The Cargo Cults of America

People do some funny things when they don’t understand what’s going on. In the 1940s, the U.S. built a lot of air strips on tropical islands where the most advanced technology was the fishing net. The inhabitants of these islands thought that the airplanes were almost as miraculous as the cargo they brought. They had no concept of industrial manufacturing, so when they decided that they wanted some of that cargo, the only way they could think to go about it was to imitate the strange behaviors of the people who received the cargo.

Do you know what happens when you press buttons on a microwave oven? Most of us don’t. We know that it has something to do with electricity and radiation but, really, all we know is that you press the buttons and things get warm. Imagine what a person would think if everything they knew about a microwave, they learned from looking over your shoulder. That should give you an inkling of what an islander went through trying to understand the U.S. industrial complex of WWII from a few artifacts that showed up.

When the islanders looked over the shoulders of the strangers, what they saw were air strips, control towers, head phones, and people waving paddles to guide the planes in. And so they built facsimiles out of bamboo and palm fronds and sat in their bamboo control towers wearing their ceremonial coconut headsets and chanted hallowed words like “you are clear for landing”.

It didn’t work, of course, but apparently some of them are still at it sixty years later.

This is the approach many take when we don’t understand something rewarding — we imitate the successful. This tactic has served us well over the millennia. It’s much more efficient to imitate others than to figure things out on your own. For technological advances we’ve had to create intellectual property law to prevent the theft of innovation. For philosophical concepts, however, we openly encourage others to adopt ours. Millennia of adaption favoring imitation has created a blind spot towards imitating other people’s philosophies towards complex concepts.

Even more complex than an industrial complex is an economy. I’ve heard economies referred to as being not just incomprehensible, but complex on the scale of concepts like love, where it’s an act of hubris to even suggest that one understands it. Under those conditions, what can you do to get ahead besides imitate the successful?

If you start from the premise of not really understanding how behavior affects one’s chances of success, you can see how misconceptions might build up. After all, we don’t get to see all of the behaviors of the successful, just the ones they do out in public. They vote Republican, thump the bible, condemn anyone who is different from themselves, repeat anything said on Fox News, and complain about how all of their money is spent helping poor people. For those who really don’t understand how wealth happens, this is a formula for success.

Analyzed in detail, you can actually identify much of it as reverse attribution. It’s obvious with little analysis that your archetypical Republican favors trickle-down economics because he’s wealthy, and it favors wealthy people. With no understanding of economics, it is apparently surprisingly easy to make the mistake of thinking that a person is wealthy because they favor trickle down economics.

This all makes you wonder why it never occurred to the cargo cults that maybe the guy in the control tower was wearing the funny headset and chanting into the microphone because a plane was coming instead of the other way around.
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Robert Rapplean is a compulsive autodidact who was ejected from Machiavelli’s School for Evil Geniuses due to his unfortunate penchant for attempting to save the world. When he’s not earning money writing software, Robert studies economics and artificial intelligence, plays Rock Band, and designs his not-so-evil robot army.