Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Avengers need a new team member: Professor Econom!

Ok, I admit it.  I love to watch movies, in particular the popcorn and superhero variety.  Yes, I did watch “Avengers Infinity War”.  [ Spoiler Alerts! ]  Smash-bam-pow!!  What’s not to like?  Well, the end apparently left a bunch of (young) fans weeping: “Mom, the big bad Thanos guy won, how come?!  Why are so many of my favorite superheroes dead now?”.  Well, why indeed?!  We do not know what the sequel has in store, but judging by the post-credit scene (wait, you didn’t see it?  Keep seated to the very end!), it looks like Captain Marvel will come in to somehow save the day, reverse history, bring back beloved Spider-Man  and beat up Thanos, before he can do all those things he did.  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.

But here is truly the biggest challenge in crafting that sequel and resolution.  Thanos is pretty satisfied with himself at the end of the “Avengers Infinity War”, isn’t he?  And he as well should be!  After all, he set out to  solve the biggest problem of the Universe (according to Thanos): overpopulation.  His logic is to randomly kill half of all beings (I presume, only the sentinent ones), so that the rest can have a better life.  If you buy into that Thanos argument, you have to hand it to him.  He did make half of the population of the Universe better off!  And the other half died a very quick and painless death!  Well done, Thanos!  You should cheer for him, right?  What’s a little Spidey death, by comparison?  So, if Captain Marvel somehow waltzes into that sequel, reverts time and stops Thanos from doing all that, isn’t she then really imposing back all that pain and suffering?  How can that conflict possibly be resolved?  Is duking it out with Thanos really the right answer to the core of the question that Thanos has raised? Obviously not.

Let me offer a suggestion, then.  The Avengers are a pretty cool team and all.  They even have some brainy types among them.  But they made a big and glaring mistake.  They never engaged with the fallacy in Thanos’ argument.  Not once did it occur to them in the “Avengers Infinity War” movie to go to him and say, “Hi there, big fella!  I understand you want to help the universe population to a better life. What a noble cause!  But there is a better way to do that than to kill off half of them. Let me guide you how!”.
Finding a better way is a matter of economics. Let’s examine the facts.  For example: the world population has grown massively over the last 200 years or so.  Are we worse off for it?  Not so!  Average world income and average life expectancy has risen.  We are seeing progress even in the poorest of nations (not everywhere, but still).  Markets have provided answers to the incentives of providing the goods that people need and love.  Supply rises to meet demand.  Technological progress has been directed to enable that supply, in order to earn the profits that can be earned that way.  We know how to contain environmental externalities with proper economic incentives. Humans are now by and large far away from rummaging through the forests and living off the berries they can find (which seems to be a version of the Thanos view).  Yes, the details are important.  They deserve attention!  And they are receiving attention. There are large groups of development economists, growth economists, macroeconomists, environmental economists and of other fields, figuring out, how to make the growing world a better place.  They are good at it.  I doubt that any of my colleagues would recommend killing off half the population to solve the Thanos problem.  I bet nearly all of them have better suggestions.  So there.
Now, you might argue that Thanos witnessed immiseration on his home planet Titan.  He has one data point, showing that not killing off half of the population led to decline and starvation!  He also has another data point of a field experiment, where killing half of the population did make things better for the rest on the home planet of Gamora.  Well, any econometrician worth her salt would gently pat Thanos on his back and say, “Well there.  Two data points isn’t a lot of evidence.  Standard errors are huge.  You shouldn’t yet conclude that it is time to kill off half of the population of the universe.  Let’s collect some more data first, shall we?”.  Indeed, in the Thanos mode, how about running some more field experiments on some of the many planets out there, to see what works and what doesn’t?  And for that, don’t use the gruesome course of action chosen by thick-skulled non-economist Thanos, but rather base it on the best research and far more gentle and promising approaches that those other aforementioned specialty economists would be suggesting.   Further, mechanism design theorists could investigate exactly what went wrong on Titan in the first place, and how to improve on it based on first principles.  That already would be much better, wouldn’t it?
So, why did the Avengers not pursue that route?  Simple.  They didn’t have an economist on the team!  If Captain Marvel somehow gets around to do something about that “Avengers Infinity War” ending in the sequel, that should be her first act of heroism: find a new avenger!  Captain Marvel: you don’t need a Doctor Strange!  You need Professor Econom! Forget Spidey, Iron Man, Thor.   Professor Econom is the one with the true superpower to solve the biggest problems of the universe!  Send Professor Econom back in time to have a nice, long chat with Thanos, and convince him that he was wrong all along, and to show him a better way.  Really: it wouldn’t be all that hard. 

Ok, after that’s done in the first 15 minutes of the sequel, what do we do with the rest of the movie?  Oh, I don’t know.  More Smash-bam-pow, perhaps!!  Pass the popcorn, please.

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