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The recent question about Fort Knox brought back a long-time concern I've had regarding super-villainous behavior: most super abilities could earn as much money (or vastly more) through legitimate means as they could through theft. Energy projection, resistance to harm, flight, etc, all have profitable applications ranging from architecture to zoology, exploration to espionage.

Let's assume that we're on this Earth, modern era, except that super powers and/or super technology have recently emerged as a rare but known thing, at the level of Spider-Man or Batman but not Phoenix or Superman.

The question: are there any trope-standard super powers (or combinations) that would make economic sense to commit physical property theft (e.g. robbing banks or Fort Knox) rather than earn a living?

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Aify, JBH, L.Dutch, Renan, dot_Sp0T Jul 18 '18 at 5:32

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • $\begingroup$ 1) Batman doesn't have any super powers; he's just rich. Stinking rich. 2) What's a trope standard super power? (Include relevant information in the question, don't include a link to the information) 3) What do you mean by economic sense? Do you mean what makes the most money per second? Or are you minimizing for damage caused to the economy? Or are you trying to increase the GDP of a country? Please clarify. $\endgroup$ – Aify Jul 14 '18 at 18:24
  • $\begingroup$ This doesn't appear to be asking about a rule for your world, but a story within your world. All of the trope-standard super powers you linked can be used for theft and all could be justified given the correct circumstances (read: depending on how you write your story). I'll be happy to retract my VTC should you rewrite your question. Read this for more info. $\endgroup$ – JBH Jul 14 '18 at 19:07
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    $\begingroup$ @aify Tropes are called tropes because they are so common and are generally in common parlance. This is an instance where linking is sufficient, like linking to “the Federal Reserve” in an economics question. $\endgroup$ – SRM Jul 14 '18 at 19:35
  • $\begingroup$ @SRM I'm simply pointing out that tropes are not universal. This site is used worldwide; I'm sure there are tropes that exist in particular countries that don't exist in others. Instead of linking, OP should include an actual list or some sort of system as to how the powers work (such that we can derive from said system what exists and doesn't). Additionally, links can break; and they may not be accessible from every location This is an instance where linking is wrong. $\endgroup$ – Aify Jul 14 '18 at 20:05
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As you note, most superpowers lend themselves to a wide range of legitimate uses in the free market economy, and many supervillains use their talents in legitimate ways in addition to evil ones (think Lex Luthor or Doc Doom). But you don't actually need superpowers to make a decent living. Wikipedia says there are over 15 million millionaires in the US; most of those do not have superpowers [citation needed].

Most thieves in real life have the skills and powers they need to become successful employees. A guy who knocks over a liquor store with a handgun or a cat burglar who sneaks into your apartment and steals your wallet and jewelry probably have the skills they need to flip burgers or get an accounting degree. It's a matter of how able and motivated you are to fit in with the legitimate side of society.

Thus, 4th-wall awareness is probably the one superpower listed on that page that would be most suited to crime -- not because it helps you commit crimes, but because it will predispose you to ignore laws and societal norms. You wouldn't be burdened with empathy or conscience if you knew that you and everyone around you were entirely fictional.

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The issue with superpowers is they bring the welder outside the bounds of conventional society. Every normal person is quite capable of robbing a bank or store, but the vast majority don't, because they are constrained by morality and are also aware the State has a much greater amount of resources and force at their disposal (waking up with an ERT breaking down your door gives you an idea of what you, as an ordinary person are up against).

Superpowered people may still follow the moral codes they were brought up with, but the reality is they don't have to. If you can easily evade the police, confuse criminologists who investigate the crime scene or simply shrug off attempts by heavily armed police officers to restrain you and take you into custody, then you might be very tempted to do so.

This also does not take into account the "why" many criminals do what they do. Much low level crime is essentially impulsive acts by people with low time preference and impulse control. The other sort of criminal is someone who likely does this just for the thrill of it. In the movie "Heat", the criminal mastermind asks one of his associates to decide if he is "in or out" of a very high risk job. The answer is "Well ya know, for me, the action is the juice". Imbuing these people with superpowers will simply impel them to take larger risks or do more creative and imaginative plans to take down scores.

Finally there are lots of ambiguities in the law, and many so called "white collar" crimes take full advantage of this. The infamous Enron case was difficult to crack because the company was operating in multiple states and selling energy across State lines. It was initially unclear if any laws were even broken. This gets to the point the OP wants answered, if a sufficiently clever and ruthless person can use a superpower like enhanced thinking to parse rules and regulations, they may become extremely wealthy without ever actually breaking any laws (but they may be skirting the outside edges of the law).

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I read this question as aiming more at the practicalities: powers where it's as easy or easier to break the law to make money. If you're aiming at "staying alive" levels of living more than "try to get rich pulling supervillian tricks", then the obvious answers to me are:

  • Invisibility (must also apply to things you're holding, or have some other method to render objects not visible): shoplifting gets a lot easier, to the point where you might be able to actually live on it. If you want to take that in more "resale" and less "steal what I want to own" directions, there was a fascinating NYTimes article a while ago about city drugstores having to lock up the ice cream because shoplifters were showing up and taking whole coolers-full for the secondary market. Note that anyone with invisibility as a power who can't pass a background check for law enforcement or spy agencies doesn't have too many legitimate ways to make money from the power. Wildlife observer, perhaps? Not exactly going to make you rich.

  • Mind control: if you can control people with your mind/eyes/voice, you have lots of options. It's also very easy with powers like that to imagine someone losing the sense of other people as "real". Note that the best real-world thefts often have to do with social engineering (i.e. tricking a human into thinking you're authorized where you're not); "I've provided you with the correct answer to that security question" can get you a lot in the modern world. And again, depending on the kind of mind control, the job options are probably limited quite heavily by ethical constraints. Law enforcement and security agencies will probably love you for questioning, but that questioning may not pass legal challenges ('my client was mind controlled' seems pretty problematic in a courtroom) and there are plenty of people who would rather do illegal things than support a potentially hostile government.

  • Telekinesis: This one is so flexible it's going to be heavily world-and ability-specifics dependent. But how much would people pay for the ability to lift a car with your mind? They could just get a lift. They're a lot cheaper than a human. It's probably invaluable to people doing certain kinds of high-sensitivity manufacturing, but that isn't likely to offer vast numbers of jobs, let alone to any random person off of the street. So if brute force can get you a short-term profit, it may well be the best choice for anyone who doesn't have the contacts to get one of the rare jobs that you're useful doing.

Is this helpful? If so, I may be able to provide additional suggestions.

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The reason @JBH has given as a reason to close is actually what I would list as an answer to the question. :-) Basically, all the powers can be bent either way depending upon circumstances. You can only use your powers in an honest way if you can afford to have your powers known to other people. People with powers will be collared and controlled by various governments and corporations. If a person doesn’t have enough power to support their own independence, they probably cannot afford to have their identity known. Superman is fine; Spider-Man is borderline; Invisible Man is probably screwed. At best they can allow their powers to be known to select clientele, but probably cannot market themselves successively without risk.

If there’s a support network of other supers, that makes the economics viable, but by themselves, most are screwed. Kids who gain powers may have to operate out of desperation to stay free... they rack up enough crimes, by the time they’re adults, it’s hard to go straight because they have such an extensive rap sheet.

So, yes, the powers are valuable economically, but they are subject to “hostile takeover” in too many cases.

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