In Star Wars, the Rebel Alliance thought they were doing a good thing by destroying the Death Star. Little did they know the unintended consequences its destruction would have—notably, the complete and utter collapse of the Galactic Empire's economy.
At least, that's according to Zachary Feinstein, an assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis, whose speciality is in financial engineering and risk measurement. In a new paper published on Tuesday to the arXiv preprint server, a publication for papers that have not been peer-reviewed, Feinstein makes a controversial argument: the Death Star's real terror comes not from its planet-destroying power, but the economic fallout that would be inflicted on the galaxy in the event of its destruction.
According to Feinstein, the destruction of the Death Star caused a dramatic 12.9 percent drop in the Empire’s Gross Galactic Product overnight, averaged across a thousand simulations.
To come to this conclusion, Feinstein combined bits of information from the Star Wars canon and with historical data about the US economy to calculate the likely cost of the Death Star's construction (believe it or not, there’s a whole episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars on deregulating the Galactic Empire’s banks). He then used this cost to calibrate a model of the Galactic Empire's financial system and economic health prior to the Death Star's demise.
"We use these results to deduce the size and composition of a bailout necessary that the new rulers of the galaxy, i.e., the Rebel Alliance, would need to allocate to stave off a galaxy-wide financial crisis and economic depression," Feinstein wrote.
When I reached Feinstein by phone Wednesday morning, I was afraid the whole thing would turn out to be a Disney-backed stunt. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised.
"I realized that writing a PNAS paper doesn't really get traction," he told me, referring to the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, "but writing about Star Wars definitely would."
Feinstein’s main intent was to demonstrate his work, and the work of his colleagues, on system risk—"the risk of the system collapsing, or the risk of the financial sector, rather than any individual bank or any individual investor,” he explained. “And this is, in my mind, is more what we should care about as a society. Because in the end, if a bank is going to collapse, and it has no impact on the rest of the economy, then that doesn't really matter."
According to Feinstein, the way that banks borrow and lend to one another is so complex that the failure of one bank—say, due to the destruction of a very expensive and heavily financed public works project—can actually have far-reaching consequences, even if not directly connected.
"In this case study we found that the Rebel Alliance would need to prepare a bailout of at least 15 percent, and likely at least 20 percent, of GGP in order to mitigate the systemic risks and the sudden and catastrophic economic collapse. Without such funds at the ready, it is likely the Galactic economy would enter an economic depression of astronomical proportions."
In case it wasn't obvious, Feinstein isn't particularly optimistic that the scrappy Rebel Alliance has that kind of cash lying around.
Of course, I had to ask: Is there anything on present day Earth that could quite compare to the Death Star, were it to be destroyed?
"I don't know anything on this order of magnitude, thankfully, because if it were, then we get a crisis of this size," Feinstein said. "But really the best comparison I have is 2008, where we had this bailout of the banking sector."
Personally, I'm looking forward to seeing all of this depicted in vivid detail in the new film.