroes need to have some sense of accountability? There's been a terrible disaster. A school has been blown up. Hundreds of children have been killed because of a rogue group of B-lists - maybe C-list superheroes who are trying to bring some bad guys in and they're fighting above their weight class.

So government's stepping in to try to assert itself and saying, you guys can't just be out there. It's not the Wild West. You can't just go out and do what you want. I mean, that's basically what government wants the superheroes to do. They want them to be, you know, be employees of the federal government.

And the question then gets raised, and it's kind of an institutional question of, OK, if they're paying our salary, then do they get to tell us what to do? Do they get to tell us who to save? Do we have to wait for their approval to go and protect someone or save someone? Because if we're waiting around for that approval, it could be too late by the time we get it.

HIRSCH: Right. And also then the superheroes are acting as a proxy for the government. And there's all sorts of issues with that, I would think.

O'ROARK: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

HIRSCH: So let's just get to the question your book poses. Superheroes are way more powerful than mere human mortals, right? And Superman is particularly powerful. So why doesn't he just say, why not? Why doesn't Superman just take over the world?

O'ROARK: I think Superman doesn't take over the world because Superman, at his core, has been raised by someone who has taught him to appreciate where he lives and to appreciate the institutions that govern society as a whole. Superman is protecting three of the most important institutions. And so he's trying to battle corruption. He's trying to protect private property. And he's trying to uphold the rule of law.

If you have those three things in any society, it's going to lay the groundwork for economic vitality and economic success. And Superman's been raised to believe in these things. So even though he could take over the world, he has decided that the institutions that are in place that govern economic behavior and that govern political behavior are the things that he needs to protect. And if he can protect those things, then the rest of the world will be - if not great, it'll be good enough.

HIRSCH: So he doesn't take over the world because if he does his job right, he doesn't need to.

O'ROARK: Exactly - because he's protecting the institutions that do the hard work for him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Up in the sky - it's a bird.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) It's a plane.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) It's Superman.

HIRSCH: Brian, thanks so much for joining us.

O'ROARK: Paddy, it's been a great pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Superman rocketed to Earth as an infant when the distant planet Krypton exploded, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for The Daily Planet, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and freedom with superpowers far beyond those of ordinary mortals.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #2: (Singing) It's Superman, Super Super Superman.

HIRSCH: This episode was produced by Willa Rubin. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.