11 January, 2013

Welcome to the new year's cargo cult!

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday January 10, 2013

If you have followed this column, you will know that at the start of every year I revue the state of our Cargo Cult Economy.

It's like the world that faced the highlanders of New Guinea after World War II. They had watched the flow of goods flown in for the war effort and thought they were the gifts of the gods.

When the war ended and the goods stopped flowing, cults grew up to restart the cargo. So they built airports out of straw, planes of bamboo, radios of coconuts, all the magical goods they had seen, believing they would encourage the real thing to appear.

Even today cargo cults exist in remote regions. Any attempt to talk them out of it is taken as proof that the white man is trying to hide the secret: why these goods, created by the gods, should go to them and not to the natives who so obviously deserve them.

Is this faith so different from that of the "advanced" societies? Our tribes insist that the goods keep coming - more cars and tellies, more clothes and gadgets, more food and drinks. Pity the politician who tries to denies these things - they are rapidly sent to the electoral scaffold.

In the big land across the Pacific, many tribes believe that taxes are all evil and should be resisted by any means, even pushing the economy to the edge of a cliff.

These same tribes worship guns, the bigger the better. The more one owns, the more one's respected. Of course every now and then a native goes berserk and kills a few dozen people, but the answer to that is also in the cargo: give everyone more guns. It's in their constitution - every American's birthright is a gun under their pillow.

The European tribes have laudable traditions to care for their citizens from the cradle to the grave. It's what they do in the middle that can be a problem. But give everybody a job, not too demanding, and lifelong benefits - it will all be fortuitously paid for out of the cargo.

Here in Australia we have been enjoying a lotus lifestyle with vast ships digging up pieces of dirt and sailing away. But the continent is so huge nobody is going to miss a few billion tons, and look at all the cargo we receive in return.

Every now and then someone suggests we could melt some of this dirt down and make goods ourselves. But that's too hard, we'd rather invest in more mines than factories.
Belief in the cargo cult is obviously as strong in our world as in the tropical islands.

The money will keep coming. In America their deficit is $2.8 trillion, and unless they fix their fiscal deadlock - maybe even let the President run the country once in a while - it could reach $6 trillion by end of 2015.

If you want to see that figure, write down 6 followed by 12 zeroes. Six million million. Such an unimaginable figure that no-one can take it seriously. Alas it's not straw and bamboo, it's real. And somewhere down the line we've got to earn it.

And don't think "Oh that's America's and Europe's problem". We're all shackled on the same chain gang, if one goes over the edge the others eventually follow. And no bamboo aeroplane is going to come to the rescue. Happy new year.


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