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'Planet Money' Does The Math On 'The Six Billion Dollar Man'


When Hollywood revives a classic TV show, they're liable to update the clothes, the characters and the plots. "The Six Million Dollar Man" is updating the title. Six million dollars just doesn't as impressive as it did back in the 1970s, so the new movie version is "The Six Billion Dollar Man." Robert Smith from NPR's Planet Money team thinks they got the math wrong.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: Come on, $6 billion? It is hard to think of anything that gets a thousand times more expensive, even over 40 years, even in science fiction because basically, we live in an age of low inflation. Prices for goods are barely going up, maybe one or 2 percent a year lately. So what makes "The Six Million Dollar Man" so special? Let's recap. As the TV used to tell us every week back in the '70s, there's this astronaut, and he gets in this terrible accident.


LEE MAJORS: (As. Col. Steve Austin) Flight down, I can't hold it. She's breaking up. She's break...


SMITH: Steve Austin, a man barely alive. Enter the creepy government agent.


RICHARD ANDERSON: (As Oscar Goldman) Gentleman, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world's first bionic man.

SMITH: So Steve Austin gets his robotic arm, robotic legs, new eyeball. We assume his insurance company gets the $6 million bill, and he fights bad guys with his awesome bionic powers. I was a huge fan. So was a young professor of economics, Anwar Shaikh.

ANWAR SHAIKH: I'm naturally inclined to techie kind of things, even if they are terrible. And I did watch that TV series.

SMITH: Professor Shaikh now teaches at the New School, studies inflation. And we asked him, how much should the six million dollar man cost today? And the answer, he says, depends on how you classify Steve Austin. Now, you could think of him as a piece of technology, right? A running, jumping gadget - and those prices have dropped radically over the last 40 years.

SHAIKH: So if you think of him as a product, the number comes down from 6 million to 12,000. I mean, think about this...

SMITH: The $12,000 man?

SHAIKH: Yeah, $12,000 man.

SMITH: You know, the $12,000 man does not sound like an...

SHAIKH: It doesn't (laughter)...

SMITH: ...An exciting movie to watch.

SHAIKH: Exactly. I would pay - popcorn costs more than that. So forget it. I'm not going.

SMITH: But wait a minute - the technology may be cheaper, but what about the medical care? That bionic eye doesn't just pop in by itself. Perhaps the $6 million includes doctors, X-rays, private hospital room. Health care has a much higher inflation rate.

SHAIKH: The annual salary of surgeons...

SMITH: Yeah.

SHAIKH: ...Has gone up about five and a half times since 1973, so that if you took the salary of surgeons as an index of a cost of the medical care component, you're back to a $33 million man.

SMITH: Thirty-three million. We could not find a calculation that would get us even close to a $6 billion man. And perhaps we should just ignore the hyperbole, just go with the 6 billion, assume that the new Steve Austin - to be played by Mark Wahlberg, by the way - is just a thousand times more awesome. But I will say back in the old days, a price tag used to mean something. In fact, when Steve Austin met another bionic man in the TV series - great episode - the first thing they did was to compare their bottom lines.


MONTE MARKHAM: (As Barney Hiller) What did you cost?

MAJORS: (As Steve Austin) Six million.

MARKHAM: (As Barney Hiller) Six? Seven.

MAJORS: (As Steve Austin) Well, old inflation gets us all.

SMITH: He's not kidding. Robert Smith, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robert Smith is a host for NPR's Planet Money where he tells stories about how the global economy is affecting our lives.