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Cargo Cults

Column by George Sibley

Rural economics – December 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

CARGO CULTS. At yet another early morning Economic Development Board emergency airline meeting, that’s what I found myself thinking about.

During World War II, the great American war machine dropped out of the sky onto some Pacific islands that were inhabited only by some remnant Stone Age peoples. We went in with bulldozers and carved runways out of the jungle, flying big cargo planes in and out to support the island-hopping war against Japan. Then, a few months later, as the war moved on, the runways were abandoned.

But this sudden intrusion of the Industrial Age on the Stone Age islanders had been transformative. It was as if the gods had briefly descended, showering them with candy bars and other strange foods, and with shovels to beat into spears, and all manner of other wonders. Their lives were changed; and instead of whatever they had been doing before to fill the time, they started building stick models of airplanes which they set out on the abandoned runways, like duck decoys on a pond, trying to lure the big birds out of the sky again. It became a kind of religion.

I don’t know what has happened since those “cargo cults” began — but that’s not my concern here. I was only thinking of them because it seems so similar to what we are doing in this valley. Here, we’re putting together a pot of money to set out on our runway in hopes of luring United Airlines to send a big bird full of skiers everyday this winter. We hope, we pray.

This pot of money is being laboriously collected by volunteers from local businesses and individuals that are already suffering from the slowing-down of the great clanking American production-consumption machine. The purpose of the pot is to guarantee that United won’t lose money flying big planes into the Upper Gunnison valley this winter — although United still claims to be losing money every time a big bird goes into the air.

Working on projects like this under the guise of economic development, I’m starting to wonder about our capitalistic market economy. According to the economic dogma taught in classrooms here at the college, the market economy is supposed to be driven by competition; producers compete to get the profits to be made from providing needed goods and services.

So now we need air service into the Gunnison County Airport, and where are all those capitalists our prophet of profits, Adam Smith, said would be competing to provide what we need?

The airlines observe that they need this guarantee money because skiers aren’t exactly clamoring to get to our ski area — which is true enough — but the airlines demand a similar pot of guarantee money from ski resorts that are doing well. So rather than airlines competing to provide a service, we have customers competing to get the service.

But if new service providers enter the field, they’ll get beat on by the existing giant producers, with the apparent full collusion of the federal government — which also sends them really big pots of money when they claim to be hurting. I’m not at all sure how that fits into the laissez faire competitive capitalist market economy we revere.

THE HIGH PRIESTS of the capitalist market system, of course, will say that it’s not the system that is at fault; it’s our failure to apply the system. Despite our cargo-cult efforts, maybe there isn’t enough demand today for ski resorts, or for air service to ski resorts.

By Adam Smith’s logic, if a maker of pans finds himself with an overstock, he doesn’t go to the people for a bailout; he just switches to the production of pots which are more in demand. So if the number of skiers is flat or shrinking, then presumably some ski resorts should start producing something more competitive.

By that hard cold market logic, Adam Smith’s little self-interested mom-and-pop pan-maker has to undergo the trauma of having to change everything over in order to meet a different demand. And the rest of us need not share the pan-maker’s trauma since it’s his fault that he so misread the market.

But this gets difficult when it’s a whole valley economy with hundreds of moving parts, or an airline with tens of thousands of moving parts — and most of those moving parts are humans with self-interest enough but little individual control over their economic destiny. When the skiers aren’t coming, collecting another pot of money to improve marketing for what already exists seems easier than converting the whole clanking economy to something else. Rather than switching production to pots, we try to persuade people that our pan is better than anybody else’s. Then we set out a pot of money to lure the limping airline in case the skiers bite.

It all starts to look quite a lot like a cargo cult — more of a religion than an economy.

George Sibley teaches and writes and participates in community affairs in Gunnison.