RMS Titanic departing Southampton on April 10, 1912. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Pop quiz: What sank the Titanic? If you said “an iceberg,” well, not so much. If you said a failure of public policy in the form of lack of government inspections and oversight at the Belfast shipyard that built the Titanic, then you’re correct.

Among the things James Cameron brought back from the wreck of the Titanic as he was filming his epic blockbuster were bits of the ship’s hull plating and rivets that held the plating together. Metallurgical scientist studied these and concluded that the Harland & Wolff shipyard building the Titanic used substandard rivets on the ship’s hull plating.

Why? Because the shipyard was in serious financial straits and someone in management decided they could pad the bottom line by shaving a smidge of a pence per rivet using substandard materials.

No doubt they figured that, as long as the ship’s captain didn’t do something stupid like hitting an iceberg, everything would be fine. When the boat struck the iceberg the initial hole caused by the ice shouldn’t have been enough to sink the unsinkable vessel.

As a scene in the movie portrayed, it was the substandard rivets that popped all down the starboard side of the boat after the impact — POP POP POP — that caused multiple compartments below the water line to flood, dooming the boat and 1,500 souls.

And how did Harland & Wolff get away with cheating the White Star Line of its boat and passengers of their lives? That’s right — lack of government regulation and inspection at the Belfast shipyard. In short the Titanic’s victims were victims of bad government policies.

Flash forward to our current COVID-19 crisis.

A pandemic of this magnitude would be disruptive and dangerous under the best of government policies. But couple this pandemic with 40 years of government policies fixated on short-term economic gains for some while undercutting long term public health and general economic security for all and we have the real potential for the current crisis to turn in to an unmitigated national catastrophe.

San Diego Mesa College political scientist Carl Luna. Image via sandiego.edu

Forty years of bad policy, like so many substandard rivets holding together our national boat, now threaten to pop our economy and society at the seams and sink us all — even the corporations and investors the policies were supposed to benefit.

We adopted supply-side economic policies prioritizing investors over workers. The resulting decades of low/no growth wages now results in millions of paycheck to paycheck households having to chose between public health and going to work to pay rent and buy food — and catch/spread COVID-19. POP.

We failed to provide for affordable universal healthcare so people now delay seeking costly testing and treatment for the virus resulting in greater exposures to the rest of the population. POP POP.

We never passed universal paid family and sick leave compelling millions of Americans to continue working even if possibly exposed to the virus. POP POP POP.

We made it easy for businesses to fire workers relying on parsimonious unemployment insurance to keep laid off households solvent rather than providing policies to maintain stable employment thereby keeping households and businesses solvent during economic hard times. POP POP POP POP.

We tied health insurance to employment so as millions lose their jobs due to a pandemic they lose their healthcare and their families ability to deal medically with the pandemic cruelly intensifying suffering and loss of life. POP POP POP POP POP.

We did it all to allow corporations and their investors to reap ever greater profits in a globalized economy with the hope they’d plow the largess into greater worker productivity — and pay — even as they plowed huge shares of profits into a stock buybacks and other financial chicanery creating successive bubble economies that popped three times in the past four decades and is now popping again.

And now the government of We the People, so starved of revenues for decades through massive tax cuts for some of the people that we’ve dangerously shortchanged investments in our national health infrastructures and social safety net, is looking to bailout these same corporations and investors to the tune of trillions while throwing comparative crumbs — a few hundred dollars a week more — to workers. POP POP POP POP POP.

One by one all of these shortsighted bad policies have left us incredibly vulnerable to precisely the sort of pandemic crisis we are now experiencing.

Republicans and Democrats in Washington in responding to the crisis, however, continue the same old arguments — Republicans fighting for sending government support to corporations and investors and Democrats for sending way too little money to keep average households — and the national economy — afloat.

Does anyone outside of Washington really think an extra $600 million that won’t reach most households for weeks is the economic Horatio at the Bridge we need to stop a looming Depression? Does anyone really think that the trillions being used to prop up companies and markets will trickle-down once we’re all underwater?

Perhaps this is what happens when the passengers in First Class — congressmen living in the top 10%, funded by contributors in the top 5% — get together to figure out what to do for the bottom 90% traveling in steerage. They would all do well to remember that if our national Titanic sinks, it will take the Vanderbilts along with the no-named.

We may well (prayers offered, fingers crossed) ride out the COVID crisis and return to something like normal. But in a global age there will inevitably be more pandemic icebergs — be they biological or economic or both — that we will run into. And at some point we’re going to hit one that’s going to sink us completely unless we rebuild our national boat to be sure everybody is safe.

That’s why we need to get America into dry dock and replace the bad rivet policies of the past forty years with new rivets — a new national social contract that proves when we say “We the People” we mean All the people, and not just the investment class.

The COVID crisis is the defining moment of our times — the ultimate measure of the trickle down economics and social policies of the past 40 years, a test that laissez-faire politicians, CEOs and conservative media pundits can’t cheat their way through with rhetoric and sophistry.

There may be lies, damned lies and economic statistics — but you can’t hide corpses. Just ask the passengers on the unsinkable Titanic.

Carl Luna is a political science professor at San Diego Mesa College who has served as a visiting professor at University of San Diego since 1999. He also is co-chair of Restoring Respect, a community initiative promoting greater civility in San Diego dialog. This essay originally appeared on Luna’s blog.

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