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Titanic Stupidity

I have been trying to think of some way to understand the idiocy that is currently going on in Washington.  The idea that there is any other political ambition that would justify allowing the United States to act like some Banana Republic and default on its obligations is simply insanity.  Many of the people involved in this process are ideologues, but few of them are actively stupid (I think).  The ones who are actively stupid could be easily out-voted by those who are not if the latter group would just deal with the realities of the situation instead of trying to use it to advance some other political agenda:  the crushing of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obama Care).

Obama Care may be a very bad idea (I don’t think so, but I sure could be wrong).  But even if it is, it is not nearly as bad an idea as running the economy into the ground.  So why, I ask myself, are these people – who have to understand the damage they will do to an already weak economy – willing to play chicken on this issue?  Over the last two days, an answer has come to me from a strange direction and over 100 years ago.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to visit an amazing new museum  in Belfast, Northern Ireland,  It is dedicated to the tragedy that was the maiden voyage of The Titanic. On April 15,1912, the Titanic set sail from England with 2,224 passengers and crew aboard.  Over 1500 of them died that same day in a totally preventable disaster that was the result of ego, greed, shortsightedness and arrogance.  Does this sound familiar?

The ego was that the designers and builders of this huge ship convinced themselves that they had designed and built a ship that was disaster immune.  It not only had a double hull, which would be hard to penetrate, but it had a large number of water tight compartments with automatic doors which would prevent any penetration of the hull from causing a sudden trip to the bottom.  At the very worst, the ship, if disabled, would remain afloat while the passengers were ferried to other ships which would surely answer a distress call and save everyone.  That was the plan.

Of course, the iceberg that the Titanic struck tore the double hull apart and caused the simultaneous flooding of too many compartments to make the  ship even marginally viable.  In addition, although the Titanic had very good radio equipment, other, older, ships did not – it was before WWI –  and its distress calls fell on deaf ears.

In short, the designers and builders of the Titanic had no realistic grasp of the consequences of their assumptions being wrong or of the ability of their plan to ride out that initial error.  Sound familiar?  Think those who are willing to trash the credit of the country and shut down many of its operations (including large sections of the military) understand what the consequences of their actions are likely to be?  If they do understand the potential consequences and are still willing to string us all up, they are either ignorant, evil, or they do not care what they do to the country so long as they can trash Obama.

The short sightedness of the people who owned the Titanic is pretty hard to believe, as were the government regulations, which were largely the product of input of ship owners trying to cut costs.  The Titanic set sail with less than enough lifeboats to take even half of the passengers off of the ship – forget the crew.  That met the minimum regulations, and it allowed the owner to avoid the expense of the purchasing the lifeboats while using the saved space to take on more passengers, creating more revenue.  They let their greed overcome good sense and cut this incredibly important corner because they could and because, after all, the ship was disaster proof, right?  Why take up valuable space that can be used for more passenger cabins with lifeboats nobody is going to need, ever?  Does that sort of “Everything is going to be all right and there is nothing to lose by doing what best suits us” sound familiar?

The Titanic was opulently decorated.  Great care was given to how it looked and felt while safety and common sense were ignored.

Somehow the attitude of those who are willing to trash the country economically because they believe Obama Care is socialized medicine seems the same kind of mind set.  This is especially true because every time they get asked what they want to offer in its place, they change the subject.  I don’t think they want to return to a day when the old, the young, the sick and infirm were left to their own devices.  At least I hope they aren’t.

But they seem to have been made short sighted by greed.  Not greed for money, greed for power.  They want to hear the roar of an approving crowd, even if that approving crowd is a small percentage of the people they are supposed to represent.  That approval seems almost like an addictive drug to some people (and the people who are playing “Chicken” with our economy are by no means the only ones who have fallen into this crowd romance – there are plenty of other political persuasions who genuflect at the alter approval by a small group).  However, while the others are in a position to hear applause, the people I am talking about are in a position to sink the ship, and seem to be forgetting that we are all on it together.

Finally, there was the arrogance.  The arrogance that caused the captain of the ship to cancel the life boat drill, so that when there was an emergency, people did not know what to do, resulting in panic.  Many of the life boats that were there left with many empty seats.  There was the arrogance which caused the captain to ignore the telegram he had gotten warning that there were a lot of ice bergs in the area.  The Titanic was going about 22 knots when the collision happened, nearly its maximum speed.  Two crewmembers were assigned as lookouts for potential hazards, but they were not supplied binoculars or telescopes.  They saw the iceberg, but it was too late – it takes a while to turn a ship that big.

Well, guess what.  The Titanic was able to turn on a dime compared with what will happen if we  are not able to pay our debts short term.  And that is what a refusal to extend the debt ceiling will cause: an inability to pay our debts short term.  Interest on government bonds, social security, payments to health care providers, money for schools, salaries and support for our troops in the field, the list goes on and on.

The designers and builders of the Titanic were sure they were right, so they ignored commonsense measures to guard against being wrong.  I fear we are watching that kind of ego, greed, shortsightedness and arrogance again.  Except this time we do not have 2224 people on board.

Our passenger list is over 300,000,000.

Dugan Barr has practiced law in Redding since 1967. He has tried more than 200 civil jury cases to verdict. He is married and has five children. The offices of Barr and Mudford, LLP, are at 1824 Court St. in Redding and can be reached at 243-8008.