Cargo cult: Why America cannot have nice things

Well, I’ve been afraid of changing

‘Cause I’ve built my life around you

But time makes you bolder

Even children get older

And I’m getting older too

   – Fleetwood Mac

According to media reports, the Biden administration is planning to announce 100% tariffs on imports of Chinese electric vehicles. The President needs to nail down the union vote and protect his right flank from “weak on China” accusations before November.

EV tariffs are a cheap solution to both problems. Americans won’t feel a thing. China exports a negligible number of cars to the US. Fat, stupid and happy – American life will carry on as if nothing happened.

The average price of a new vehicle in the US is US$48,000. In the Ford F-150 line-up, that’s a mid-range XLT variant. It’s a Toyota Crown in mid-level Nightshade trim.

And it’s a Tesla Model 3 with the long-range, dual motor, all-wheel drive package. These are all commendable vehicles and Americans should be the envy of the world for having such excellent motoring choices.

No… no they should not. Compared to what’s now on offer in China, Americans are paying outrageous prices for absolute dog piles. For $40,000, Chinese buyers can get a top-of-the-line Tesla Model S equivalent dual-motor 4WD BYD Han.

Hyundai cut prices on its Sonata sedan from $42,000 to $17,000. And for $11,000, Chinese consumers can buy a BYD Qin plug-in hybrid for less than half the US price of Toyota’s equivalent Corolla hybrid.  

Biden’s saving grace is that most Americans do not know that they don’t have nice things. Few Americans lament the lack of high-speed rail. How can you miss what you never possessed?

If you’ve never experienced 300 Mbps download speeds, you won’t question AT&T marketing 100 Mbps as 5G. If every student goes $40,000 into debt to pay for college, it’s not considered a burden on America’s young.

New York City’s subway has always been like that. And if Chinese EVs are not available in the US, people will continue to buy $48,000 dog piles and like it.

Of course, the pretense can’t go on forever. There are intelligent well-traveled people in America who know what goes on in other parts of the world. Unfortunately, they haven’t had much success bringing those nice things home.

For decades, China has systematically on-shored the best the world has to offer. While still missing a few key pieces (cutting-edge chip fabs and commercial airplanes), the systematic process has been a spectacular success.

Cargo cults were religious movements in Pacific Melanesia where members aped the behavior of advanced societies in hopes of summoning valuable “cargo” to their islands.

This sometimes involved the construction of elaborate but comical copies of advanced technology and infrastructure like wooden airplanes and mock landing strips which always failed to achieve the desired effect.

Somewhere in the San Joaquin Valley of California sits 1,600 feet of a recently completed high-speed rail track which the California High-Speed Rail Authority proudly christened the “Fresno River Viaduct.” It took nine years to build and somehow cost $11 billion.

Two years after Congress allocated $7.5 billion to build 500,000 EV charging stations, seven have been completed. TSMC’s Arizona chip fab has been called a “debacle” by media outlet Rest of the World, rife with employee dissension, make-work and high turnover.

According to the WSJ, the Pentagon has sent thousands of military-grade drones to Ukraine only for them to be rejected in favor of cheaper and more reliable off-the-shelf models from China’s DJI.

Every naval strategist is advocating for a Whole of Government Effort (WOGE) to revitalize American shipbuilding, whose capacity has fallen to 0.4% of China’s. There are a lot of eggheads running around Washington these days advocating for WOGEs of all kinds.

This is across the political spectrum from clean energy WOGEs to military industrial base WOGEs to science and technology WOGEs to education reform WOGEs. WOGEs are all the rage and have been assigned magical properties by their advocates.

Anthropologists now dismiss the clownish “cargo cult” conceptualization as reductive. Traditional island cultures were crashing up against modern technology resulting in wrenching change and societal upheaval that only sometimes expressed themselves in comical ways.

Island societies were long led by “big men” who set agendas, doled out resources and settled disputes. Men who could not reciprocate in these social relations were considered “rubbish men.” When the modern world came crashing in with their “cargo”, island big men and all the favors they previously dispensed plummeted in value, making “rubbish men” of entire societies.

Social entrepreneurs emerged promising to summon valuable cargo, return the islands to a previous golden age and/or restore traditional morality. The silly airplanes, landing strips and control towers were a minor part of the movement, derogatorily hyped by Western snickering.

Ultimately, “cargo cults” were attempting to establish new political relationships and hierarchies in societies upended by sudden contact with the modern world.

Han Feizi has some sympathy for the California High-Speed Rail Authority and the Washington WOGE activists on a sociological level. How different, after all, are cargo cults from Qing Dynasty boxers who waged a heroic but futile rebellion against foreign occupiers?

Sympathy cannot, however, override the fact that cargo cults were a blind alley for the Melanesians as they groped their way toward joining the modern world, just as the Boxer Rebellion made things worse for Qing Dynasty China.

A budget and a mandate is as useless for building high-speed rail as a thatch and wood airplane is for delivering cargo if the commission responsible refuses help from experts in the field. Just as transitioning America to clean energy isn’t made easier by blocking the lowest cost and most advanced products from American markets.

To be sure, Han Feizi understands why massive tariffs are being implemented. Without them, American car companies will not survive the decade. The economic and societal fallout of losing such a pivotal industry is unfathomable.

This, of course, has been the justification for multiple “just this once” bailouts of the industry from the “chicken tax” on imported pickup trucks to guaranteed loans to export quotas on Japanese cars to more guaranteed loans to EV subsidies to, now, 100% tariffs on Chinese EVs.

It begs the question of why General Motors, Ford, Jeep/Dodge and Tesla are reporting massive profits while Americans suffer a cost of living crisis, not helped by $50,000 pick-up trucks with $12,000 margins?

It begs the question why Ford and GM were allowed to return $12 billion and $18 billion to investors respectively through massive share buybacks over the last decade on top of generous dividends?

General Motors, Ford and Jeep/Dodge have shown no ability to rise to the occasion and have never been held accountable for squandering decades of government largesse.

Expecting the Big Three to catch up to China’s EVs under government protection is cargo cult behavior which will become increasingly obvious as consumers in the Global South start driving better cars than Americans.

The US successfully twisted Japan’s arm in the 1990s, forcing them to build local factories. China forced all multinationals to manufacture domestically through local JVs. The US, however, might not be able to pull off something similar this time around.

The US has not been the world’s largest car market for 15 years, selling only half as many units as China. And not just China – the Global South now buys three times as many cars as the US. America, as they say, will not be negotiating from a position of strength.

It is also entirely unclear whether politicians will trust Chinese cars – even when made in the US – fearing millions of spies on wheels rolling through American streets.

Bytedance’s experience with TikTok should give Chinese automakers pause; after achieving mass adoption and dazzling success, politicians moved in for the steal. For 13% of global markets (6% excluding pickup trucks), is it worth the aggravation?

According to political scientist Mancur Olson, democracies are not equipped to resist policies where the benefits are concentrated but costs dispersed.

The 100% tariff on Chinese EVs will likely become another sedimentary layer of inefficiency that accumulates in the late-stage democracy politically captured by interest groups.

The chances of Detroit rising to the occasional are, let’s face it folks, similar to the chance of California completing the high-speed rail project ahead of schedule and under budget.

Cargo cults no longer exist in Melanesia. It was an unfortunate but perhaps unavoidable phase for a society upended by modernity. China’s Boxers fortified themselves for their rebellion through mystical practices which made them impervious to bullets. It didn’t work.

Every society must cross its river of denial and pain to reach the shores of modernity. America is no exception.

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