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Croton's Cargo Cult Economics

December 8, 2009

To the editor,

During the Second World War, the island of New Guinea was invaded first by the Japanese and then by Australian and American troops. Large amounts of supplies and war materiel were brought in by air, impressing the natives. Missionaries and colonial authorities normally present had been evacuated, and so the local villagers had no one to explain the significance of these large-scale war activities.

After the occupying troops departed at the conclusion of the war, religious cults sprang up in the belief that the goods brought in were originally intended for the native peoples and had been diverted by the foreigners. Leaders of these so-called “cargo cults” proclaimed that the manufactured goods of the invaders had been created spiritually by the natives’ own deities and ancestors, and were intended for them, but the foreigners had unfairly gained control of these objects by attracting the materials to themselves.

Examples of cargo cult activity included the clearing of mock airstrips in the jungle, construction of “hangars,” “offices” and “mess halls.” Western goods, such as “radios” made of coconuts and straw and “headphones” carved from wood, were used in mock control towers. Believers performed parade ground drills with wooden or salvaged rifles and painted their bodies with military and national insignia to look like soldiers, treating the activities of Western military personnel as rituals to attract the cargo. Having fabricated these items and performed the rituals, the cult members then waited patiently for the cargoes intended for them to arrive.

Croton will begin practicing its own form of what I call cargo cult economics at 7:30 p.m. next Tuesday. Letters have been sent out by the mayor to commercial property and business owners in Harmon inviting them to a meeting at the Kellerhouse Municipal Building. The Village’s website lists this as a meeting of the Economic Development Committee. Its purpose is to explain the opportunities under the recently passed zoning changes. Like suckers roped into attending a free time-share luncheon, attendees can expect to be pitched with an unrelenting spiel intended to encourage them to take advantage of the new law’s myriad of blessings.

Thus, the owner of a property with a retail establishment on the ground floor and an apartment on the floor above can undertake to raze the building and construct a new three-story structure closer to the sidewalk line. The advantage to those in adjoining residential areas behind the existing building is that the new building will be farther away. Left unsaid, undoubtedly, will be the fact that the space created will become an automobile parking lot.

Those who choose to remodel instead of rebuilding will have an equally daunting task. Most of the existing structures are what architects call “stick-built,” a method in which a sturdy skeleton of columns and beams was erected and then sheathed internally and externally. Because of the 35-foot total height limit, to create a third floor for an additional apartment, the heavy joists if the second floor attached to the building’s skeleton must be lowered, a major task, and additional third-floor joists, flooring and ceilings must be added above.

Rebuilt or remodeled, the resulting structures will not be inexpensive, In addition, business owners or apartment renters will have to vacate existing buildings during the process. The yield to the property owner in either case will be high building or remodeling costs, a higher assessment, higher taxes, and a third-floor walk-up apartment of doubtful desirability under the eaves. The added tax revenue for the Village will be negligible. So I say, “Welcome to cargo cult economics.” With outcomes like these, asking property owners to attend such a meeting is like asking a condemned man to bring the rope to his own hanging.

— Robert Scott, Croton-on-Hudson


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