Come on, guys, a Death Star isn’t THAT expensive!

Some economics students from Lehigh University made the news a few weeks ago with their estimate that the raw materials (a quadrillion tons of steel) in the Death Star would cost £541,261,000,000,000,000 at today’s prices — a billion, billion dollars.

Of course this is shocking because the entire Earth’s economic output is only 1/13,000 that level. But that’s today. The problem with aggrandising this estimate is that these budding economists aren’t thinking on a truly galactic scale!

For example: remember the Star Forge? From the wookieepedia

The Star Forge drew energy and matter from a nearby star which, when combined with the power of the Force, was capable of creating an endless supply of ships, droids, and other war matériel.

Nobody has yet studied the economic benefits of Force Sensitivity, but we learn from canonical sources that the price of robots and ships must have dropped to what would today seem like zero around 30,000 BBY.

Just think about how nuclear fission energy was once called “Energy that’s not worth metreing”— and as a marker of our lack-of-progress compared to the Rakatan Infinite Empire, note that we have sent approximately 1 vessel to explore one path in our local star’s system, nothing like covering the volume of the galaxy.

Consider the Clone Wars, only 2 decades before the construction of the Death Star. The cost of the Clone Wars dwarfs the single-project Death Star, just as the total cost of WWII dwarfs the mere $45bn the US spent on Nimitz class aircraft carriers or paltry $50bn per stealth bomber a few decades later. Again from Wookieepedia, we learn that

What would ultimately become a Separatist army originally began as several immense forces comprised almost exclusively of droids.[1] When merged, these formed a colossal army numbering in the quintillions.[2]

If in fact they outnumber the clones by only 100 to 1, that would mean that there were tens of quadrillions of clones.

Both armies were spending an unimaginable amount of money. But hey, if you want to dominate 400 billion planetary systems, you need to play big.

There were approximately 400 billion stars, and around 180 billion of these had planets that could support life. Ten percent of those planets developed life, while sentient life developed in 1/1,000 of those (about 20 million). … there were 7.1 billion truly habitable stars, … 3.2 billion habitable star systems, with only 69 million systems meeting the requirements for Imperial representation, and 1.75 million planets considered full member worlds. In total, the galaxy was populated by approximately 100 quadrillion different life forms.

(The 100 quadrillion life-forms number is not cited and frankly I don’t believe it includes small stuff like lichens and bacteria. We have ~1 nonillion bacteria on Earth alone [American counting system], so there should be more like a quattuordecillion life-forms in 180 billion habitable planets.

You wonder why Yoda spends so much time meditating on the essential Force?)

We are talking about a war on a truly galactic scale here. Remember that Jedis are people who jump into hyperspace on a whim and travel from one star system to another in an Augenblick. (For reference, it would take us 50,000 years to reach Alpha Centauri with present technology.)

The entire Earth (like Alderaan) might be obliterated in the course of a skirmish and that would only be a minor tragedy because there are so many other battles (300 billion star systems in the Milky Way) to be fought.

Since their galaxy has 400 bn stars, the cost of the Death Star would only be $250 per planetary system. Come on, chip in, guys! This is going to be the Destroyer of Worlds!


Now we’re talking about the right spatial scale (a galaxy far, far away) but that’s only one source of the colossal difference between the Galactic Empire and us. The other is time scale (a long time ago—with an even longer time before that). 

Think about this: $1,000,000,000 trillion might sound like a lot now – but world GDP today stands at $62 trillion, which is only 14 doubling times away from being $1,000,000 trillion.

And by the Rule of 70, you can guesstimate how many years a doubling time takes. (thanks Editable Encyclopedia)

Let’s forget about the Hutt Empire and all of the space exploration that took place before the Galactic Republic—all of the journeys on the way to becoming a technologically mature society—and just talk about economic growth during the 25,000 years of the Galactic Republic

If US economic growth continued apace at 2% per annum for 25,000 years, then at the end the yearly value-added output would sum to $168 431 066 142 340 489 288 772 439 940 909 449 861 672 253 867 865 451 003 067 724 266 746 627 767 325 863 071 680 952 201 001 185 103 141 091 302 401 283 052 766 211 655 121 625 725 615 234 621 406 099 740 792 533 291 787 226 249 702 943 690 122 429 739 360 449 918 371 508 258 213 270 051 trillion. (A 225-digit number = ten septillion googol googol = one trevigintillion quinquagintillion = one quattuorseptuagintillion 2012 dollars.) Each year.

And again, this doesn’t count trade with “developing planets” (In Praise of Cheap Labour, meet the Orvax system!) or simply planets with different resources, cultures, and technologies. I’m just talking about an exogenous Solow constant of 1.02—very modest, I’m sure you’ll agree, when you look at growth rates in the poorer of Earth’s political factions.

And how long do you think it might take us to colonise not just nearby star systems, but to have republics and trade federations that stretch all the way across 120k × 1k light-years of the Milky Way?

If the Earth’s denizens grew the economy at 2%/year for 25,000 years (just from inception to conclusion of the Galactic Republic, none of the precursors) then the world GDP would reach $140 359 221 785 283 741 073 977 033 284 091 208 218 060 211 556 554 542 502 556 436 888 955 523 139 438 219 226 400 793 500 834 320 919 284 242 752 001 069 210 638 509 712 601 354 771 346 028 851 171 749 783 993 777 743 156 021 874 752 453 075 102 024 782 800 374 931 976 256 881 844 391 709.238 trillion!

And that’s not even counting the gains from galactic trade! Just intraplanetary growth.

These numbers may be too large to comprehend, so just think about this one. The GDP of Cambodia today stands at $32 bn or $2500 [PPP] per capita, less than a percent of the world’s output. Cambodia’s economic growth has jittered and started between 4.5% and 9% during the last couple decades. But let’s just assume 3% future growth to be conservative.

If Cambodia’s economy grew at 3% per year for only the amount of time that Yoda was a Jedi master (800 years) then Cambodia would be producing $955,724,857.68 trillion per year, in other words in very short order a few million life-forms occupying .12% of one planet’s land mass could buy a few Death Stars every year and still have enough money left over for food and beverage.


Again this is just a miniature of the changes in economics and warship financing we could expect to see as Earthlings expand their demand curves out into the galaxy over future millennia.

Back to the Wookieepedia, of course you remember the Banking Clan is on the Separatist side — how else to finance these quadrillion droids? The Separatists (and, following Episode III, the Galactic Empire) included some of the wealthiest players in the galaxy. So that’s another possible reason the Droid Army is feasible. (I can imagine how one wouldn’t join an insurrection without some serious money behind the defence effort—a nice bit of economic logic.)

This droid army drew upon of the battle droids of the Trade Federation[3], the Techno Union[4], the Commerce Guild[5], the InterGalactic Banking Clan[3], the Corporate Alliance[1], and other independent Separatist factions. These groups were subtly manipulated by Darth Sidious to expand their forces … Under his orders, these corporate giants began to purchase huge orders of battle droids from the millions of factories controlled by companies such as Baktoid Combat Automata, Colicoid Creation Nest, and Haor Chall Engineering over a decade before the start of the Clone Wars.[7] … Count Dooku deployed over a million B1 battle droids, one hundred thousand B2 super battle droids, and three thousand droidekas, plus many other types, at the Battle of Geonosis in 22 BBY…the Clone Wars had begun.[8]

(22 BBY is 22 years Before the Battle of Yavin, in which the Death Star was destroyed. Everything has a weak point. Many Bothans died to find out what it was.)
many Bothans died to bring you this Valentine. 


What I take away from the Star Wars allegory is that we had better spend an equal amount of research studying the political economy as we do on space exploration technology. After all, scientists don’t control how their technology is used—they merely generate power. (Just ask Oppenheimer.)

Let’s say we built a Star Forge and the price of robots dropped effectively to zero. Then we would be incredibly f*$#ed without an incentive structure that prevents even a sleuthy, sly, slick Sith Lord from destroying life on the colossal galactic scale.

Think about how security threats were multiplied by the invention of atomic weapons — the same will happen if we take care of science only, disregarding political economy.

About isomorphismes

Argonaut: someone engaged in a dangerous but potentially rewarding adventure.
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