THE Global Justice Movement Website

THE Global Justice Movement Website
This is the "Global Justice Movement" (dot org) we refer to in the title of this blog.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Keynesian Cargo Cult, I: Reflections on Easter

You think of the strangest things in church when you should be paying attention to the sermon. Yesterday being Easter, the train of thought started from the station when a number of people in the congregation (obviously there for the first time since Christmas) messed up the new responses. Instead of saying, "And with your spirit" in response to "The Lord be with you," they started to say, "And also with you." This turned the response into, "And all-ow-so-ith your spirit."

This led to remembering what some people (not this writer, who clearly has better things to do) call attendees who show up only at Christmas and Easter: "Christmas Angels" and "Easter Bunnies." From there I slipped into a brief meditation wondering how the Easter Bunny (and, by extension, Santa Claus) evolved from a celebration based on Passover and involving death by torture.

I decided it didn't really matter — which hardly justified not paying attention in church. Belief in a mystical or mythical being who brings you goodies or presents and who expects nothing in return except your childlike faith and belief seems to be a stage of individual development in many cultures. It sets an example of selfless generosity, requiring only a vague "goodness" to qualify as a recipient, and it's not clear that the Easter Bunny even makes that relatively minor stipulation.

Some people have said that it's harmful to a child's development and integration into the real world to believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. They cite such presumably traumatic events as discovering that "Santa" is Dad in an undershirt and drinking a beer, or that the Easter Bunny got those chocolate eggs on sale at a dollar store.

Somehow I don't recall being devastated by finding out there's no Santa Claus or Easter Bunny. Some things you just accept without attaching any real importance. It's when a childlike belief in a being that distributes wealth is carried over into adult life that the damage is done — such as the bizarre antics associated with the "Cargo Cults" of the South Pacific . . . or Keynesian economics.

Actually, I thought I'd made a brilliant connection when I made the link between belief in Santa or the Easter Bunny, and the "Cargo Cults" and their resemblance to Keynesianism. Then I looked it up on Wikipedia and found out (as with many of my breakthroughs) that somebody had already thought of it. For example, the economist Bryan Caplan called communism the greatest cargo cult the world has ever seen (Commie Cargo Cult, Bryan Caplan, Library of Economics and Liberty EconLog blog February 24, 2011).

The physicist Richard Feynman coined the term "cargo cult science" in his 1974 Caltech commencement speech, and later included it in a chapter in his book Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, which was on my parents' bookshelf but that I never read. Feynman said that cargo cult science mimics real science (especially by publishing in scientific journals) but lacks genuine experimentation — in other words, a way to get or maintain a Ph.D. without actually having to come up with something that is verifiably true. (I have a whole other posting on how the desire of universities that once focused on education have succumbed to the lure of becoming "research universities," where tuition subsidizes work by overpaid tenured professors who don't profess, writing papers and books for each other, and running up the costs of education to astronomical heights.)

More to the point, in his novel The Trouble with Nigeria (1984), Chinua Achebe criticized the "cargo cult mentality" of the governments of many developing countries. They issue proclamations about how great things are going to be if they're elected, but don't do anything to try and establish the desired state of affairs, evidently thinking that the mere proclamation or the passage of a law or two will, in and of itself, do the job.