America is an enormous ship of state, too big and complicated for any single person to control it…
Our ship of state is an old-fashioned square-rigged treasure galleon, but with a crew of 16 million. That’s the number of people employed by America’s federal, state, and local governments. This makes for a vessel three times the size of Norway (population 5,375,000). We the people put the wind in the sails, or at least we blow a lot of hot air at them. But the ship itself remains as hard to launch, maneuver, turn around, or dock as Scandinavia… especially since there’s no one steering.
We the people put the wind in the sails, or at least we blow a lot of hot air at them.
Of course, in theory, there’s a captain – the president. But that’s just one of the helmsmen. There are also 435 congressmen, 100 senators, and nine Supreme Court justices with their hands on the wheel.
Let’s assume that this gang of jack-tars trying to steer all agree on which direction the boat should go. (That has never happened but, for fun, let’s say it does.) Trump gets reelected, holds the Senate, and retakes the House – “Right full rudder!” Or Biden wins, keeps the House, takes the Senate, and the ghost of Ruth Bader Ginsburg comes to Amy Coney Barrett and Clarence Thomas in their dreams and convinces them to join People For the American Way – “Left full rudder!”
But somebody still has to go around convincing the ship of state’s 16 million crew members – busy battening hatches, furling mainsails, weighing anchors, shivering timbers, and whatever else it is that sailors do on sailboats – to get with the program and make sure something happens with the steering gear. Trump hasn’t had much luck in the past four years. And Biden strikes me as being about as effective as The Skipper, captain of the S.S. Minnow on Gilligan’s Island.
We do have a “deep state” in America, but mostly in the sense that grand political plans usually walk the plank and wind up in Davey Jones’ Locker. (Or beached on Gilligan’s Island – a “shallow state” can wreck plans too.) Meanwhile, America drifts where the ebb and flow of circumstance take it.
The two most important of all political issues – war and the economy – also take their own course, independent of our domestic partisan politics.
The political parties claim to be able to navigate us around or through war hazards and economic crises… But the pilots they bring on board are often hopeless landlubbers looking through the wrong end of the telescope with their nautical charts upside down. (I’d say we’ve got two of them on offer this November 3.)
In fact, Republicans and Democrats often take us to exactly where you’d expect they wouldn’t…
For the past 150 years, the most broadly punishing financial panics, business recessions, and economic depressions have begun while for-the-love-of-money Republican presidents were in power, rather than when share-the-wealth Democrats were in charge:
• The Long Depression of 1873-1879 – Ulysses S. Grant
• Panic of 1882 – Chester Alan Arthur
• Panic of 1893 – Benjamin Harrison
• Panic of 1907 – Theodore Roosevelt (Ok, trust-busting TR was tough on big business so maybe we can blame this on his inner Democrat.)
• The Great Depression – Herbert Hoover
• Stagflation of 1973-1975 – Richard Nixon
• Dot-com Bubble Burst – George W. Bush
• The Great Recession – W. again
To add perplexity to paradox, during most of the 20th century it was the internationalist, peace-loving, why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along Democrats, not the bellicose, saber-rattling Republicans who sent the nation into combat:
• WWI – Woodrow Wilson, who’d been elected on the promise he’d keep us out.
• WWII – FDR, who’d been elected promising something similar, though less of it.
• Korea – Truman (who, in fairness, made no such promises).
• Vietnam – JFK and LBJ.
The pattern became proverbial. “Elect a Republican, get a depression. Elect a Democrat, get a war.”
Of course, since then, the pattern has gotten mixed up, with Republicans taking the lead in sending troops to godforsaken places and Democrats doing their best to impoverish us all with high taxes, social spending, regulatory interference, and vows to implement lots more of all three.
If there ever was a pattern… you think you know what party is what, then that party goes all whatchamajigger.
If there ever was a pattern… you think you know what party is what, then that party goes all whatchamajigger. First it was the Democrats who favored low tariffs and free trade, then it was the Republicans. First it was the Republicans who supported racial equality, then the Democrats took over. Democrats used to be able to count on blue-collar workers, then there was nothing left to count. Southerners once were “yellow dog Democrats.” They’d “vote for a yellow dog” rather than vote Republican, then southerners elected the mutt. John F. Kennedy lowered taxes. George H. W. raised them.
History teaches us a lesson… that there is no lesson.
History teaches us a lesson… that there is no lesson. War and the economy are chaos theory without the theory… War and the economy both possess such an infinity of causative factors and such a boundlessness of effective results that cause-and-effect analysis should be confined to Poly Sci and Econ classes and then the classroom doors should be locked from the outside.
The creation of wealth contains too many instances of happenstance to be claimed as a partisan issue. One less Henry Ford and I’d have a pair of yoked oxen in my carport… instead there’s a Volvo. The destruction of wealth can be equally unaccountable. A wild turkey ran out in the road in front of my 16-year-old son (who’d had his driver’s license for three whole days) and he rammed the Volvo into a tree.
War is that wild turkey… I’ve been hunting turkeys for years. Why are they so smart when I’ve got my gun in the woods? Why are they so dumb when they’ve got my son in a car? And how do we respond to those turkeys overseas who think they’re so smart that they start a dumb war? I’m not sure that either Biden or Trump would propose the policy I proposed to my son: “Hit the turkey! For the price of a car wash we can have Thanksgiving dinner.”
And I’m also not sure I care how this election turns out. One thing I know for certain is that COVID-19 will have its vote counted. A virus doesn’t have a brain, so it may be a Democrat. On the other hand, this virus is mean enough to be a Republican. Novel coronavirus probably doesn’t care how this election turns out either.
Trump has done some useful work pumping the tax and regulatory bilges on our ship of state. But he also blows the Twitter foghorn at all hours of the day and night (although the fog seems to be mostly in his own head). This is making us passengers sleepless and irritable and testy with each other. His treatment of illegal immigrant stowaways has been more hard-hearted but no more hard-headed than the previous administration’s. Plus Trump keeps throwing the ship’s senior officers overboard.
Biden promises… Well, what doesn’t he promise? He’ll keelhaul the people who usually sit at the Captain’s Table, put everybody in steerage into first-class cabins, make sure the ship’s hull is biodegradable, and sail it straight into the hurricane of climate change.
Scary. Board the lifeboats. Persons and disadvantaged children first. But will anybody be listening when Biden gives his orders? And will he remember to give them?
Taxes will rise if Biden wins. But neither candidate shows any signs of stemming the cancerous growth of the federal debt and deficit. And the cost of unleashed inflation, loss of the U.S. dollar as the international reserve currency, and subsequent steep devaluation may make the cost of higher taxes look trivial. You can hire a tax accountant to keep your taxes down, but you’d have to hire the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, and the Marines to keep foreign governments buying up U.S. Treasury bonds.
It may be important who gets to appoint federal judges. But when you make a lifetime judicial appointment, it can be hard to make sure that square judge stays in the square hole where he or she has been pegged. They’re lawyers. Lawyers are trained to go round and round. Lawyers are, after all, members of the only respectable profession that’s paid to betray its cause. Wednesday: Attorney for the defendant, Antelope v. Cheetah. Thursday: Attorney for the plaintiff, Wildebeest v. Lion. They’re like doctors who treat their patients by day and take their patients to super-spreader events by night.
Chief Justice John Roberts gave Obamacare a pass. RBG and Antonin Scalia were best friends. She had a surprisingly libertarian/conservative record on legal process and procedure. Eisenhower appointed Chief Justice Earl Warren in 1954 to counterbalance a Supreme Court otherwise filled with FDR and Truman appointees. The Warren Court, with the help of another Ike Justice William J. Brennan, went on to be the most liberal in American history (albeit often in a good way, such as Brown v. The Board of education).
Both candidates are one-term presidents. Trump because he’s at the end of his term limits. Biden because he’s at the end of his rope. Second-term presidencies are famous for failing to do much more than what was done in the first term. Single-term presidencies are famous for failing, period.
Americans are not “all in the same boat” on a single vessel headed to a certain destination by way of a particular route. America is a flotilla of small craft – 328 million of them.
But the main reason for my not caring much about how this election turns out is the way I see my country… I personally don’t view America as an enormous ship of state. Or, if it is, it’s one where we all get to jump ship whenever we want. Americans are not “all in the same boat” on a single vessel headed to a certain destination by way of a particular route. America is a flotilla of small craft – 328 million of them. Our freedom allows us to each have our own skiff, dinghy, canoe, kayak, barge, freighter, yacht, or jet ski. Some are fast and powerful. Others are a little leaky with only one oar. But we are all our own commanders… And we go where we damn well please.
The candidates are little figures on a distant shore. At best they might build a lighthouse, and at worst they’re just beach bums. But however they turn out, when we hoist our Jolly Rogers and head out to sea, they’ll be landlocked in the White House.