The cargo cult approach to economic development


I've been listening to a lot of otherwise intelligent folks spout a lot of nonsense lately. Rational in many respects, they have an irrational attachment to the notion that promised projects for the billion-dollar sales tax increase (September 9th is the election) will elevate Tulsa to the heights of prosperity. These same people believe that our current economic distress is the clear result of the decisions Tulsa voters made in 1997 and 2000 not to raise taxes to build downtown sports and convention facilities. The "vote yes" campaign and the Tulsa Whirled are both peddling this line.

From the Whirled's August 4th condemnation of the Republican and Democratic parties:

Its hard to believe responsible party leaders could stand by and not notice how failure to vote for needed improvements has hurt the city, and still have to debate the small stuff.

Since when did Tulsa fail to vote for needed improvements? In the last 10 years, we've voted for over $1,000,000,000 in taxes for capital improvements for our city and our school system. That's not counting the tax hikes approved by suburban cities and schools. We didn't vote for the Whirled's pet project, but that's hardly a needed improvement, unless you believe in Cargo Cult Economics.

Then I received the following in an e-mail, author's name withheld to protect him/her from embarassment:

We are losing jobs and falling behind other cities. For example, ask yourself the famous Reagan question: Is Oklahoma City better off today than ten years ago? Is Tulsa? If the answer is yes to the first and no to the second, then one must admit that the MAPS plan in OKC has contributed to their success.

One must admit no such thing! This is a classic example of the logical fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc -- "Because A happened after B, therefore A was caused by B" -- bolstered by the selective consideration of evidence. Is Tulsa worse off than 10 years ago? Yes, it is, largely because of massive job losses in a couple of key industries. Are these job losses because we didn't raise taxes to build an arena in 1997 or 2000? No. Bernie Ebbers didn't decide to engage in shady business deals and run WorldCom into the gutter because Tulsa didn't build an taxpayer-funded arena. Bill Bartmann didn't ruin CFS with his shady deals because the Tulsa Project was defeated. Williams Communications didn't go bankrupt because we didn't expand our convention center. And Al-Qaeda didn't decide to use an American Airlines jet to blow up the World Trade Center because the Rolling Stones wouldn't perform in Tulsa. Yet these are the causes of most of the job losses we have suffered in the last 10 years, added to the overall "tech wreck" which affected San Jose (which has an arena and major league hockey, as well as a major amphitheatre, and plenty of entertainment options) even more deeply than Tulsa.

During World War II, inhabitants of some South Pacific islands noticed that Americans came, built runways and control towers, and then planes landed and brought useful cargo. When the Americans left, they thought that, by imitating the Americans, they could repeat the prosperity they briefly enjoyed. So they cleared runways, built control towers (complete with controllers wearing wooden headphones), set out night landing lights, built model cargo planes, and raised the American flag each day, in hopes that the cargo planes would come back with material riches. Here in Tulsa the cargo-cult view of life expresses itself in phrases like, "If we build it, they will come," and, "We have to do something." Whether in Papua New Guinea or Utica Square, the same logical fallacy is at work.

The cargo cults still exist. Here is a site devoted to the John Frum movement on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu, and here's an article by Mike Jay on the history of the Tanna cult.

Lawrence's analysis of what was going on came to constitute a template for what seemed to Westerners an inexplicable and repetitive complex of delusions. First came 'cargo belief': the apocalyptic conviction that the world was about to turn upside down, the islanders finally receiving the material rewards of the white planters and administrators who were currently enjoying the fruits of the black man's labours. Then, even more puzzling, came 'cargo ritual': new religious practices designed to reel in the cargo by magical repetition of the acts which were currently bringing it to the white man. All over, islanders were downing tools, clearing airstrips in the jungle, building imitation radio masts out of bamboo, scouring their bibles for hidden messages, even sitting around politely drinking afternoon tea. If it worked for the white man, so the theory went, it would work for them.

All across the region, colonial governments cracked down hard, rounding up the cargo prophets and imprisoning them. Planters and other Western commercial interests, who coined the term 'cargo cult', saw it all as madness which demonstrated the ignorance and superstition of their workforce. More liberal whites attempted to explain to the locals that cargo wasn't produced by magic, but by hard work and the product of generations of technological progress, and the only way in which Melanesian societies were going to become rich in cargo was by working and earning it. To the locals, the subtext of this explanation was clear: the whites were politely refusing to give up the secret of their cargo.

Many people have drawn parallels between what we ridicule as primitive, irrational thinking, and the equally primitive and irrational thinking that influences the social sciences, city planning, public policy, and even computer programming in the "civilized" West. John FitzGerald, a Canadian writer, sees downtown shopping malls (remember the one Tulsa had?) as an example of cargo cult thinking:

The cargo cult is founded on a familiar, and popular, bit of fallacious reasoning: post hoc ergo propter hoc. The residents of Papua, Yaliwan, Vanuatu and other places noticed that when the colonial occupiers built wharves and airstrips, the wharves and airstrips were soon visited by ships and airplanes which delivered cargos of goods. They concluded that the ships and airplanes arrived as a consequence of the building of the wharves and airstrips, so they built their own wharves and airstrips in the expectation of receiving their own cargoes.

This reasoning seems naive to us, since we already know that the correct chain of reasoning is the reverse: the wharves and airstrips were built because ships and airplanes were going to be arriving. However, in dealing with that which is new to us, just as wharves and airstrips were new to Melanesians, we draw exactly the same conclusions about it.

An example of this type of thinking is the shopping mall. The first shopping malls were tremendously profitable. As a result, people concluded that if they too built shopping malls, they too would make tremendous profits. As a result, we soon had a shopping mall on nearly every block. Retail space expanded enormously, and eventually the retail industry collapsed under its own weight. Retail chains closed and downsized, their unsustainable outlets either replaced by dollar stores or left permanently empty.

Today, Wellington Square in London, Ontario, the first shopping mall in this country, bloated to three or four times its original size and given a trendier name, lies dying in the centre of a downtown which it has already killed. On Saturdays the retail staff in the few stores that are open outnumber the customers. In Toronto, the Eaton Centre has transformed the retail neighbourhood around it into a vast bazaar of dollar stores, adult book stores, and fast food franchises.

And here's a link to a lengthy excerpt on the web of Richard Feynmann's observations on cargo cult science, well worth reading.

When I was invited to participate in TulsaNow, when the Mayor's vision process began, as Tulsa hosted national experts in urban design and development, I was hopeful that we were finally moving away from the cargo-cult mentality and becoming capable of clear-headed and evenhanded analysis of Tulsa's real challenges and what we must do to overcome them. Perhaps I was too hopeful. There's not much difference between "If we build it, they will come," and "John Frum, he still come."

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on August 13, 2003 1:12 AM.

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