Think Tank: The Economics of Death Star Planet Destruction

How does Death Star planet destruction affect the Empire's GGP? (That's Gross Galactic Product.)


Cost-benefit analysis, anyone?

What’s the economic calculus behind the Empire’s tactic of A) building a Death Star, B) intimidating planets into submission with the threat of destruction, and C) actually carrying through with said destruction if the planet doesn’t comply?

Doesn’t the Empire take a huge economic loss from the lost productivity of an entire planet? They were presumably paying taxes and providing resources to the rest of the Empire. Presumably the loss of that planet’s output would have to be made up by increased output from other planets that were either slacking in productivity due to rebellion or threatening to rebel and withdraw from the Empire altogether. It doesn’t seem to make good economic sense.


Did these stormtroopers have problems with blaster fire accuracy?

This is a pretty standard imperial tactic for dealing with rebellion. The Romans would do this in the eastern empire every once in a while. A city would become a hotbed of rebellion, threatening to pull other cities into the action. The Romans would wipe out that one city, no matter how wealthy (Palmyra comes to mind) to put any other potential rebels on notice. Kind of like a mastectomy. You lose one productive part of the body in order to keep cancer from spreading.

As America has learned in recent years, chasing down rebels is hard. One key part of our strategy, preventing the Taliban from sheltering inside Pakistan, has failed completely because so many Pakistanis welcome the Taliban. Imagine if we’d just nuked every town in Afghanistan in 2001. Pakistan would be a lot more hesitant to shelter them. Of course, the American people wouldn’t have accepted that course of action and the Afghans and Pakistanis knew it.

To my mind, this is why the rebels are on Hoth in the second film. Palpatine, the absolute monarch, had a new apocalyptic technology. Like Truman and Hiroshima, he need to prove to everybody that he was willing to use it. He nukes Alderaan and so all the habitable planets have turned the rebels away – too afraid of the Empire’s new weapon. Why else would the rebels set up shop in such an inhospitable place? There’s not a planet with Cancun-like weather anywhere in the Empire?

This dichotomy is why I don’t think you can have a democratic empire. You need an unaccountable monarch to make the ruthless decisions required to hold disparate cultures together.

As for the economics, it really depends on the number of planets in the empire. Based on the number if representatives in the senate we see in the prequels, there are hundreds of planets in the empire. The loss of Alderaan hurts, but is better than letting the rebellion spread to other planets. That would require long-term occupations in several places, and even in this long-ago, far-away place, Halliburton’s prices are steep.


War in general makes poor economic sense. Thousands of lives are lost and millions of man-hours are spent producing things that will break, explode or be exploded. Even the shittiest factory in the world at least produces crappy T-shirts. It may produce them at a higher cost than would justify the operation of the factory, but at least at the end of the day there’s some shirts.

The strategic calculus of the Death Star, on the other hand, may be more rewarding.

One of the more effective negotiation tactics, from a game theory perspective, is to convince your opponent that you’re crazy enough to do something stupid. An example is the purchase manager who’s willing to walk away from a 6 month negotiation process if one measly line item in the contract isn’t changed. This would cost both the buyer (him) and the seller (the other party) lots of money! That’s crazy! But if everyone believes that this one guy will jettison an entire deal just because one detail doesn’t please him, then people start paying attention to him.

"I used to bullseye womp rats in my T-16 back home, they're not much bigger than two meters."

The more famous pop culture example is Dr. Strangelove. The Russians have built a Doomsday machine that will blanket the world with radiation if a nuclear weapon goes off at certain Russian targets. This is crazy. The loss of the entire world hurts the Russians much more than the loss of Stalingrad would hurt them. And yet, if the Doomsday machine can’t be turned off, the U.S. has no choice but to back down.

The Death Star is clearly that kind of negotiating threat. The loss of an entire planet hurts the Rebellion, but it probably hurts the Empire too. And yet if the Emperor can show that he’s committed to vaporizing an entire planet, that makes open revolt a very frightening proposition.


I always assumed the Death Star was primarily designed as a cost-cutting measure. Consider the discussion between General Tagge and Grand Moff Tarkin:

TARKIN: The Imperial Senate will no longer be of any concern to us. I have just received word that the Emperor has dissolved the council permanently. The last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away.

TAGGE: That’s impossible! How will the Emperor maintain control without the bureaucracy?

TARKIN: The regional governors now have direct control over their territories. Fear will keep them in line. Fear of this battle station.

There is a political angle here, of course – the Emperor doesn’t want to share power, so he abolishes the Senate. But there’s an economic angle, too.

It’s pretty clear at this point the Emperor can do pretty much whatever he wants. He could have installed puppets in the Senate. He could have continued to dominate it and made an ongoing token effort to deal with their bullshit (which is really what government is all about and why conquering the world isn’t as fun or sexy as it sounds). He could have installed some sort of other system or infrastructure to support, you know, a galactic empire. One person, even with Dark Side force powers, can’t rule too many people at once. He can maybe manage a team of 20-100 people, and that’s assuming he has some small degree of magical mind control at his disposal.

An important part of the bureacracy.

For the Empire to actually exist as an institution, it needs to have the mechanisms in place to exist – namely, donks like Queen Amidala and Senator Jar Jar Binks who basically just sit around and handle boring government work. And you also need people everywhere. Like, if the Emperor controls everything, he needs to make sure every Speeder Registry office in every settlement on Tattooine has somebody working the counter except during major Imperial holidays. And he needs to pay them something (they can’t all just be clone slaves – that’s clearly not how the Empire works). If you don’t pay your people, they tend to first, be lazy, second, take bribes and be likely to betray you, and third, leave their posts or actively conspire against you.

To maintain order, the Emperor would generally need a MASSIVE, MASSIVE bureaucracy. The Old Republic built up a serviceable one over thousands of years, but that took a lot of time, money and effort, and in the end it was bloated, ineffective, and ultimately subverted against the Old Republic.

The more you spend on bureaucracy, the less control you have directly over your Empire. The less you spend on bureaucracy, the more you have to tighten your grip, and the more star systems slip through your fingers.

So, the Emperor and Tarkin focus on making one really huge, high-impact investment: The Death Star. They throw in Alderaan as part of that investment. This doomsday weapon will supposedly free up their resources to spend less on administration, personnel and infrastructure, and continue to function without a Senate. It seems like a big investment until you realize how much they save by not actually having a functioning government.

This is an attractive option even today, as politicians look to pay for tax cuts and handouts to core constituencies by laying off or cutting salaries and benefits for bureaucrats and government workers, as well as by skimping on infrastructure.

The problem, of course, is that it doesn’t work. The underpaid, undermotivated, poorly managed stormtroopers can’t even track down the Empire’s most wanted fugitive androids in an extremely sparsely populated area where they have undisputed control. If Tatooine still had meaningful senatorial representation and local government, Luke never would have gotten off the planet. Whole systems just break away and form not just a resistance, but a giant frickin’ fleet of spaceships that destroy not one, but two death stars. The failure of leadership is so total and complete that Tarkin is killed in his own fortress and the Emperor is murdered in his own office by his own right-hand man.

It’s a lot like assuming having nuclear weapons will allow you to dictate policy and control people and places pretty much for free. In reality, to control a place, you have to spend a lot of resources, no matter how powerful you are. Because people will continue to have problems and complain even if you threaten to kill them, and not dealing with those problems, no matter how strong you are, eventually leads to the failure and collapse of your administration.

The Death Star is a cheaper solution to the problem of projecting imperial power across the galaxy, but cheaper solutions are worthless – and turn out to be much more expensive in the long run – if they don’t work.