Friday, October 25, 2013

"Why we should actually build the Death Star"

No mention of  "The Theory of Interstellar Trade" (Krugman 1978) which work led to the Nobel prize winning New Trade Theory and New Economic Geography but not to New Keynesianism.
Further, TTIT was the precursor to Krugman's more important Alien Invasion Hypothesis.

The writer, John Aziz, is usually on top of these things.

From The Week's Idea Factory:

There are real economic and technological benefits to building a moon-sized, planet-destroying battle station 
 Also, it would look really cool.
Also, it would look really cool.
In January of this year, the White House responded to a not-entirely-serious petition to build a Death Star, a huge moon-sized battle station armed with planet-destroying laser cannons depicted in the original Star Wars trilogy.

More than 34,000 people had signed the petition, claiming that the project would spur job creation and strengthen defense. They wanted the government to begin construction by 2016. The Obama administration jokingly responded that the cost — estimated to be $850 quadrillion — was far too high, and that the Obama administration "does not support blowing up planets."

The origin of the idea appears to be a rather amusing satirical post by the Glenn Beck-endorsed finance blog Zero Hedge from January 2012. Zero Hedge calculated that at current steel prices, the steel alone would cost $852 quadrillion, or 13,000 times the current level of global economic activity per year. And while there exists enough iron in the Earth’s crust to build two billion Death Stars, the steel itself would take 833,315 years to produce at current rates of production.

The point of all this was to make an attack on the concept of government being able to stimulate the economy by employing idle economic resources. While it may be possible to boost economic activity by any amount through government spending, there is no guarantee whatsoever that such government spending will do anything productive. Zero Hedge portrays Death Star-like projects as misallocations of capital, resources and labor since nobody in the market wants or needs them. This is a superficially impressive point. After all, didn’t the economies of communist countries like the Soviet Union collapse due to the failure of central economic planning, where the government and not the market decides how to allocate resources?

Yet the more I thought about it, the more I started to think that actually, building the Death Star would be a great idea. It would have massively beneficial economic effects for employment, output, science, technology and so forth. Any civilization that can build such a thing is both immensely powerful, and immensely skilled. More importantly, 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, labor, technology or resources whatsoever.

Let's start with Zero Hedge's presumptions. Its cost estimate, for instance, is actually quite minimal, since it only includes the cost of the steel, and not the cost of getting the steel into space, constructing the steel into a Death Star, the development of laser cannon technology, a propulsion system, the feeding and housing of a large permanent crew (including oxygen and water recycling facilities), hydroponics and artificial food production 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 labor in employing scientists and technologists to develop and prototype the technologies, hiring engineers to deploy the technology, and producing components and parts. So I think the cost would far exceed even what Zero Hedge projects, possibly many times over.

So why 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? Well, on a potentially infinite timeline, such a huge figure becomes more and more affordable as we go further and further into the future. While a Death Star may appear to be absurdly far beyond our present economic capabilities, the same was once true of things that are now within our capabilities like fighter jets or nuclear reactors. What made such things possible was time and scientific, technological and organizational development.

To build a Death Star, we would need to begin work on 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. On the technology side, we would at least need multi-use lifters, a space elevator, improved solar energy collection and storage, improved nuclear batteries, improved 3D 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....MORE