Monday, December 17, 2012

The Death Star Must Be Good for Something

Last year, in an interview with Time's Fareed Zakaria, the Princeton economist Paul Krugman remarked, “If we discovered that space aliens were planning to attack, and we needed a massive build-up to counter the space alien threat, and inflation and budget deficits took secondary place to that, this slump would be over in 18 months.” Krugman was referring to an ancient episode of The Twilight Zone, in which an alien threat was rumored in order to establish world peace.

All things being equal, which they never are, rumors of Mars attacking Earth could set the entire global war machine into motion, at once creating jobs in every sector - from raw material extraction to arms manufacturing to diplomacy (remember the old days, when we used actual diplomats instead of drones?) to soldiering and everything in between - all without bloodshed, no "collateral damage." Our genocidal impulses would be directed towards other, non-carbon life forms, never mind that the enemy threat would be a fiction. Perhaps it's the 21st century version of Socrates's "noble lie," a huge falsehood abetting geopolitical harmony.

Things, as I said are never equal. We would simply turn our new cache of armaments on each other. But Krugman, being a perfectly rational sort, was making a point, if whimsically: a global threat would be just the sort of distraction that might allow the federal government to raise taxes in order to increase its already considerable war materiel, much like it did during World War II, when it raised tax rates astronomically. In effect, the war was a big stimulus package that ended the Great Depression by generating jobs, armaments and exports. 

Ever since, the economy has relied in large part on increased defense spending, to the point that cutting defense budgets could arguably stall growth. Like it or not, we can't back away from the Pentagon (or more precisely, its huge supply chain) without crashing the national economy. So in a way it's charming to learn that Star Wars fans have taken the Nobel economist at his word with their own version of his job-creation fantasy: build a Death Star for the Pentagon. Yep, the Death Star to Darth Vader was what a souped-up Jeep and a lead-footed GI chaffeur were to George Patton: death on wheels, so to speak.

Patton pending

A petition has surfaced on "We The People," the White House website that officially responds to petitions with at least 25,000 signatures. The Death Star petition encourages the government to "secure resources and funding and begin construction of a Death Star by 2016."

"By focusing our defense resources into a space-superiority platform and weapon system such as a Death Star," the petitioners argue, "the government can spur job creation in the fields of construction, engineering [and] space exploration." The whole idea channels the Reagan era, circa 1984. And, as you might imagine, several of the signatories are "Vader, D."

His pen

Pointing out the other side of the budget quandary, The Telegraph (UK) reported that it would cost "13,000 times the world's gross domestic product (GDP), £541,261 trillion [or about $878,000 trillion], to supply the steel for such a structure while labour and other construction costs would send the price even higher." Which is, if you think about it, a stimulus package for the ages.

Personally, I can't wait for the Trekkies to weigh in. We could beam the entire contraption into outer space. Meet the little bastards halfway.

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