Cargo Cult Christmas

The great visionary Alan Kay once compared the dot-Com goldrush (while it was still going on) to a cargo cult. This was one of those big “a-ha” moments in this moron’s life. I’d heard of cargo cults but had just thought of it as an amusing story. If you follow that Wikipedia link, you can see a sort of apologetic tone about how “an isolated society’s first contact with the outside world…can be a shock”.

But what the dot-Com mania showed was that there’s nothing about the mentality that’s exclusive to primitive societies. People figured if they bought a clever domain name, wealth would follow. Some had worked out an extra step, of course:

1. Buy Domain Name
2. Attract Investor Dollars
3. ???
4. Profit!

And, of course, some of them never thought past step 2. After all, once investors give you lots of money, you’re done, right?

In short, the fundamental issue is a lack of understanding of relationship between cause and effect. Hell, forget about airplanes, a small island culture would probably have a harder time imagining the logistics—the massive industrial and social machinery—behind a military supply drop. You’d first have to get them to grasp the concept of millions of people.

While the dot-Com bubble was doubtless motivated by the same burning desire for unearned material wealth as the island chief’s, the dot-Com guys had no comparable excuse. Regardless of the medium, the basics of trade don’t change: You have to offer people something they want before they give you money; and if it’s something they can already get, you have to offer more, like a lower price, higher quality, greater convenience or better service.

These are not mysterious things, yet if you were watching the madness ten years ago, you saw a 10-year-old company whose increasingly commoditized product was losing market share hand-over-fist buy out a media powerhouse that made its 75-year fortune on essentially unique product—and you also saw this hailed as a great move for the media powerhouse.

Once my eyes were opened to this parallel, I began seeing cargo cults everywhere. Because they are everywhere. And we’re probably all guilty of cause-effect confusion to some degree, in some areas of our lives.

As a rather bizarre example, in our culture you can see cargo cult religions (of all denominations), where people mimic the practices of religion while eschewing anything not immediately gratifying, anything that requires sacrifice, or anything that would actually bind people together, as religion is supposed to do. (Then they’re surprised when there’s nothing there in their time of need.)

But sometimes it’s harmless and even kind of cute, when done with awareness. Sports fans, for example, will be very superstitious when rooting for their teams, wearing same clothes or eating the same food or performing some ritual because that’s what happened the last time the team made a big score. This is more a knowing game of pretending to have a power (in a situation where you really can’t) than a genuine cargo cult mentality. Or so one hopes. (Athletes themselves will have such superstitions, but they don’t forgo training for them.)

Oftentimes it’s pernicious and destructive, and completely backwards. The idea, for example, of focusing on building self-esteem by giving a child the rewards associated with self-esteem. This creates a sense of entitlement combined with a very fragile ego—a less functional combination hard to imagine.

You can probably see where I’m headed with this.

We have before us this Christmas the most astounding example of a cargo cult I can recall in my lifetime: We have a government that doesn’t even understand their own flawed philosophy, mimicking the destructive actions (which had observably bad ends) without even grasping the logic behind them.

For example, the current administration has reduced Keynesian theory (which Keynes himself didn’t fully accept) to “throw money all over the place, especially to our friends and good things will happen.”

Same with health care: “Pass some laws—any laws—and health care will be ‘solved’.” The very passage of the laws themselves seems to have been backwards “Let’s talk about how we’ve won and celebrate the passing of these laws, then we’ll work on getting them passed. ” (Consider the number of times Harry Reid proclaimed he had reached a consensus.)

Even the compromises emerged not from the idea of giving-and-taking on substance so that ultimately everyone could vote for something that was good enough, but by cajoling the “yeas” through any means necessary, no matter how bad a bill was created.

There’s no grasp of cause-and-effect.

The frosting on this Christmas cookie being the philosophies that are being aped were never very successful either. FDR’s “stimulus” may have been neutral, but the regulatory atmosphere—the atmosphere of wild experimentation, was demonstrably harmful. And even as real job creators today say they’re reluctant to hire in such an unpredictable environment, it’s not enough to spread money around, the administration has to show that it’s willing to stick its fingers everywhere.

You don’t need a litany of what the tax, regulate, redistribute process has done to the American economy. The War on Poverty created a permanent underclass, and the War on Drugs created a massive criminal class. The current War on Health (as I suggest we christen it) will have similarly dubious effects. (Even if the current mess doesn’t pass, would you, as a young person, be eager to go into medicine in this environment?)

At some point, one has to wonder if the actual cause-and-effect of freedom and stability leading to prosperity isn’t very well understood by a lot of those working to undermine it.

At least that’s what I’m wondering as I sit under my Christmas tree, singing carols, waiting for presents to appear.

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