Tom Evslin: The ship of state is taking on water

Editor’s note: Tom Evslin is an entrepreneur, author and former Douglas administration official. It was first published on his blog,

A million years ago when I was in college, my friends and I drove to Cornell for a party. Friends there had arranged blind dates and even a boat for an evening on Cayuga Lake. The boat was basically a raft with floatation provided by barrels underneath (I don’t think Styrofoam had been invented yet). There was a cabin on the raft and the flat roof on top of the cabin was the main location for drinking, socializing and attempted seduction. I, unfortunately, was running the outboard and steering us around the lake – my blind date didn’t like me.

For some reason too many people were on one side of the boat. The boat tipped that way. Everyone rushed to the high side. The boat tipped even further in the other direction. The next tip was so extreme that there was water on the low side of the deck. Now the panicking people were reinforcing the rocking motion. The top of the outboard was getting wet and I worried that it would stall and also that the barrels would come loose from under the raft. Drunks would drown and it would be all my fault.

Fortunately, a friend on the boat exercised his voice of authority and got everyone to stop in the middle. The rocking subsided; the drinking, socializing and attempted seduction resumed; and eventually I took us safely back to shore.

History is full of countries which rocked themselves into authoritarian leadership either of the left or the right – frightened people vote for stability.


I’m afraid that America is currently a rocking boat. We wanted “change”; we elected Obama. From my point of view, the ship of state tipped too far to the left: foreign policy was abysmally weak; more people were covered by health insurance than had been previously covered but the funding mechanism was (is) a Ponzi-scheme; the rich got richer; banks got bailed out; and the poor remained at least as dependent on government largess as they had been. Political correctness reached new lows, especially on campuses.

So we elected Trump. The ship of state rocked far in the other direction.

Xenophobia became policy. Incivility became the norm in political discourse. There are indications that hate crimes are up. The political promises of Republicans are as hard to keep as the promises of the Democrats were. The left is up in arms and would like to lead a “resistance” stampede back to the other side of the boat. After all, water is now coming over the right rail.

History is full of countries which rocked themselves into authoritarian leadership either of the left or the right – frightened people vote for stability. Frightened people vote for authoritarian captains.

Neither Obama or Trump or their “movements” were all right or all wrong. But somehow we have to stand in the middle of the boat and stop the mindless rocking. Then we can get somewhere. Civility and tolerance might be a good start.

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  • robby porter

    Yeah, the rocking boat is a nice metaphor, and the story well told, but to imply that Trump’s lunatic administration is just the other side of Obama, who ran a scandal-free, competent administration for eight years–eight years of slow but steady growth, declining crime, gradual disentanglement from the wars–is so ridiculous that it pretty much discredits the rest of the essay. Worse, it makes a false comparison between Obama’s rational policies which you don’t like, and Trump’s irrational behavior.

    • robby,

      I’m glad you liked the metaphor. It does imply that each rock is worse than the last roll. So the next lurch (presumably to the left) scares me even more than our present unbalance.

      Although, as far as I know, no Obama officials were caught with their hands in the cookie jar, there was plenty to react to in his (very rational) administration including:

      redlines set and ignored. the world a more dangerous place than it was eight years ago.
      entering into significant international agreements without Senate approval (makes them nonbinding which isn’t good either)
      abuse of executive authority (doesn’t matter whether it was in a good cause. precedent now very dangerous)
      much more significant hunting down of press leak than his predecessors of either party did
      vilifying police while ignoring the terrible violence they are coping with (yes, there are bad cops). BTW, crime now growing again altho I certainly don’t blame Obama for the opioid crisis
      a health care act whose funding mechanism seemed to have been designed to fail (perhaps to force single-payer)
      continued wealth protection, especially for bankers
      abuse of the IRS to harass conservative organizations.

      This is not to defend the irrational twitter blasts or unforced errors of the Trump administration. It is a partial catalog of what sane but alarmed people reacted to, not just in the election of Trump but in the election of Republicans at the state and congressional level.

      My hope is that we can work on the very real problems our state and country have with civility instead of ad hominem attacks (yes, I know who is the ad hominem attacker in chief), without panic, and certainly without dictatorship of the left or right.

      • robby porter

        Thanks for replying, Tom. Look, rational people can disagree about rational choices, but Obama is mostly in the past, so we should let that go. I agree with your sense that the country is lurching and the boat was a good image and I liked the story.

        Solutions, as we both know, are much harder than criticism.

        It seems to me that the core problem, is that things are getting worse for a majority of people in this country. I think worse is defined by material well-being, not in the narrow sense of a computer that is twice as fast as last year’s or a $500 phone in everyone’s hand, but in the sense of material and financial security– whether someone feels that their job is secure, fears that an unexpected illness might bankrupt them, suspects, with statistical justification, that their children’s lives will be less secure than their own, and so on.

        America, the American Dream, and, frankly, capitalism, is predicated on things gradually improving. Capitalism needs growth, money lent at a rate needs a return, otherwise the system doesn’t work. Over the past thirty or so years, most of the value of economic growth in this country has gone, increasingly, to a minority of the people. Naturally the majority, rightly or worngly, feels as though they don’t have much to lose, nor do they have much reason to believe in the traditional values of the country, honesty, hard work, democracy, capitalism, and all the rest.

        So yes, maybe the next lurch will be hard to the left. I remember a college professor telling us that, in the height of the Great Depression, communism was considered, by many people, be a reasonale alternative to capitalism which didn’t seem to be working very well. Personally I consider that an unrealistic and discredited system, but I don’t think you can be surprised that people are upset with the status quo.

        This increasingly uneven division of the economic pie seems, to me, to be the core problem. You’re a smart guy and a guy who has done well in this system, do you agree? If not, what do you think is the core problem? And at any rate, whatever you see as the problem, what do you think is the best way to solve it? That’s an essay I’d love to read.

        • I absolutely agree with you. wish I wrote what you wrote.

          my parents were communists during the depression (and their youth). Capitalism – and democracy itself – must deliver at least a chance of improvement – just as you say. If the perception is that the system is rigged, the system will fail.

          The “system” is never completely fair, of course; but today it is too close to rigged. I think that is much of the source of anger.

          The bipartisan bank-bailout called TARP was the eye-opener for me. It started in the Bush administration and got worse under Obama (as it might have under a Republican). Those who got the big bucks because they took risks got to keep the big bucks even when they failed. On a symbolic level the carried interest tax deduction for hedge fund managers has survived both Republican and Democratic administrations. Hedge fund managers are big campaign contributors.

          I do think that repression by political correctness and identity politics with its set asides and quotas also lend to the perception of unfairness.

          But it’s easier to diagnose the problem than fix it. I do propose improvements from time-to-time. Today I’m encouraged by the tone of the comments on this piece. we can’t fix anything if we can’t talk to each other.

          • robby porter

            I agree that the fault is remarkably bipartisan.

            I know that people want change, and they are remarkably open-minded about who might bring it, the first African-American president who ran with change as his slogan, a white-haired, Jewish socialist, or an orange-haired, narcissistic authoritarian, seems like voters are willing to try almost anyone who promises to change things.

            I don’t know what the solution is, but i agree that it looks like we’re going to try increasingly extreme options.

          • Michael Olcott

            Both of you guys have some great points there are a few things that i think have been missed so far though. the first is that we are entering a time of such rapid change that we have little to compare it to. the secularization of society ( a good thing IMO), globalization ( a bad thing) and soon we will face the rise of AI and massive automation no matter where our i-thingies are made. yes capitalism IS the engine that drives civilization forward but it also has killed as many as any form of Marxist-derived government/society by leaving the unskilled andindigant behind on the shore to drown in the rising tides. my answers? a fair tax,a GMI to replace our federal welfare state and a return to the core principles of our founding documents. ie States rights.

          • Phil Greenleaf

            Tom – sorry to ruin your buzz, but you aren’t really buying into Neil’s theory that pre-WW2 was an equal playing field in America are you? I’m ready to talk (particularly solutions) but we aren’t going anywhere if you guys are going to ignore attacks on organized labor, new sedition laws (1st Red Scare) and segregation.

        • Neil Johnson

          Obama is NOT in the past. He is to his core a community organizer, which he can now do with abandon and billions of dollars. It sounds so good and righteous no? Did to me. Then you read what is actually being taught for community organizers, the leader being Saul Alinsky. The mecca for Community Organizers and their works is Chicago for 50 years. You can see it was never about helping people rise to be their best. It was, and always will be about division as it’s their main source of power and money. Even in the depression, with the accompanying natural disasters, we had all the food, shelter and resources needed to survive. What we did have was an unequal playing field, massive insider deals/corruption and a collapse of the human spirit.

          If we had a market collapse today. Everything would be in place for us to prosper if we worked together. If we choose selfish desires we’ll reap what we sow. A classic example is Haiti and the Dominican Republic, same island, remarkably different outcomes, that can be seen from space.

          • Phil Greenleaf

            Critically thinking, If you and Tom want to provide comparisons with the Depression era you have to remember that it was pre-civil rights era, pre -Brown vs Board and was a much more segregated society. Equal playing field? That’s some revisionist history.

    • robby,

      Thank you for your very thoughtful replies; you’ve added a lot to what I was trying to say and I took the liberty of reposting this thread (as it existed last night) on my blog at

  • bobzeliff

    Good thoughts in general. The Major flaw is the assumption that Obama and Trump define the extremes.

    To my, and many others, view Obama favored Wall St to much as he was in office when he oversaw and did little to stop the historic transfer of wealth from the middle class to the rich 5% and above. Hillary was evan closer to Wall St.
    Now we see Trump is !00% Wall St. Is there anyone on his Cabinet who had to worry about money to buy a car, a house, pay health insurance, or college. I believe 5 of his cabinet who are from Goldman Sacks or a hedge fund manager. There is NO ONE who was/is a local political leader or a small business owner today on his cabinet ? NO ONE

    Trump Care is more about $300 Billion of tax cuts to the top 2%, while placing health car out of economic reach for many more than the 24 million who will suffer Medicaid loss.

    And evan this is not enough for the Republican Freedom Caucus!

    • bob,

      you’re right that the left-right dichotomy is too one-dimensional to describe the body politic or politicians.

      One reason I think that angry people moved from supporting Obama to supporting Trump is exactly what you cite: both parties are way to close to Wall Street. TARP (the bank bailout) was bipartisan, started in the Bush Administration and got even more banker-friendly under Obama.

  • Veronica Ciambra

    To characterize Obama as too far to the left is ludicrous. If anything he is a moderate.

    • Veronica,

      He is not as far to the left as the would-be new leaders of the Democratic Party (the rocking gets worse); but whether he was “too far” to the left depends, as I think you’re pointing out, on where you’re sitting in the boat. Many people believe that Trump is not far enough to the right.

      The point of all this is that we can’t have a civil discourse without realizing that different people see things from a different PoV.

  • Bill Peberdy

    Swamping your metaphor
    The ship of state has survived some pretty heavy rocking in the past. What is different this time is only one side (The GOP and Trump) are breaking longtime norms of political behavior and legislative traditions right and left -drilling holes in the hull.

    As they always have (and should) both sides rock the “boat”- but currently only one side is happily drilling holes in the “hull”. The GOP & Trump are swamping the boat.
    Perhaps it is time you bail on your both sider-ism metaphor.

  • Neil Johnson

    We are perhaps more like football fans or soccer fans cheering on their teams, which are unknowingly run by attorneys and lobbyists behind the scenes doing things of sabotage and misconduct to win at all costs.

    Meanwhile the fans cheer them on as if in the WWWF or the Roman Coliseum. It matters not that you’re doping to win 5 Tour de France, you won. It matters not that you sold your soul to Wall Street, you won. It matters not that you sold our entire healthcare system to lobbyists for Big Pharma and the insurance companies, guaranteeing them 20% profit no matter how much they spent, you won.

    We are not taught critical thinking (coaching) in schools, we are taught how to whine, moan and protest for what we want (cheer leaders). We are not bound by a budget (caps in team spending) but allowed to have dark money/non-profits/PAC money (spend unlimited in the goal to win, perhaps influencing the referee and stadium owners).

    We as a people need to recognize what we are doing, where we are going and where we are being lead. It’s too bad we don’t have more people commenting….Obama had some good ideas (he did), Trump has some good ideas (he does). Republicans have some good ideas (they do) and Democrats have some good ideas (they do).

    If you can’t say this and think of actual good idea from the other team you might be part of the problem, not the solution.

    • Right on, Neil.

      I think you’re correct that the resort to cheer leading and whining stems largely from not being taught how to think critically and debate constructively in school. How do we turn this around when this generation of teachers went to schools which did not teach them critical thinking?

  • Skyler Bailey

    Excellent piece. The only thing I might add is that the rocking has been increasing for 50 years. I think it is widely understood at this point (though on a subconscious level for most) that the United States is headed inevitably toward authoritarianism. Our actions, priorities and even developments in our language usage all speak to this, and the increasing intensity of the political climate is in reality a dispute over what kind of authoritarianism we shall have. As we creep closer to full totalitarianism, the stakes go up in this dispute. I am not sure that it is realistically reversible, and I am no longer certain that a civil war is avoidable. We need to listen to each other, make every effort to see things through each other’s political eyes, understand each other’s priorities, and we need to do it quickly.

  • Thank you all who commented for a CIVIL dialog – the only way I know to solve problems rather than have problems divide us.

  • Peter Everett

    Growing up in the late 60’s I saw all the demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Many were peaceful, yet, and sadly, many were violent. At Kent State the violence reached it’s pinnacle with the death of students. Today, we, again, are seeing demonstrations. Often, they are quite violent and destructive.
    Many of those demonstrators, during my youth, have become our leaders over the last 30 years. Honesty, take a good look at our country. Is it really any better under the displeased leadership of my generation (Federal and State). Some ways yes, many ways no. Our national debt has DOUBLED in the last 8 years. Our State budget, recent years, has run consistent deficits. We (our leaders) seem to refuse to acknowledge these problems, doesn’t matter which party, they no longer work for those who put them in office by denying to work with the other side. Sometimes I believe elementary age students could resolve problems better than our leaders of today.
    I cringe, when I think 20 years down the road…today’s demonstrators will take the reigns from those of today. Many of them are more spoiled and more erratic in behavior than my generation. They want tolerance from others, but, demonstrate behavior that shows tolerance doesn’t go both ways. Disagree with me, you’re some type of “phobe”. Time to destroy something of yours. This goes on in both sides Left and Right. Damage is far greater now and happens more often with more destruction. If the leaders from my generation have done a good job messing things up (they have), it frightens me to no end what tomorrow’s leaders will be like. They have been pampered throughout their lives, don’t know failure, believe everything they believe is the best. If we can’t work together now, heaven forbid the future. What a potential mess the Federal and State governments will be. On a positive note, I am too old to be around to see this. I’ll be long gone, fertilizing the ground. I love this country, but, the “great experiment” may be leaving it’s best times behind. I really fear what environment my grandchildren will be growing up in. Each year we seem to lose bit more of our freedom and government is expected to provide more for us, at no cost to us. Sorry folks, nothing is free. Someone will pay for it. If not you, it will be as someone else. Sensibility is something we seem to have lost along the way. Will we ever regain it? Only the next generation has the answer. Mine certainly didn’t!!!

  • John Fairbanks

    And a dollop of concern for social and economic justice would be nice. Maybe even a nod to saving the environment?

  • John Fairbanks

    One other thing: I shake my head whenever people use “Obama” and “left” in the same sentence. Obama was and is a moderate-to-liberal Dem with a strong sense of justice. His health care initiative was born at the Heritage Foundation, the right-wing think tank, and was intended to put market mechanisms to work while requiring certain protections for consumers. Note he disappointed people actually on the left, including yours truly, by jettisoning the public option. His attorney general, as you describe, failed to jail any of the banksters who scripted the economic calamity that cost millions of Americans their jobs (I’m part of that camp, as well). He stuck largely to the corporate- and Wall-Street-friendly vision the Clintons had laid out. Any progressive initiatives he might have offered would have been stopped by Mitch McConnell & Co. America did not go way over to the left under Barack Obama; voters hoped that a principled moderate might steer us out of the mess left by his predecessor. To an extent, he succeeded, though a good deal of the work of recovery is yet to be done. Considering the hole in which the country found itself in January, 2009, Obama did pretty well.

  • John Fairbanks

    I feel I must make one other point: “we” did not elect Trump. The curious electoral college system, for the second time in 18 years, gave the White House to the candidate who received fewer votes than his opponent, in this case, nearly 3 million fewer. A majority of Americans who voted last November selected the liberalish moderate Hillary Clinton.

    • Matt Young

      Yes John, without the electoral college we could have the president of California and New York.

      • John Fairbanks

        And Illinois, and Vermont, and Minnesota, and New Jersey, and Virginia, and Colorado, and New Mexico, etc. But geography shouldn’t be the deciding factor; people should be. We have the electoral college primarily because some of the Founders actually didn’t trust direct democracy, at least not at this level. One historian pointed out that Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist No 68, wrote that the “immediate election [of the President] should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station.” We cannot trust the decision to the people themselves. Rather, a “small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.”

        • Matt Young

          John, someone should probably sit down with you and explain the electoral college and how and why it works. It’s “curious” the whining didn’t begin until after the outcome of the election didn’t go as planned for the far left. I really don’t want LA and New York City completely deciding what is right for Vermont. What if those large population centers decide to make Vt a state park? Probably okay as long as they provide a trough…