Titanic shows danger of change, misinterpretation

This past weekend marked the centennial observance of the Titanic sinking.

The popular view attributes the lifeboat shortage as the biggest single factor in the tragic loss of life. The Titanic carried 2,224 people on its voyage, yet the lifeboat capacity was only 1,178.

Yet, the Titanic was in full compliance with, and even exceeded, the British Board of Trade regulations that were in effect.

The regulations required 16 lifeboats for any ship that surpassed 10,000 metric tons. The Titanic tipped the scales at 46,328 tons, and carried four extra lifeboats.

The problem lay in the perception of a lifeboat’s purpose. A century ago, the well-understood purpose of lifeboats was to carry passengers from a sinking ship to a nearby rescue ship. Under this scenario, a lifeboat could be used multiple times to ferry passengers between ships.

Past events reinforced this paradigm. Two years earlier, the S.S. Republic collided with the S.S. Florida off Nantucket, Mass., in thick fog.

All but four of the Republic’s 461 passengers were transferred to the Florida in the Republic’s 11 lifeboats. Each boat made more than 20 trips between the two vessels.

No one envisioned lifeboats being used for any purpose other than commuting between larger ships. The Titanic’s sinking forever changed the view of a lifeboat’s purpose.

There’s always a danger when a tool or concept, intended for one purpose, is forced to perform another. When the only thing available is a hammer, everything else tends to become a nail.

For example, “Earnings Per Share” is a technique used to evaluate corporate financial performance. But if investors use this metric as the exclusive measure of corporate performance, areas such as solvency, debt and cash flow are ignored.

Examples of misapplication also exist in areas regarding the First Amendment. Some new employees, fresh out of college, may be shocked to discover their employer’s proscription of political buttons or posters on clothing or workplace cubicles. They wonder about their “freedom of expression.”

However, the First Amendment applies to the relationship between government and citizens. It does not necessarily encompass employers and employees. That wasn’t its intended purpose.

We hear the word “fairness” applied in situations where it was never meant to be.

An example is tax policy. Taxation was never primarily designed to be necessarily “fair.”

“Fairness” is a word that isn’t susceptible to objective measurement. A dozen people, asked to resolve an issue “fairly,” may produce four solutions, some diametrically opposed.

Another example: one of the principal concepts of insurance is the pooling of the cost of infrequent and expensive events. For this reason oil changes, aspirin tablets and grass cutting are not covered by auto, medical and homeowners’ insurance policies.

When this fundamental insurance principle is ignored and coverage is expanded premium costs can rise exponentially.

Our federal government was never designed to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. The best we can hope for from government is to protect life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Note that the right protected is the “pursuit” of happiness, not happiness itself. To change the purpose of government to insure “happiness,” rather than its pursuit, is to invite the creation of the “nanny state” and an enfeebled citizenry.

Whether it is lifeboats, the First Amendment, insurance, government, “fairness,” or practically anything else, we should examine the original intended purpose of an item or concept and determine if we are bending and deforming it to suit new objectives.

If so, we run the risk of distorting both the original concept as well as dooming any hope of solving our problems.

The Titanic could have carried more lifeboats, but only if the purpose of a lifeboat had been changed.

Change is inevitable, but make sure that the tools used to deal with its challenges are appropriate and adequate.

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