The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I have discovered the reason that “Star Wars” exists in the first place

Like Ken Burns's "The Civil War," "Star Wars" depicts an epic conflict. So we mashed them up. (Video: The Washington Post)

Modest spoilers ahead in this column by Zachary Feinstein, an assistant professor with the electrical and systems engineering department at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of the case study “It’s a Trap: Emperor Palpatine’s Poison Pill.”

There’s been an awakening. Have you felt it? "Star Wars" has returned to form. "The Force Awakens" was pure fun, reliving many of the experiences from the original trilogy. As a die-hard fan, I have very few complaints. As an academic, I am still synthesizing the new history of the Galaxy far, far away.

Destroying the Death Star was a huge mistake

One event stands out, and the implications on the cause of "Star Wars" are astounding.

In the attack on the Starkiller Base in the new movie, Episode VII, Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Finn navigate the Millennium Falcon through the shield by traveling through hyperspace, exiting hyper-speed just above the surface of the converted planet. It is a daring maneuver. Han knows the dangers of traveling at hyperspeed near a large gravitational body. As he said in Episode IV, "A New Hope," “Traveling through hyperspace ain’t like dusting crops, boy! Without precise calculations we could fly right through a star, or bounce too close to a supernova and that’d end your trip real quick, wouldn’t it?”

The Starkiller Base maneuver in Episode VII sounds like an inconsistency with what Han said in Episode IV, but it in fact it is a window into why there are Star Wars -- or put more simply, wars among the stars -- in the first place. It is all about trade — and how commerce promotes peace among nations.

Recall that back in Episode IV, Han boasts that the Millennium Falcon did the Kessel Run — a trade route — in less than 12 parsecs instead of the typical 18 parsecs. And it did so by passing closer to large gravitational bodies and thus navigating a more direct route than any other ship. In other words, Han found a way to speed up intragalactic trade by 33 percent with the otherwise junky Millennium Falcon.

Why is faster interstellar trade important? Look no further than globalization on Earth. Interestingly, globalization is often thought in economic terms. However, the economic impacts of free trade and globalization are hard to quantify and perhaps not so important. For instance, in 2003 the Congressional Budget Office attempted to examine the impacts of the North American Free Trade Agreement and found that NAFTA only expanded economic activity in the United States, Mexico and Canada by a small amount.

But by contrast, the political consequences of increased trade can be huge. An increase in economic connections can lead to decreased chance of war. This is perfectly summarized by the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention posited by Thomas Friedman, which states “no two countries that both had McDonald’s had fought a war against each other since each got its McDonald’s.”

Which brings us back to the fact that Millennium Falcon is a far more efficient tool of commerce than the typical trade ship, even if it may not be the most high tech of ships. Why didn't everyone else attempt the same sorts of gravity-bending maneuvers? Well, Han was a smuggler when he did the Kessel Run. It is likely he was uninsured and operating outside of a regulatory framework.

However, the Trade Federation and other galaxy-wide organizations would surely have to purchase insurance and meet other regulations that required them to plan routes ahead of time. Standard agents of commerce would be unable to cut the kind of corners that Han did. Indeed, C3PO, a human-cyborg relations droid, was able to rattle off the statistics for successfully navigating an asteroid field in Episode V, estimating a 3,720 to 1 probability of failure. That likely reflects actuarial tables at the time, because it was based on reprogramming after his mind was wiped clean in Episode III.

However, given that estimates by NASA place the odds of actually colliding with an asteroid in an asteroid field at lower than 1 in 1,000,000,000, standard thinking at the time would have resulted in insurance premiums far higher than what the actual odds predicted. Standard trade ships of the time, in other words, were likely dramatically mis-pricing the risk of colliding with an asteroid, and thus the pace of commerce—and the tightness of economy linkages in different parts of the Galaxy—would both have suffered.

Indeed, the opening crawl from Episode I reminds us that interstellar trade was threatened in other ways. The Trade Federation blockaded and ultimately invaded Naboo as a result of disputes over taxation of trade routes, implying the breakdown of (free) trade agreements after nearly 1000 years without a major conflict in the Galaxy.

By artificially slowing interstellar trade, the galactic insurance, regulatory, and taxation systems would have slowed the spread of ideas and exacerbated cultural differences. In extreme cases, these differences could flare up as "Star Wars!"

"Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens" is cut from the same cloth of the original trilogy: giving subtle hints to the economics and politics behind the scenes for fanboys and fangirls without dwelling.