America's Economy Needs Superheroes

February 25, 2014

America seems to have lost its juice. Dynamism is on the decline. Productivity is stagnant and new business formation is waning. People are unemployed, underemployed, and just plain stuck. We need more risk-takers. What are we to do?

There are economic measures we could take, for sure. But what about culture? Edmund Phelps’ latest book, Mass Flourishing, raises the intriguing point that culture lies at the heart of endeavor. While I disagree with Phelps’ view that the good life stems solely from the pursuit of so-called modern values, I think we can still take something from his focus. Since culture tends to be relayed by stories and archetypes, we must ask what examples inspire dynamism.

That’s why America’s economy needs superheroes. I don’t just mean larger than life figures, such as Elon Musk. I’m talking about Superman, Batman, Captain America. Their stories model and motivate the attributes of dynamism to generations of Americans, such as:

  • Persistence -- they doggedly press on against all manner of opposition.

  • Excellence -- as Wolverine likes to say, "I'm the best there is at what I do."

  • Individual and team effort -- individually accomplished as Iron Man, yet willing to be subsumed into the Avengers.

  • Adventure -- Spider-man leaps into the unknown.

  • Creativity -- Batman crafts his own powers using a wide array of tools.

In search of heroes, libertarians may reply, “Who is John Galt?” To which I say, could you see the paragon of selfishness in the Avengers? It would be anathema to him.

Figures like Superman and Captain America, in particular, also imbue their work with morals and values that we often fall short of. These are the same informal values that make up the cultural operating system that keeps our economic machine humming.

As Garry Kasparov and Peter Thiel say, “The coming generation of leaders and creators will have to rekindle the spirit of risk. Real innovation is difficult and dangerous, but living without it is impossible.” Perhaps a few more superheroes can show us the way.