Why We Should Build The Death Star

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In January 2012, Zero Hedge made a sarcastic proposal to boost US GDP by $852 quadrillion — building the Death Star, a fictional moon-sized space station from the Star Wars film series:

Building a massive space weapon is all very well, but you have to find the materials to build it with. It’s easy to say that “sure, the Death Star would be expensive” but is there actually enough iron in the Earth to make the first Death Star? Centives decided to find out.

We began by loo king at how big the Death Star is. The first one is reported to be 140km in diameter and it sure looks like it’s made of steel. But how much steel? We decided to model the Death Star as having a similar density in steel as a modern warship. After all, they’re both essentially floating weapons platforms so that seems reasonable.

Scaling up to the Death Star, this is about 1.08×1015 tonnes of steel. 1 with fifteen zeros.

Which seems like a colossal mass but we’ve calculated that from the iron in the earth, you could make just over 2 billion Death Stars. You see the Earth’s crust may have a limited amount of iron, but the core is mostly our favourite metal and is both very big and very dense, and it’s from here that most of our death-star iron would come.

But, before you go off to start building your apocalyptic weapon, do bear in mind two things. Firstly, the two billion death stars is mostly from the Earth’s core which we would all really rather you didn’t remove. And secondly, at today’s rate of steel production (1.3 billion tonnes annually), it would take 833,315 years to produce enough steel to begin work. So once someone notices what you’re up to, you have to fend them off for 800 millennia before you have a chance to fight back. In context, it takes under an hour to get the steel for HMS Illustrious.

Oh, and the cost of the steel alone? At 2012 prices, about $852,000,000,000,000,000. Or roughly 13,000 times the world’s GDP.

The point was one against fiscal stimulus — while it may be possible to boost GDP by any amount through government spending, there is no guarantee whatever that that government spending will do anything productive. After all the toil and effort of building a Death Star what is an economy left with? On the surface of things, a giant metallic orb in space and very little else. In Misesian terms, this would be seen as a massive misallocation of capital, resources, labour and technology, building something that nobody in the market demanded and which could be ostensibly used to oppress people (“do what we say or we’ll fire our laser cannon at you!”).

Yet, I am going to try to defend it. I think that building the Death Star, or something similar is a very good idea and would have massive beneficial economic effects for employment, output, science, technology and so forth. And furthermore, I think it is possible in the very, very long run for a government to build the Death Star or something similar of a smaller scale without misallocating any capital, labour, technology or resources whatever.

First, I think that right now humanity is sitting in dangerous territory. There are over seven billion of us, yet we are all concentrated on one ecosystem — the Earth, with one tiny totally-dependent off-planet colony (the International Space Station) that houses less than ten people at a time. Simply, in our current predicament we are incredibly exposed. A single mass viral pandemic, asteroid strike or other cataclysm could completely wipe our species out. With humanity spread throughout the solar system (and preferably, the galaxy and the universe) our species is far less fragile to random extinction events. The Death Star itself — a giant space weapon — would be a safeguard against a particular kind of cataclysmic risk, that of hostile alien attack. If there are other advanced lifeforms populating our universe, they may see life on Earth and especially humans as an existential threat. Having a large, powerful weapon like a Death Star could be a strong safeguard against our own destruction by other species.

Zero Hedge’s mock proposal is actually quite thin, only taking into account the resource cost of the steel, and not the cost of getting the steel into space, building a moon-sized steel satellite in space, presumably including the development of laser cannon technology, some kind of propulsion system, the feeding and housing of a large permanent crew including oxygen and water recycling facilities, hydroponics and artificial food technologies, a transport system to get people and things between the Earth and the Death Star, etc. Nor does it take into account the cost of the labour in employing scientists and technologists to develop and prototype the technologies, employing engineers to deploy the technology, and employing labourers or automated robots to produce components and parts and to assemble the finished article. Simply, the cost would far exceed even what Zero Hedge projects, possibly by many times over.

So why the hell would I think that committing to spend vastly more than global GDP on a single project that nobody in the market is demanding is a good idea? Have I completely lost my mind, and any concept of sound economics that I once had? Well, on a potentially infinite timeline, such a huge figure (let’s say the necessary figure is ten times what Zero Hedge estimated, which could still be rather low in my honest opinion) pales into insignificance as we go further along the timeline. Building the Death Star is not currently a short term project that could be done to boost GDP in a single year to make up an output gap, deploy idle capital or reduce unemployment. In fact even if we committed to building the Death Star today, it is highly unlikely that we would actually even begin work on it in the next 100 or even 200 years. There would be vast technological, social and organisational challenges ahead before we could even begin to think seriously about commencing production. What we would begin work on are challenges far more modest and far closer to our present capabilities — sending a human to Mars, setting up a permanent base on the moon, setting up a permanent base on Mars, and developing technologies for those purposes — specifically multi-use lifters, a space elevator, improved solar energy collection and storage, improved nuclear batteries, improved 3-D printing technologies, higher energy particle accelerators, space mining technologies, robots, machine learning, computing, life support systems and things as mundane as increased science and science education spending.

Those kinds of tasks are much, much, much lower cost than actually committing to building the Death Star in one go, and can relatively easily be funded from presently idle resources (thus not misallocating any resources) as measured by the output gap which currently sits at around $856 billion (5.8% of potential GDP). The United States (alongside like-minded countries with similarly large output gaps) could fund a manned mission to Mars ($6 billion), build a new high energy particle accelerator ($12 billion), give ten-thousand million-dollar basic research grants ($10 billion), build a base on the Moon ($35 billion) and invest $20 billion more in science education for less than 10% of the current output gap. Better still, NASA and space-related spending historically has a relatively high multiplier of at least $2 (and possibly as much as $14 for certain projects, as well as a multiplier of 2.8 jobs for every job directly created) of extra economic activity generated per dollar spent. Given that space-spending yields new technologies like global positioning systems, satellite broadcasting, 3-D printers and memory foam that lead to new products, this is unsurprising. It also means that such spending is likely to get the economy back to full employment more quickly. Once this round of projects is completed, we will have a better idea of where we need to go technologically to be able to build a Death Star. The next time the economy has a negative output gap and unemployment, a new series of large-scale projects can commence. Eventually, with the growth of technology, automation and knowledge, a project on the scale of the Death Star may become not only economically viable but a valuable contribution to human capacity.

Many free market purists will wonder what the point of all of this is. Didn’t the Soviet economy collapse under the weight of huge misallocation of capital to large-scale grandiose projects that nobody wanted? What about all the projects that could have been undertaken by the free market in the absence of such a grandiose project?  My answer to this is twofold — first of all, I am only proposing deploying idle resources that the market has chosen to allow to sit idle and unproductive for a long time. Second, there are some projects that are actually important but which are not currently viable in the market. Space technology is probably the most obvious example. While I greatly admire the new generation of space entrepreneurs, and while I concede that long-term space colonisation will be undertaken be private individuals and groups (in the manner of the Pilgrim Fathers who colonised America — people seeking the ability to live by their own rules, instead of those of established Earth-based jurisdictions) the private space industry is still a long way behind where states were forty or fifty years ago. The Apollo program that put human beings on the Moon has still not been matched by private enterprise.

Ultimately, the Death Star itself is far beyond current human capacities, and far beyond the capacity of the idle capital, labour and resources that we have the option of using up through public initiatives. This I must concede. But, as a super-long-term goal, the capacity to build such things is what our civilisation ought to aspire to. And getting to such super-long-term objectives requires investment and investigation today.

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21 thoughts on “Why We Should Build The Death Star

  1. “Deploying idle resources that the market has chosen to allow to sit idle and unproductive for a long time” is a great euphemism for inflating the cost of living, via taxation or money printing, such that people who could otherwise afford to take vacations or support their lifestyle with fewer working hours aren’t financially able to do so.

    • If you have growth in real output thanks to a positive multiplier (which is exactly what NASA spending has delivered in the past) then inflation is precisely what you don’t get.

      • It’s still theft via inflation even if the price stays the same.

        Imagine if technology had progressed in the same way that it did byt computers today still cost the same today on a computation-per-second basis that they did 20 years ago. Even though there would be no nominal inflation by your standards, it would represent an unbelievably enormous theft of consumer surplus.

        • Your view seems to be all government activity is theft. I doubt I can change your mind, but ceteris paribus if you have a positive multiplier it is not inflationary, and if it is done with long-term idle resources it is not a misallocation of capital.

      • The problem has to do with “opportunity cost”. You cannot know that investing in NASA or a Death Star will have a better economic or technological result than not investing in them. It is most likely that you won’t. It isn’t that NASA hasn’t resulted in beneficial technology, it is the cost at which that technology was developed and the lost productivity from everything else that would have been developed had we not invested in NASA. If a centrally planned project could bring about better economic results than the actions of the market, there would not be any reason to allocate any resources via the market. Your entire proposition is entirely flawed economic reasoning.

  2. John, whether or not your proposal is “sarcastic” as you label Zero Hedge’s, it will serve well my point of view that government spending (beyond the necessary minima for defense, environment, regulation, etc.) is wasteful. You identified the “law” — building something that nobody in the market demands..

    If The Powers That Be can be persuaded or overthrown, satisfying latent demand the old fashioned way (microeconomics?) will gradually get the macro job done. If we humanitarians are in charge, there will have to be a lenghty expensive overhead burden for safety nets — repentance for allowing the tyrannical+gullible to steal and eat the seed corn.

    A FUTURE with fewer politicians, bureaucrats (and economists?) and more (and tech-smarter) agricultural scientists, farmers, medical researchers and practitioners, geologists, etc.

    • You’re right that it is building something that nobody in the market is demanding, absolutely. But if you have a big amount of idle resources, maybe we should listen to the scientists, engineers, etc, who are demanding higher space spending? The past results (e.g. the Apollo program) were pretty good.

      • John, your original post cited “positive multipliers” of space programs, and you repeat the argument above. I should add to my list (of functions appropriate for government funding) basic research and non-commercial development of narrowly-defined space technology.

        Government has its share of talented, energetic and ambitious people. The problem is that government activity has no controlling market-demand or profit discipline. Success/promotion are measured by how many people are employed/contracted and how much money is spent. Funding decisions are not as corrupt and wasteful as you think — they’re worse!

  3. There are no idle assets in a free market, thats one of the key points.
    My neighbours are unemployed not because there is nothing for them to do, but because the government makes them idle.
    I’d quite happily pay my unemployed neighbour to load my dishwasher, vacuum my house and iron my shirts. But the government raises the cost of their labour beyond what I’m willing to pay and forces them in to inactivity.

    Don
    I always laugh when people try and educate me on how government departments spend money. I’m currently looting double what I could in the private sector for half the work.

    • My neighbours are unemployed not because there is nothing for them to do, but because the government makes them idle.
      I’d quite happily pay my unemployed neighbour to load my dishwasher, vacuum my house and iron my shirts. But the government raises the cost of their labour beyond what I’m willing to pay and forces them in to inactivity.

      I am not sure there is any such thing as a pure free market environment. There are stateless societies (e.g. rainforest tribes in Amazon) but they do not exactly have free enterprise! The kills a tribe makes, the lands they live on, etc, do not belong to individuals but to the tribe! An actual free market system depends on rule of law and regulated markets created by government through a legal framework!

      Of course, what you’re referring to is not government in general, but welfarism. Well, there was long-term mass unemployment in industrial society before there was widespread welfarism. You just have to look around the turn of the 1900s before the Fed was created and before there was a New Deal or any widespread mass welfarism:

      Data, of course, is thin for the actual 19th century itself, but it’s absurd to believe that there was work for every man, woman or child who wanted it in the absence of unemployment laws.

      The perennially unemployed were either placed in a work house, or died of starvation, or had to feed themselves through robbery, begging, etc. Some may think this is better, but I highly doubt it! I don’t want beggars and robbers standing on the street corner ready to take my stuff violently! I’d rather pay taxes for welfare and policing…

  4. so here comes the uber-planner that knows which resources are idle and for how long. so he’s gonna put them into work. in case someone actually needs them again, screw them. or screw his project making it a waste. perhaps those resources were idle for some reason?

    The Apollo program that put human beings on the Moon has still not been matched by private enterprise.

    nor any gov space program again. we haven’t been to the moon again because there’s nothing to look for there at the moment. this is not the time for space. what makes you think it could be?

    who knows, if we haven’t been to moon, we could have spent those resources on real growth. perhaps we would be making private trips to Mars instead now.

    we haven’t built a Death Star but we have built Death Missiles. look where it took us.

    I’m looking forward for you to declare Windows Breaking campaign. to employ idle resources, boost excel numbers, nudge glass scienece development etc.

    • Your concerns are quite easy to answer.

      so here comes the uber-planner that knows which resources are idle and for how long. so he’s gonna put them into work. in case someone actually needs them again, screw them. or screw his project making it a waste. perhaps those resources were idle for some reason?

      How to tell resources are idle? How about all the unemployed people? That should be obvious. How about all the cash that is sitting in banks totally idle earning almost no interest:

      And how to mobilise it? Offer a higher price for it than the cash rate. Those who are willing will take the price will lend their money voluntarily, therefore you haven’t taken any resources that weren’t actually idle. Yes, this requires the payment of interest. But when you are engaging in activities like space technology that have a positive multiplier, you collect higher taxes commensurate to the higher level of activity, so the spending literally pays for itself. You are not passing on debt to future generations or any of that.

      I don’t really see how any of this is economic planning. A central planning system would not be skirting around the edges using idle resources after the market has used the resources it wanted to use. An actual central planner would be asking to take resources out of the private sector — to prevent private activity — without any regard for whether they were idle or not.

      • John (re your question “how to mobilise?” unemployed people and idle cash): I’m not erudite on pertinent detailed economic history, but I’m tempted to suggest “Get government out of the way!”

  5. John, this would be like having industry only manufacture Ferrari replacement parts and telling people that the way to fix your Corolla is to have the government buy you a Ferrari.

    The solution, albeit quite radical in this era, is to actually fix the problems.

  6. Reading through your links regarding the positive impact of the space program, I’m starting to think your vision is less economic and more nostalgic. Those returns or multipliers appear to come mostly from the startup of the space program in the 50′s and 60′s, From the 70′s onward it doesn’t look like NASA has done a whole lot for technological or economic advancement over what a run of the mill private enterprise would do. But this seems to make some sense. The startup period of a brand new initiative under the guise of competing with an evil empire would get people busy. Of course, that is true of private sector startups as well. And there is no reason to doubt that many of these technological advancements would have happened without the government funded space race. How much advancement has been made through the private sector independent of the space program? As Elon Musk recently observed (paraphrased): ‘In 1969 most people believed by 2013 we’d have a lunar colony and space stations. If you told them we’d never gone back to the moon, they’d be shocked. But if you told them that everyone carried a device the size of a deck of cards and it gave you access to the totality of all human knowledge and the ability to communicate instantly with everyone on the planet, they would never believe you.’ Private enterprise brought about that device, not NASA.
    I think your premise is misapplied to the space program and probably is more the effect of international competition. Your argument for a series of projects leading to a Death Star probably requires that the alien invading force be identified first to be “stimulative”. The competition against an alien evil empire would likely stir some advancement through a space program But at that point you’d just be aping Krugman.

    • Wow, Hawks! Include me in your fan club! Partly because of nostalgia. For several years I was privileged to be a colleague of Edward Teller — in promoting civil defense as part of cold war strategic defense, not physics! Among his huge arsenal of simple explanations*/examples of complex policy issues was the Free World superiority in “computing machines”, unencumbered by military control and Security Classification.

      However, John, no doubt Dr. Teller (and Hawks and I) would readily admit that computer architecture/art (Turing/Bletchly Park, Los Alamos/Livermore, etc.) and the internet had government (military) origins.

      * My favorite Teller (I think he was Reagan’s source): “Peace through strength, and the will to use it!”

  7. Aaaaand, unsubscribed.

    This whole post is just more pseudo-intellectual masturbation. It seems you’ve morphed into just another free-lunch Keynesian. That’s fine, if you had something new to say from that perspective. But you don’t. Its more of the same.

    Best of luck!

  8. Hey John, don’t let these people get you down. I think it’s great that you have the courage to put different and interesting things out there. We are not here to find the Truth, as the Truth is everywhere, instead, we are here to explore different ways we can become better equipped to help others. After all, is there any other purpose to educating oneself?

    So, keep up the good work and, again, my compliments to you being a young person showing such wisdom [allowing these people to vent their own frustrations at not being able to understand the unknowable]. That’s all it is.

  9. Pingback: America’s greatest export is its debt – The Week Magazine | News Up To The Minute

  10. Pingback: America’s Greatest Export is Its Debt | Sheeple: People unable to think for themselves

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