Friday, February 24, 2012

You can't afford *not* to buy a Death Star!

A few years ago, someone (I can't recall who -- the link is dead) estimated it would cost $15 septillion to build a Death Star. I estimated it would cost several orders of magnitude less, considering that the original estimate was based on Earth's primitive and costly methods of transporting material into orbit. Now some students at Lehigh have estimated the cost at about $850 quadrillion. Kevin Drum points out that this is far less intimidating than it might look. If we wait about 500 years to build it (at which point our technology might have advanced to Star Wars-like levels), this figure will only be about 65 times world GDP. Spread the project out over 20 years, and that's only 3 times world GDP. Moreover, spread it out over the wealth of tens of thousands of star systems in the Galactic Empire, and suddenly this is looking quite affordable.

Drum concludes from this that building the Death Star was "totally worth it." Well, that's not obvious. One must ask, compared to what? I mean, what was the point of the Death Star in the first place? To intimidate planets that might have considered undermining the Empire. It couldn't be everywhere at once, but the example of destroying Alderaan had to have served as a deterrent for other planets. Notably, the Rebellion had few options for bases after that. They stayed on an ice planet briefly, and after that had to wander space in a few random ships. But, of course, the deterrent value was limited, since the Death Star had been destroyed. Everyone knew the Empire could build another one, but until they did, the threat was going to wane. So they threw together another one, which again got destroyed.

Now, just as building a Death Star sent an important message to non-compliant planets, destroying a Death Star sent a powerful signal, as well. It was a huge public relations coup for the Rebellion. So the Death Star, while a devastating weapon, was also a tempting target. There were some basic conceptual design flaws (both versions were destroyed by a small smuggling ship and a handful of single-person fighters), but really, even if it had survived Yavin, it was doomed to spend much of its operational time fighting off attackers, simply by virtue of being such a big fat target.

Had the Empire instead used that money to build thousands of additional star destroyers, that likely would have been a much wiser investment. Then they really could be everywhere at once. Hell, park one in orbit around every system in the Empire. Then when Leia says, "They're on Dantooine," Tarkin can just call up the ship hovering over Dantooine and say, "Are there rebels there?", and the captain can say, "Uh, no. She's lying." Saves a lot of time. Plus, even if the rebels could down one or two star destroyers, that doesn't provide them with anywhere near the public relations value of taking down a Death Star.

So, on balance, I'd say it was a bad investment, even if an affordable one.

One other point: It was really stupid to put both the Emperor and his chief enforcer on an uncompleted Death Star right before an attack they knew was coming. Had Vader and Palpatine been back on Coruscant when that went down, the Rebels would have won an impressive victory, but the Empire wouldn't have fallen. It would have been like Al Qaeda sinking the USS Nimitz -- serious, to be sure, but hardly death to America.


Greg Hao said...

Death Star is kind of like an aircraft carrier in that sense. And I'll also note that for most of The Republic's existence, there was no Death Star. It was destroyed at the end of the first film, thereby making the fact that The Republic was hiding on Hoth, not because of the Death Star. And they were routed no because of the existence of a Death Star but because of overwhelming troops from the Empire.

Seth said...

Not sure I agree there. The Rebels obviously had to leave Yavin -- everyone knew they were there. But where to go? Yes, the Death Star was gone, but it was common knowledge that the Empire knew how to build one and wasn't shy about using it. No wonder there were no decent worlds available to them.

Eric Hines said...

I just think everyone in the galaxy as aware of the "first rule in government spending: why build one when you can have two at twice the price?" No one would dare host the rebellion if there was any chance that the Empire had another one under construction.

metrichead said...

Seth, you cite some pretty compelling evidence that building a a Death Star would be affordable. But I'm more concerned about the maintenance costs.

Seth said...

Well, we know that the Empire doesn't give much of a damn about recycling -- they just dump their garbage into space. So that saves some money there. But yes, the maintenance would still be expensive, except that the life span of a Death Star from becoming fully operational to being destroyed can be measured in hours.

Marc said...

If they had just used that money to provide decent single-payer health care and a solid school-to-work program, this all could have been avoided.

Seth said...

They could really have used some investment in the health care field. Padme didn't even know she was carrying twins.

Seth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Our estimate of just the labor costs required to build the death star dwarf the Lehigh figure, but it is based on the current costs of transporting goods and people into space.

Our guess is $32 sextillion -- again, just for the labor costs -- and that's probably on the low end of things.

Phadreus said...

An aircraft carrier is more like a star destroyer than a death star...I would think a nuclear sub, with it's payload ability to eliminate a nation is the better equivalent. An aircraft carrier can provide overwhelming force, eliminate a lot of infrastructure but it can't eliminate every living breathing thing within the country under attack...

Jonathan Ladd said...

I feel like the police patrols versus fire alarms distinction is important to this discussion

Anonymous said...


The Empire gets around labor costs by using a large amount of slaves.

Anonymous said...

Slaves still have labor costs, they just don't have wage costs.

Phil K. said...

I agree with Phadreus here.

The Death Star is the great deterrant for planets rising against the Empire. Don't like our policies? Okay, our boys in the badass helmets will just push that little lever down and we'll see you in the afterlife.

Fairly effective and can only be carried out by such a mammoth weapon. It's the Empires version of Going Nuclear.

Seth said...

What evidence do we have that the Empire used slaves? Vader would likely be very against that.

andrew said...

If Vader had ever displayed the slightest indication that his agenda once he took power involved abolishing the slavery his mother experienced, the whole series would have been infinitely richer.

Seth said...

Vader: promises made, promises kept.

Honestly, I don't expect a lot of accountability from murderous dictators, but given Anakin's long obsession with slavery and his feelings of guilt about his mother, I'd expect he did something about this once he had power in the Empire. Notably, we don't see any direct evidence of slavery in episodes IV - VI. Although that may simply be because Lucas hadn't thought about it.

Marc said...

Wouldn't they have used droids to construct the death star, and eventually just become part of it? Meaning the Death Star was its own labor force. Making it hard to distinguish between a labor cost and a materials cost. Like building a house out of sourdough starter. Oooh.

Eric Rubin said...

i thought i was a big fan of the trilogy. But i honestly dont understand what any of you are talking about.

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