'Cargo cult' America

In the late 1940s on a small island in the Solomon group, I came upon that strange phenomenon of the South Seas -- the "cargo cult." On an abandoned military airstrip, islanders wearing tattered GI uniforms marched in formation before a control tower. In the tower a man wearing earphones carved of wood spoke into a wooden microphone and made marks on a clipboard.

Other islanders squatted patiently, searching the skies, watching and waiting for a silver airship to arrive in answer to the magic they were making and disgorge its rich cargo.

I am often struck by the similarities between our behavior and that of those of the South Sea islands.

Both societies suffer from a failure to perceive reality or an unwillingness to act upon it. The difference is mainly one of degree. But any society that acts upon false perceptions of reality is in serious trouble.

The cargo cultists saw that our GIs were able to call down bounties from the sky apparently without doing any real work, merely by talking into little boxes, signalling with flags, marching in formations, or even sitting at tables with vases of flowers and sipping ceremonial libations from tall glasses.

Lacking any understanding of the elaborate production, distribution, transportation, and communication technology that made possible this abundance of goods, the cultists attributed it all to what they saw and tried to achieve the same results by ritual imitation.

When their efforts failed to produce the desired results, they often became increasingly fanatical and dognatic.

They would kill off their livestock, consume their food stores and seed corn, destroy their tools, refuse to work, break taboos. Eventually -- before starvation set in -- the cult would disintegrate in disillusion and everyone would go back to work.

It is easy to understand how primitive people might react in such a way to the severe culture shock caused by marvelous but threatening and incomprehensible events without precedent in their cultures. The question is: What's our excuse?

We, presumably, do understand that our security and our progress toward greater social and human well-being, including those goods economists describe as "externalities" -- a cleaner environment, a more energy-efficient industrial system, more and better jobs for ethnic minorities, an inflation-free economy -- depend upon sustained economic growth and productivity.

We do understand that to have these we must encourage high levels of investment in research and development, and in replacement and modernization of plant and equipment.

And yet for decades, instead of policies that enhance the American industrial system, we have tried to milk it to produce short-term social benefits. Though American industry has been strong enough to sustain for a time both solid economic growth and greatly expanded welfare and government spending, its underlying strengths have been slowly eroded.

Meanwhile, the American political system has launched what has seemed at times a vendetta against American industry. In the good name of protecting the environment, consumers, workers and other valid concerns, it unleashed the disastrous regulatory excesses of the 1970s.

In the most extreme case, government has placed incredible burdens upon the auto industry at the same time that our principal foreign competitors, West Germany and Japan, have been helping and encouraging their industries to capture our home market.

In 15 years we have nearly succeeded in dismantling what took half a century to build. In the name of quality of life, like the cargo cultists, we broke tools and ate our seed corn, believing somehow that by doing so we would be rewarded by a better, finer life.

The source of our cargo cult mentality is not too different from that of the South Sea islanders. Americans have been subjected to profound cultural and social stress during the last 50 years. One could cite many elements of stress: the realization that our natural resources are limited and that economic growth is not automatic; the idea that nuclear destruction is possible; the impression of the earth as seen from space, highlighting the fragility of our life-supporting physical environment; the enormous disparity between the affluence of the highly industrialized societies and the grinding poverty and suffering elsewhere in the world; the stream of printed and televised news stories which make events half a world away seem as close as our city.

If our system is to be viable in the days to come, there needs to be broader appreciation on the causes and effects of institutional successes and failures. We need a greater awareness of the human and economic penalties of short- term management of long-range problems. Confronted with hard political choices, our leaders often sound as through they could teach classes in cargo culting to the Solomon Islanders.

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