Thursday, May 16, 2013

Clobberin' Time

Reading Pinker's The Better Angels of our Nature has prompted me to think more about the nature of civilization and violence. Bound up in that is euvoluntary exchange (obviously).

See, there's the nearly intractable joint determination problem when we're thinking about why it is the human world is so vastly more wealthy than it was in antiquity. Or even in prehistory, supposing that the experiences of modern forager communities help illuminate the violence inherent in the system, so to speak. The puzzle has a lot of facets: we know (or suspect) that the following stuff all goes together: the rise of strong central elites that curbed the rapaciousness of local elites, the advancement of technologies that permitted economies of scale (including economies of scale in taxation!), liberal democracy, (relatively) free trade, bourgeois virtues, cosmopolitanism, &c. We know what the ingredients in the stew of prosperity are, but our experiences with misadventures in foreign aid suggest that we don't understand how to repeat the recipe's instructions.

Economic growth and all the good things it brings enjoys one and only one proximate cause: trade. Trade happens thanks to production, which is cradled by hammocks of trust strung between the palms of The Law growing in the grove of peace. Extend the metaphor as you see fit. It might be interesting to posit changes to some of the parameters of the general equilibrium and imagine what might happen. Perhaps fortunately, there's no shortage of parameter adjustments to choose from. Many of them sit nestled in comic book universes.

That's right, I want you to consider euvoluntary exchange in the Marvel universe.

Consider first what capital accumulation means in a world where the Incredible Hulk goes on periodic urban rampages. It's a bit of an error to treat these incidents the way you might treat other existential threats like earthquakes or floods. Yes, port cities (especially in the Pacific Rim) are at risk of tsunami, but this risk is a function of geological instability, whereas the risk of HULK SMASH comes exclusively from the probability that Bruce Banner happens to run into a gang of toughs on or about Skid Row. In the Marvel universe (Silver Age or later anyway, and I'm not getting into Gray Hulk or any of the other side stories), cities are at risk simply from being cities.

One way to think about cities is that it's just another technology. It's a technology that permits euvoluntary exchange by lowering the cost of doing business and by offering a wider range of consumption opportunities for residents in a much smaller geographical area. Take a stroll through Lower Manhattan the next time you find yourself in the Big Apple. Ask yourself how far and wide you'd have to go in Oklahoma (apologies to our cousins at Cherokee Gothic) to find the same array of goods on offer. Superheroes and their nemeses raise the relative price of this technology, suggesting that over a sufficiently long time horizon (thanks, Second Law of Demand), folks would substitute away from cities, perhaps indulging in exurban sprawl and investing more in high-quality, hardened communications networks. Extremely dense cities like Hong Kong and Singapore would likely never have arisen.

Why think about any of this? Well, the analog to the X-Men shooting eye beams all over LA is any overpowered organization with no overarching agent to keep it in check. As municipal police forces become increasingly militarized, or city councils more confiscatory, they become less distinguishable from a rampaging Incredible Hulk. It's worth pondering what some of the possible outcomes might be. What's more euvoluntary: to redirect police effort away from no-knock raids in support of the War on Drugs Peaceful People Who Use Drugs, to hobble the tax-and-regulation crony capitalism of local political elites, or to retool the organization of society towards a canvas of elite enclaves, middle class exurban sprawl, and impoverished city centers? The answer seems obvious to me: restrict the scope of state action to what it's good at and you'll have more opportunity for euvoluntary exchange. But what do I know? I'm a DC fan and I live in the 'burbs.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?