January 04, 2005

Crime Economics of Superheroes

I don't know the first thing about Batman, but Matt's post brings up a good question. Realistically speaking, how much could any one superhero reduce crime in a city? In the Spiderman movie, I believe crime fell something like 57 percent under Spiderman's watch. (Or maybe it rose drastically after he hung up his costume, I don't remember.) Is that plausible?

All this probably depends on what kind of superhero we're talking about, but I don't imagine there's that much fluctuation (could Superman really reduce crime by that much more than Batman?) Anyways, it seems that superheroes are mostly good for stopping big, dastardly, conspiracy-type criminals that ordinary police officers can't stop or won't. So here you have the possibility of an arms race, where villains start coming up with bigger, more elaborate schemes and organizations to wreak havoc. But in actuality, the masterminds would either move to another city or de-centralize their crime syndicate, in the grand tradition Al Qaeda. A relentless superhero might get very far cracking down on gangs and gang violence—though he or she would probably have to couple those efforts with a liberal prevention program (better schools, etc).

What about ordinary crime? A superhero can't be everywhere at once, so he doesn't really change the expected value of committing a crime for most people. And for irrational or spur-of-the-moment crimes, a superhero obviously has no effect. Now if the superhero were particularly brutal, there might be some deterrent value, but then that raises ethical questions. On the other hand, the New York Times the other day noted that, while the city could reduce murders to a relative handful, that left the hardcore cases, the recalcitrants. An adept superhero might prove useful in cracking down on these last few, particularly difficult cases. Who knows.

But if you were a police commissioner, and Batman suddenly appeared at your doorstep, it's not obvious to me what the best way to employ him would be.
-- Brad Plumer 2:24 PM || ||