Saturday, May 31, 2008

How Many Serial Killers Equal One Genius?

After my class the other day, one of my students asked me about population growth and its effects over the next few generations for humanity. Paraphrased, it went like this:
Student: Our population cannot grow indefinitely, can it?
Me: Population growth in market societies is good for the forseeable future. It is not something that will likely ever need a planned solution to solve.
Student: Our resources are fixed though, just one planet.
Me: The only true natural resource is the human brain. Oil is a water and land ruining nuisance until a brain figures out how to turn it into energy. The more people, the more brains, the more likely we are to come up with geniuses who increase our possible resource set. We have a much larger population today than we did 100 years ago, yet we use much fewer resources to feed it.
Student: More people also mean more potential serial killers.
Me: Yes, but even a very successful serial killer is bad for 10 or 15 people, maybe 200 if you include extended family. But a genius benefits the entire population.
My last comment inspires this post. How many serial killers would it have to take before we would offset the gains by a single genius? The comments are open. My take is that it would have to be large, very large. If you were told that in the next 1 million people born there would be one genius that will make enormous contributions to the welfare of society, but also in that million people is X number of serial killers, how large would X have to be in order for you to be disappointed by this knowledge? No trick answers to this, like stating that the serial killers will kill the geniuses. You can comment that my calculus is cold, but your comment will not be interesting. Solve for x!


Matt E. Ryan said...

First and foremost, let's not mince words-- serial killers are bad. Very bad. Very very bad.

That being said, I'm not certain that serial killers are as bad as you make them out to be. Consider:

- On the minus side, serial killers remove productive members from society. This is bad. This is a reduction in the economic pie.

- We also have to expend resources looking for them. However, in a system of private protection, this would lead to wealth enhancing economic activity-- demand for protection could rise, and companies could provide this. We see a large cost to providing police services now, but that's within a system of takings and forced provision.

- On the plus side, serial killers sell more papers, get books devoted to them, get songs written about them, have their own biographies on A&E, and tours of their areas of carnage. Think Jack the Ripper and Charles Manson. These all increase the economic pie.

Obviously, this ignores the value of life; certainly a problem. But if you consider that serial killers tend to kill those on the lower end of the productive spectrum-- I think a reasonable assumption-- you could make an economic argument that serial killers could have welfare enhancing properties.

To that, more of both! Granted that isn't a stable equilibrium, but when the population becomes 50% serial killers...well, that might not be a welfare enhancing situation. So we could be in a region of locally welfare enhancing serial killers while globally we do see reductions in well being.

Unknown said...

The serial killer only needs to kill the genius prior to his or her "contribution to society."

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