BY TERRY DONNELLY

Certain economists and, more recently, politicians are fond of an aphorism: “a rising tide lifts all boats.” The problem is that, while it can be empirically observed in any marina, it doesn’t translate as a metaphor for economics.

There is evidence to attribute the quote to John F. Kennedy. His speechwriter, Ted Sorenson, says he discovered it as a slogan for a New England Chamber of Commerce––makes sense, that’s sailing country. Sorenson used it in a speech JFK gave and Kennedy, being a lifelong water-person, liked it and used it repeatedly as a social reference. Since then economists who tout supply-side theories have hijacked the saying and misused it.

When touting regressive tax cuts, most recently in 2017, where the wealthiest and large corporations got the lion’s share of the monetary relief, proponents are glibly letting the words roll off their tongues, hoping the literal vision of all boats rising will cloud the reality of economics not working anything like that. They want us to believe that giving a lot of extra money to companies and wealthy Americans will “raise all the boats in the harbor” because money will eventually make its way into pockets of the poor when, regardless of demand, the rich owners hire and produce more goods simply because they have more money. File this right next to the Tooth Fairy.

“Rising tides lift all boats” expressed as economic theory doesn’t work—it only works in bodies of water. Money given to the top tier of wealth holders tends to stay there. A better water-related metaphor would be to visualize a lock in the Panama Canal––water (capital) gets pumped into one lock (the rich one with yachts and cruisers) hoisting those boats, while the rafts and rowboats relegated to the poorer lock, go down. 

The only boat those struggling to make ends meet, those needing a better job, and those in medical or family crisis need is a boatload of cash to spend improving their lot in life––at the same time creating more demand and juicing the economy. Demand for goods and services is the only corporate motivation for creating new businesses, more hiring, and increased production. The resulting improved economy, the economy those struggling stimulated through increased buying, is the only way working-class people can get ahead. Money given to them goes directly into circulation and the economy booms. Money given to already rich people and profitable companies tends to go into individual accounts or corporate stock, never again to see the light of day, slowing, not increasing, the cycle of money to consumers who buy goods and create demand.

The 2017 tax law is all the proof anyone needs. Corporations got huge tax cuts and bought company stock to further feed the corporate leaders and wealthy stockholders. Donald Trump proudly announced to his cronies at his exclusive Miami resort, “I’ve just made you all a lot richer.” Meanwhile, the middle class and hourly workers may have seen a few dollars, but it didn’t last and didn’t raise their economic boat.

African-Americans completely understand how wrong it is to pretend when the rich get richer, so does everyone else. Equal to the empirical knowledge seafarers have of high tide, black communities are living proof that the aphorism does not translate into a metaphor. They have seen the economy ebb and rise for 150 years and never once did their “boat” of economic wealth buoy an inch. A 2016 study found staggering racial wealth disparities. The average white family has worth of $171,000 while the average black family claims only $17,150. That’s a factor of ten! On average, white families are ten times wealthier than black families. Living this truth, black families reject the ruse and, in unison, call B.S. when some conservative politician tries to sell them a regressive tax cut or any other supply side economic remedy. 

African Americans are not a monolithic voting bloc, but their understanding that the Republican economic trickle-down preference does not result in any movement toward closing the wealth gap. This knowledge is what leads black voters to cast ballots for Democrats at an 89% rate. 

Democratic policy of getting money into the hands of those who will spend it has always been critically referred to as “socialist” by conservative thinkers. The recipients of that money are looked down upon as feeding off an economy they did not create and receiving money earned by others they do not deserve. Ronald Reagan’s slur, “Welfare Queens,” was a divisive, downward shove on all boats not in the rising canal lock. Conversely, liberal thinkers put forth workable plans for public assistance to increase opportunity by getting money, housing, food, and healthcare programs into the daily lives of those who would otherwise not have them. It is nearly impossible for a homeless, sick, hungry family to get jobs and begin to thrive. Safety nets are geared toward improving all of society and eliminate a drain on our economy. Monetary assistance does not create a class of non-workers and takers, it creates a larger working class who have the opportunity to contribute to the economy both as consumers and producers rather than being marooned with the ability to do neither.  

Until their boats rise (the income gap lessens) due to actions taken by

Terry Donnelly is a retired teacher. He taught in public schools in Kentucky, Michigan, and Colorado. He was an adjunct faculty member instructing teachers and teacher trainees at Michigan State University, University of Colorado, and Adams State College in Colorado.