Why Can't They Just Swim Harder?
The lie of trickle-down economics in a parable.
The origins of the phrase, “the rising tide raises all boats”, have been the subject of debate, but whatever its origins, the popularising of the phrase appears to be attributable to John F. Kennedy during his 1960 presidential campaign. What is ironic, given that the phrase was ultimately destined to become another Right-wing economic banality for justifying individual and corporate wealth hoarding and tax cuts, is that the contexts in which Kennedy used the phrase clearly indicated government investment and broad civic unity.
Among the litany of failed theories produced by the Chicago School of economics, the phrase “the rising tide raises all boats” stands out because it is a metaphor for a core tenet of this economic theory: so-called “trickle-down economics”. As nearly half-a-century of data unequivocally demonstrates, trickle-down economics is a clever bait-and-switch for a system of pour-up financialisation and wealth accumulation. Yet “the rising tide raises all boats” continues to constitute the gravamen of Right-wing economic thought, a manifestation of what economist Mark Blyth terms “the persistence of bad ideas”.
The persistence of bad ideas is not surprising. The world is full of them. And it is persistence that allows the worst humans to dominate the direction of our political systems, economic models, and social constructs. This is our world in 2022: bad humans armed with bad ideas and motivated by the bad arrogance and sociopathic predilections that late-stage capitalism rewards. Elon Musk. That such figures are revered not only for their financial success, but as apparent saviours of the planet, is testament to the obscene moral bankruptcy at the core of a culture for whom wealth is self-justifying.
When I think about “the rising tide raises all boats”, my mind juxtaposes the ideal espoused by the analogy with a parable of its reality. Because what “the rising tide raises all boats” doesn't tell you is that the harbourmaster and their minions were lavished with money by a select few who reside in the harbour on superyachts to ensure that they created the most favourable conditions upon which their superyachts can float. Periodically, the superyachts took on water as a result of the sheer negligence of their owners, who then found themselves facing the need to bail water overboard to stay afloat. Rather than have the owners of the superyachts do this work, however, the harbourmaster and minions would in fact bail the water out themselves for the superyacht owners, known in harbour parlance as "bailouts".
Because the harbourmaster and minions would never dream of asking the superyachters to pay for the repairs required to fix their own negligence, they would extract the money from the rest of the harbour's population, who resided in rickety old lifeboats built in the last century. This plunged the lifeboaters further into debt, preventing them from carrying out much needed repairs on their own rickety boats. Thus, the unwritten rules of the harbour were that they superyachts would never be allowed to sink, irrespective of how much damage they inflicted on the harbour.
When the lifeboaters appealed to the harbourmaster and minions for support to fix their ailing boats, they were told that the most terrifying words in the English language were “I'm from the harbourmaster and I'm here to help”. The harbourmaster and minions continually told the lifeboaters that the harbourmaster and minions were in fact the problem and they shouldn't trust how the harbour was run. This was all very confusing, of course, because the harbourmaster and minions were basically saying that they themselves were a crowd of untrustworthy fuckups who couldn't do or solve anything for anybody else, despite that being the reason for having a harbourmaster in the first place. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy for the harbour.
Even more confusing for the lifeboaters is that they were told by both the harbourmaster and minions and the superyachters that they should take responsibility for the state of their rickety old lifeboats, when in fact being responsible for the lifeboats was the only reason they were still afloat. They were told that they should aspire to be on a superyacht, and that the sole ingredient to get there was to work harder. Except, all of their effort went toward making sure their lifeboats, which were never more than a gust of wind away from sinking, stayed afloat.
And it is even more difficult when the conditions in the harbour had deteriorated so much. You see, the superyachts took to pumping all of the shit and piss from their boats straight into the water. This made no difference to life on the superyachts, because they had swimming pools on board and did not need to swim in the harbour water, and they had their food specially made onshore and flown out to the superyachts. When the lifeboaters became concerned about all of the shit and piss from the superyachts in the harbour water, they once again appealed to the harbourmaster and minions to do something to clean up the harbour.
Once again, the harbourmaster and minions threw their hands up and admitted they were incompetent fuckups who shouldn't be relied on, and that they couldn’t do anything because if they did it would be something called “nanny harbour”, and the lifeboaters needed to just get better at filtering shit and piss from the water. The lifeboaters were told that the superyachters were better at solving problems than the harbourmaster and minions, because they could do something called "innovation". This all seemed rather confusing because the superyachters were being trusted to solve a problem that they themselves were responsible for.
Nevertheless, the tide did indeed rise, but it was only capable of raising boats that were capable of floating. Eventually, the lifeboats reached such a state of disrepair that they could no longer stay above water. And so, the lifeboaters ended up in the water, kicking and flapping their arms to stay afloat. The superyachters, who were born on the superyachts and never had to learn to swim, looked into the water and wondered why the lifeboaters couldn’t just tread water harder. It became clear to the superyachters that the lifeboaters in the water just don't want to stay afloat badly enough. Ashore, little about the lifeboaters in the water caught the attention of the harbourmaster and minions. After all, as they saw it they had done their job and sold a contract to produce new lifeboats worth billions to one of their friends who owns a superyacht. However, the owner of the yacht decided it would be more "innovative" to put an extension onto the yacht and no new lifeboats ever reached the harbour.
The lifeboaters now didn't even have lifeboats, and flailed in the shit-and-piss-riddled waters of the harbour, while the superyachters looked on chastising them for being in the water and wondered why they don't have lifeboats. Clearly, the superyachters concluded, the lifeboaters were not responsible enough to even consider that they needed a boat to stay afloat and out of the shit-and-piss-riddled water. The superyachters felt that the plight of the lifeboaters in the water was justified, and that the lifeboaters in fact deserved to struggle to stay afloat in the shit-and-piss-riddled water. As the superyachters saw it, the lifeboaters should have been grateful to swim in their shit. And as the harbourmaster and minions saw it, swimming in the shit of the superyachters should have motivated the lifeboaters to quit treading water and just make their own superyacht.
And so the lifeboaters drowned, with mouths full of lumps of shit pumped from the SS Bezos into the harbour waters, and ears ringing with the mocking of the superyachters and the chastising cries of the harbourmaster and minions. It turned out that the rising tide did indeed raise all boats, but superyachts were the only boats capable of floating in the end.