Friday, January 18, 2013

Deathstar Fail: How the White House Laughed at Serious Economics

With the recent news of the White House's response to the petition to build a Death Star, perhaps -- if you're like me -- you got a chuckle over aspects of the actual response. What started out as something that might have seemed like an Onion news story turned out to be real. With everything from the title of the response, This isn't the petition response you're looking for, to quotes like:
  • The Administration does not support blowing up planets.
  • Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?
It's hard not to find humor in the response. Still, there's an aspect of the response that fundamentally missed the mark -- the underlying economic argument.

If you just touch the surface of most of the stories on this topic, the petition and response were all about placating some crazy Star Wars fans who assembled enough online interest. But what's missing from this story, both in the White House's response and in the lack of follow up in the media, is a deeper look at the underlying premise that drove this.

If this was simply an exercise in Star Wars fan fun, you'd probably see lots of petitions for things like protecting endangered wookies on Endor or Star Trek fans requesting research into transparent aluminum. But you don't. While I'm sure that some people might have signed the petition for fan fun, I think that you have to recognize that there was something deeper driving this thing.

Prepare for the Alien Invasion
At the heart of this proposal is it's re-spin of one path that economists like Paul Krugman say is the path out of the economic depression that we are in. His recipe to escape the current economic malaise revolves around government spending on stuff -- any stuff -- to help reignite the economy. Notably in this case, if scientists predicted that we were about to be attacked by aliens and we began spending to prepare for an alien invasion, that spending would revive the economy. Of course, that premise created some level of outrage that Krugman later addressed on his blog.

Doesn't all of this sound remarkably similar to 'building a Death Star'? Could it be, could it possibly be that this petition was about macro-economics and addressing the broader issues of the economy?

So while on some level, the White House deserves credit for elements of humor, redirecting the focus of the response to a half-assed promo for the space station and for a career in science strikes me as bad enough to warrant this post. To me, it's almost as if a woman walks into a hardware store and asks for directions to the power tools and the clerk responds with, "vacuum cleaners are on aisle 7 and housewares are on aisle 8, but we don't have any power-mops."

The title of their response is, This Isn't the Petition Response You're Looking For. At least that part was on mark.

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