I saw a ship of martial build
(Her standards set, her brave apparel on)
Directed as by madness mere
Against a stolid iceberg steer,
Nor budge it, though the infatuate ship went down.
Herman Melville, The Berg (A Dream)
The Titanic has been a major topic of discussion at my house for a couple months. I’m not sure where the interest in all things shipwreck-and-iceberg related came from–these obsessions are often a mystery to me–but the boys have devoured every book on the Titanic from the Minneapolis Library’s children’s section, and a fair number from the adult section. They know all the facts and figures about the ship’s size, means of propulsion, and passenger accommodations (as I’ve noted before, kids are really smart about the things they care about), and they ask a lot of really tough questions about why it sank and how the sinking was handled.
Their interest in the Titanic is probably similar to the interest that some kids have in fairy tale monsters and horror stories: they’ve found something that they fear, and by learning as much about it as they can they master that fear, or at least build contingencies around it. We’ve had similar discussions about Pompeii, tornadoes, and plane crashes, and I always try to respect their concerns and their solutions, and work out plans with them about what to do if we should suddenly encounter, say, a volcanic eruption somewhere in South Minneapolis.
One of their favorite books has been Eyewitness: Titanic. Like all the Eyewitness books, it’s packed with pictures and facts. And at the end of the book, it covers some “lessons learned” from the inquiries following the disaster. Many of these lessons were implemented, and passenger lines were considerably safer afterward.
It’s interesting that in transportation generally, humans are good at learning from their mistakes; one of our Cub Scout leaders drives the historic trolley at Lake Harriet, and he has explained to us that “every page of the motorman’s manual is written in blood.” And it’s equally interesting, and tragic, that we don’t apply our “lessons learned” in other spheres of human endeavor. So in the service of trying to apply the motorman’s and ship captain’s ethic to the current malaise, here are a few things that people learned after the Titanic sank that might make sense for our economic future.
Enough lifeboats for everyone
The tragedy of the Titanic was that there weren’t enough lifeboats for everyone on board. It carried 20 boats, with a maximum capacity of 1,178 people, but there were at least 2,223 passengers and crew. There were enough lifebelts for everyone, but since most of the victims died of hypothermia rather than drowning those were cruelly useless.
We have a similar lack of lifeboats in the American economy. As companies have shed employees like so much ballast, they’re being cast into choppy waters without benefit of health care, limited unemployment benefits, and little assistance to keep their homes. Indeed, many states are in the process of setting their lifeboats ablaze, cutting spending on social services as their revenues drop, precisely at the time when those services are most desperately needed.
The Titanic was in full compliance with British shipping regulations, though it could have carried more lifeboats. The White Star Line didn’t carry more lifeboats because they feared that the decks would be too cluttered with more boats, and the new and larger lifeboats were too expense. We’re similarly fearful of clutter and expense when we talk about improving our social safety net in the United States; but clutter and expense seem like minor inconveniences when the ship starts to sink.
Keep in radio contact
Another tragedy of the Titanic occurred in the radio operator’s room. Throughout the day of April 12, the Titanic’s wireless received numerous reports of heavy ice fields and large icebergs from other ships in the area. But the operators were too busy sending out vanity messages for the first-class passengers (radio from ships was a great novelty) to pass the warnings along. Indeed, when the last call about ice came in around 23:00, the Titanic’s operator snapped, “Shut up, shut up, I am busy” and took no more warnings.
When the tragedy occurred, and the Titanic began sending out its distress signals, the nearest ships were too far to respond. Some had even shut down their radios for the night. A massive failure of communication is at least in part to blame for the Titanic’s sinking.
The “Shut up, shut up, I am busy” response sounds a little like CNBC and the rest of the financial news industry in the years leading up to the financial meltdown. Though there were signs of trouble in the sub-prime and derivatives markets, and reasonable people were asking questions about unreasonable practices, exuberance was the tone of the day. The financial programs continued to send vanity messages from the first-class passengers long after the economy began to sink, drowning out the warnings and criticism that would have been very useful indeed to hear.
Water-tight compartments and firewalls go only so far
The Titanic was “unsinkable,” in large part because of its innovative design. It had sixteen “water-tight compartments” that could contain flooding to a section of the ship while protecting the rest of the ship, making it far more likely to survive without sinking. Unfortunately, the bulkheads proved not to be entirely water-tight, and five were breached by the collision and subsequent flooding; when the five compromised bulkheads filled with water, the Titanic snapped in half.
We’ve seen a similar failure in our economy, where financial institutions that should be protected from each other–mortgages, insurance, investment–have proved to be dangerously interwoven. AIG “insured” incredibly foolish investments in incredibly foolish mortgage instruments, compromising what we’ve always been taught to believe is a safe and boring part of the economy. And when enough of the bulkheads failed across the financial industry, the economy snapped in half, sinking industries in now way directly related to the ones that caused the crisis.
Truly “water tight” engineering would have been inconvenient on the Titanic, forcing people to go up and down between decks to travel from stem to stern. And regulatory firewalls between, say, insurance and speculation, would have been likewise inconvenient and put a brake on the “innovation” in the financial markets. Sometimes brakes are good to have.
The Greeks had a word for it …
And that word, of course, was “hubris.” If you really believe that you’re unsinkable, indestructible, you’ll be very unlikely to heed warnings and build contingency plans. Of course the Titanic didn’t need more than 20 lifeboats; of course we don’t need to weigh down our economy with the taxes necessary to build a social safety net; the ship will sail on, the economy will grow, and everything will always be good and getting better.
The opposite of hubris is humility. It’s a recognition that “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley” and that we can’t always predict the nature and the hour of their collapse. Contingency planning, frugality, and caution are useful tendencies to cultivate, but it’s too late to cultivate them after the disaster strikes. We can only hope that they’ll be written down and codified in preparation for the next disaster, so even if we can’t avoid the icebergs we can at least save all the passengers and crew.