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Has "Defund Batman" been the answer all along?

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Batman: Could all his money really save Gotham?

Has “Defund Batman” been the answer all along?

Batman’s had it tough on social media recently. Case in point, an old clip of standup comic Reginald D. Hunter has been recirculating, in which he says:

I don’t respect the concept of Batman, because of what I understand about politics now. Imma lay it out for you: Rich dude owns a corporation, has state-of-the-art equipment, and he uses this to beat up on street-level crime. He doesn’t mess with the industrialists and super-capitalists, the Murdochs or the Trumps. He’d rather just f*ck with the purse-snatcher on the corner. Batman is a conservative’s wet dream. F*ck Batman!

There’s a lot to unpack there. Could Batman (or really, Bruce Wayne) be doing better things with his money to help fight crime? Let’s look at a specific suggestion from the Twitter account Batman Slander, one that wouldn’t even require Bruce to leave the mansion.

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Most reasonable people agree that everyone should pay their fair share, but could Bruce Wayne transform Gotham merely by not taking advantage of tax loopholes and paying more to the city government in taxes? Gotham is usually portrayed as highly corrupt, one of the reasons Bruce decided to wage a one-man vigilante war against crime in the first place. If Bruce Wayne and Wayne Enterprises paid more taxes to the city, it could just be used to line the pockets of the mayor and his cronies.

Okay, so what if he bypassed the corrupt Gotham government and invested that money into social programs and charities? He already does. It mostly occurs in the background of the Christopher Nolan “Dark Knight” movies and recent comics, but as Tumblr blogger glitterpancake recently explained:

Basically all Bruce does all night and day is give to charity and help people.  The main organization he uses is the Wayne Foundation, an umbrella company for the Thomas Wayne Foundation and the Martha Wayne Foundation. TWF is for medicine/science and gives awards/money to research/researchers, funds the Memorial Clinic in Park Row (i.e. Crime Alley) where Leslie Thompkins treats anyone and everyone who comes through her door (villains included), and dozens of other clinics around Gotham.

The MWF is for the arts/urban revitalization of Gotham, families, and education. It runs orphanages (and built its own orphanage), creates and funds schools, preps teachers for [students with] learning disabilities, gives grants to artists, and sponsors Family Finders, which exists to reunite families. Also so many soup kitchens. It is also the organization that gives money/scholarships to Gotham Academy.

While that’s not quite the same as the initiatives some proponents of the “Defund Police” movement are looking for (maybe put an Arkham psychiatrist in every police car?), at least it puts to rest the claim that the comics portray Bruce Wayne as a heartless Scrooge, or a frivolous playboy who likes to occasionally beat up street criminals.

All right, if that hasn’t worked, maybe the solution is a lot simpler.

Would a coronavirus-like Bat-stimulus work? It has the advantage of bypassing Gotham’s corrupt government and getting money straight to the people who need it. But we need to specify what we’re talking about – will Batman give a one-time or annual monetary gift of $1,500 to every poor person in Gotham, or are we talking about a monthly payment that would function like a basic income guarantee?

In real life, a one-time gift of $1,500 to every poor person in a major city probably wouldn’t cause a big drop in crime. The closest real-world equivalent to this would be Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD), which gives every citizen of the state an annual check from a percentage of Alaska’s oil revenues, which has ranged between $845 and $2,072 over the last two decades.  Economist Richard Dorsett studied the effects of the PFD on Alaska’s crime rates and found that in the month following the dispersal of funds, there was a 10% increase in substance-abuse incidents and an 8% decrease in property-crime, with no average change in violence.

Not exactly a big effect, but maybe that’s just because it comes once a year, which isn’t often enough to improve people’s lives in a fundamental way. Members of the Eastern Band of Cherokees in North Carolina get an annual dividend from their tribe’s casino, which is generally in the $4,000-$6,000 range, and a recent study found that increase in household income reduced the poorest kids’ chances of committing a minor crime by 22%.

If Bruce stepped it up to a $1,500 per month grant to those living below the poverty level, perhaps we’d see more of those secondary & tertiary social effects (assuming the money isn’t siphoned off by rising rents). This is similar to Finland’s basic income experiment, which gave 2,000 unemployed Finns a monthly flat payment of €560 ($634) from January 2017 to December 2018.

Unfortunately, while participants of the Finnish experiment said they felt happier and less stressed, employment levels did not improve. The study didn’t see if the recipients were less likely to commit crimes, but Finland already has a pretty low crime rate compared to the U.S. (with a murder rate of 2.5 per 100,000, as opposed to 5 per 100,000 here), and the overall crime rate in 2018 remained more or less the same as 2017’s.

When we’re talking about a basic income, of course we also have to consider whether or not Wayne Enterprises could afford to pay that on a continual basis.  If we assume Gotham is a fantasy version of New York City (which many fans do), that would mean it has about 8.4 million citizens with a 19% poverty rate, so there would be over 1.5 million poor people. If Wayne Enterprises paid them each $1,500, that’s $2.39 billion a month.

There’s no way any corporation could pay out $28.7 billion/year. Even if Wayne Enterprises was the size of Amazon, with an annual net income of around $10-12 billion/year, a basic income program would completely wipe out their profits, and then some.

So maybe f*cking with purse snatchers is all he has left. But hold on, while Batman does occasionally collar regular street criminals in the movies and comics, he appears to spend much more time going after organized crime bosses like Carmine Falcone and Sal Maroni, as well as super-villains whose motives often don’t revolve around just getting money.

batman hellbat

DC Comics

I mean, the Joker is basically a domestic terrorist like Stephen Paddock, the millionaire who perpetrated a mass shooting in Las Vegas in 2017 for no discernible reason other than wanting to see what it was like to kill a bunch of people. You’re not going to deter criminals like that by closing tax loopholes or setting up a universal basic income.

And in comics & movies where Batman is part of the Justice League, he’s got even more powerful villains to contend with, like Doomsday and Darkseid. They’re essentially the comic book version of “existential threats” that real-world scientists worry about, like asteroid impacts and coronal mass ejections.  As it stands, the people of Gotham may actually have a pretty cheap form of “apocalypse insurance” with Batman’s lavish spending on all his weapons & gadgets.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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