Religion & Liberty Online

Why Superman is Bad for the Economy

Man-of-Steel-General-Zod-HelmetIn the new movie Man of Steel, Superman engages in a fight with his fellow aliens from Krypton that causes significant damage to Metropolis. Disaster expert Charles Watson estimates the costs of the physical damage done to the city to be about $2 trillion. To put that in context, 9/11’s physical damage cost $55 billion, with a further economic impact of $123 billion.

What would be the impact of Superman’s fight on the economy? According to some liberal economists, it would lead to a economic boom. In defending President Obama’s stimulus proposal in 2011, Paul Krugman proposed a peculiar solution for economic recovery that mimics the one in Man of Steel: prepare for an alien invasion.

“If we discovered that, you know, space aliens were planning to attack and we needed a massive buildup to counter the space alien threat and really inflation and budget deficits took secondary place to that, this slump would be over in 18 months,” he declared, arguing in favor of the president’s stimulus package. “And then if we discovered, oops, we made a mistake, there aren’t any aliens, we’d be better [off].”

Man of Steel must be Krugman’s favorite movie: you not only get an alien invasion (Kal-El, General Zod and his soldiers) but you get alien destruction on a massive scale. Just think of all the economic benefit Metropolis gained!

Krugman is a prime example that a person can win a Nobel Prize for economics, teach economics at Princeton, and write about economics for the New York Times and still not understand some of the most basic principles in economics. Unfortunately, Krugman is not alone. The idea that natural disasters, man-made disasters, or even alien-made disasters, are “good for the economy” is one of the oldest and most persistent fallacies in economics.

A hundred years before Superman was created, a Frenchman named Frederic Bastiat explained the problem with thinking that destruction is an economic good. Economist Art Carden explains Bastiat’s reasoning:

Robert Murphy, an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute, also notes there are two important elements in Bastiat’s analysis:

1. an assumption about what we now call “crowding out” or, what is the same thing, denying that there are “idle resources,” and

2. the distinction between wealth and employment.

While Carden and Murphy provide sophisticated economic reasons why we should not believe destruction is good for humanity, there is a simpler explanation that should appeal to Christians: It contradicts God’s creational mandate. As Anne Bradley explains,

God has not just called us to preserve what he has given us, but to increase and grow it. Our job description as given in Genesis 2 is to:

• Be fruitful and multiply.
• Create rather than destroy.
• Use our ingenuity and talent to increase the sum of flourishing, not just preserve existing levels.

The Christian approach to economic growth — which can lead to human flourishing — is to be innovative, productive, creative, and a responsible steward of resources. While it’s commendable to try to find a silver-lining after a disaster, we shouldn’t be deceived. Whether the broken windows are caused by a hurricane, a baseball, or aliens from Krypton, the destruction only makes humanity poorer.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).