Matthew Yglesias on Superman and Opportunity Costs

Matthew Yglesias has a fun Slate piece on what Superman should do with his powers:

I don’t want to offer spoilers for the new Superman movie, Man of Steel but suffice it to say that for a while in the film Superman is kind of bouncing around sporadically rescuing people from random accidents. And it’s a Superman scenario we all know and love….

And yet is this a good use of Superman’s time?

What we’re talking about, essentially, is the world’s greatest solar power cell. The earth’s yellow sun gives his eyes the ability to boil water, and his arms and legs can exert enormous amounts of force. In other words, he could be rigging up a plan to generate enormous quantities of pollution-free electricity! In the longer term, I’m pretty confident that solar power technology is going to improve the point where we don’t need Superman to play this role. But for the moment, Superman could take an enormous bite out of a world problem that’s much more significant than the occasional plane crash or factory explosion.

Yglesias acknowledges that this clever 2011 SBMC cartoon raised the same idea earlier. I made a similar point in this 2006 post:

I have to admit that one reason why I never much liked the Superman franchise is that the character seems to misallocate his efforts so severely! If you had his powers, would you spend your time chasing a third-rate villain like Lex Luthor (even if played by the great Gene Hackman)? Why not instead overthrow Kim Jong Il or stop the genocide in Darfur? Perhaps the first thing… Superman should do is take [an] economics class…. and learn about the concept of opportunity cost. If a Hollywood studio offers me enough money to offset MY opportunity costs, I would be happy to write that up as the screenplay for the next Superman movie!…

A rational Superman committed to maximizing his contribution to the social welfare function should be going after bigger fish.