Punchinello’s Chronicles

November 19, 2008

America, the Economy & the Titanic Metaphor

Filed under: Just Thinking — Punchinello @ 12:36 am
Tags: , , ,

A lot of people seem to be coming up with the Titanic as a metaphor fot today’s cultural, social, and economic conditions. The passenger liner was billed as “unsinkable,” and left from Southampton, England, bound for New York City on April 10, 1912. As we all know, she struck an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland four nights later, April 14. The Titanic sank, taking the lives of 1,517 people, an astounding catastrophe.

We lost 3,000 people, as best as can be determined, with the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, but the Titanic disaster still captures our imagination. Some of it was the recent movie, but throughout our culture and language, people use the sinking of the Titanic to reference over-confidence, the “impossible” happening, disregard for conditions, and so forth.

Is the Titanic voyage a valid metaphor for today’s conditions? Does it apply to the entire course and existence of the United States, or should it only apply and refer to the American economy?

Many thoughtful people from both parties (i.e., conservatives in both parties) would say that no, we’re facing a severe economic slowdown, but it isn’t catastrophic. It’s an adjustment to the markets based on unusual but temporary conditions.

Many others, also conservatives, see our current situation as strongly similar to the perception of the captain and crew of the fated ship. This particular article assumes that the economy is in very bad shape, and that it isn’t a temporary “glitch.”

So the question becomes, where are we in the metaphorical story? Have we already struck the “iceberg?” Or are we just leaving Southampton? Will the outcome be the near total loss of the country? Or will it be the loss of “only” the economy as we know it? If we’re going to accept (or at least stipulate) the metaphor, it seems to me we should at least all be at the same place in the story.

Personally, I believe we’re about 1 day out from Southampton, sailing smoothly but with a sense that there’s ice in the water up ahead.

Without actually reading the story, many people don’t know that another serious disaster nearly took place. As the Titanic was leaving the dock, being one of the largest ships ever built, the wake of the gigantic propellors tore another ship away from its moorings. The passenger liner New York was pulled toward the passing Titanic, missing a collision by only four feet. That near collision delayed the overall departure.

It’s a question of perspective, and another one involving analysis. How bad, exactly, are current conditions? Are we in something similar to the Great Depression? Will the stock market begin to level off, or have we only just now begun the slide downward? How long will conditions continue as they are?

Have we hit the iceberg and are now sinking, or have we barely left the docks, filled with confidence that nothing really serious can actually happen?

America, as a nation, is incredibly strong! The entire history of the country has been based on personal freedom, representative government, and some sort of vague capitalism. We have zero history of totalitarian controls, dictatorships, and martial law. Given that long historic memory, it seems very unlikely to me that the entire country would sink totally, leaving behind nothing.

The Roman Empire lasted 700 years, thereabouts, and it took a very long time for it to entirely vanish into the ocean of history. Likewise, I doubt that any sort of liberal ideology could wipe out the fundamental concept and basis for the United States.

From my view of things, I’d suggest that the Titanic metaphor applies only to the economy. Despite the fact that 1,517 people were killed, there were 2,222 people on the ship. The death toll was 68%, not 100%. Indeed, 705 people survived that night on the Atlantic.

So too, I suspect that if Congress does pass the fillibuster-proof “magic number,” and Mr. Obama has a blank check to fundamentally redefine the country, we would lose a huge percentage of our wealth, lifestyle, security, population, and position in the world. But not everything.

If Obama puts into place even some of the astounding propositions he’s dreamed up, it seems reasonable that 60% of America’s business foundation could go under. A bail-out of the past-glorious Detroit automobile industry would do nothing whatsoever, but it would have a huge cascade effect as that “ship” went down.

We can postpone the inevitable, continue to support failed businesses, continue to bail out failed administrative systems. We can nationalize the collapsing manufacturing companies, but it won’t change anything in the end. No amount of euphoric, celebratory congratulations that the American economy is “unsinkable” means that it’s a true fact.

Just so, the large population of voters, aministrators, business owners, politicians, and academics who can “prove” that the economy is only facing a nominal problem, are fools. Unfortunately, when there are 100-million people who need to be educated in reality, that isn’t going to happen in schools.

The only way to teach reality to tens of millions of people is for them to experience that reality directly. No amount of logic, theory, analysis, warning, and questioning would have made the slightest dent in the confidence of everyone associated with the Titanic. Even when they struck the iceberg, nobody believed it was anything more than a serious collision.

It took the true sight, that night, of the three propllers, two of them spanning more than 23 feet (taller than a typical two-story house!), tilting up into the sky as the ship went down. It took the freezing water, the terrified screams and last-moment prayers floating up in the darkness. In short, it took a catastrophe of such epic proportions that it entered into the national consciousness before people actually learned something.

Coincidentally, 1912 was only a few years prior to the collapsing banking system that began around 1927. The 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center took place 7 years ago. I wonder if there’s a symbolic association there? Are we looking at 2014 as that start of everything? Or does history work on that close of a schedule?

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