Recently a story went viral about a couple who decided to leave the world behind and sail around the globe but sank while trying to leave the marina. The twenty-somethings decided they’d had enough of the rat race, quit their jobs as timeshare salesmen and Uber drivers, sold their possessions, and bought an old sailboat to pursue their dreams, telling reporters: “Money isn’t everything.” Haven’t we all had that fantasy?
I started following this saga, but not so much for the story itself. What I found compelling was the national response, whose strong division along ideological lines presents a clear comparison to the unfortunate political divide in America today.
The people following the story fell into one of two camps.
Some, who were sympathetic to two young people whose dreams were crushed by tragedy, generously opened their wallets and donated to the couple’s GoFundMe.
On the other side, people thought: “So you had dreams, but instead of realizing them by getting an education and working hard, you preferred to skip the middle part and go straight from adolescence to retirement. You didn’t buy insurance, but are asking everyone to pony up $16,000 to cover the predictable consequences of your irresponsible choices. You opted out of the free training offered by the Coast Guard Auxiliary (who would have advised against trying to navigate a channel for the first time at night, in the fog, with outdated charts and your girlfriend hanging over the bow with a flashlight) and thought you’d circle the planet with less than $100 in your pocket. You say money isn’t everything, but you want mine. In fact, your whole philosophy seems to be: ‘We don’t like work because sailing is more fun, but we want you to work to make the money we need.’ ”
My dad had a similar dream when he was 21. Just back from Vietnam, he bought a van for $500 to travel around the country. He was broke, with no parental assistance, and rolled out of Boston headed for California in January 1974. The van was a wreck — no heater, bald tires, rusted out, and not even an inspection sticker. He spent his first night by the side of the Jersey Turnpike and was woken up by a state policeman because the van was buried in snow, with about four inches inside the van.
He made it to Florida and California, doing every kind of miserable job imaginable (picking apples, cleaning toilets, breaking rocks for a stone mason, digging ditches, driving a taxi), and in the first twelve months was robbed at gunpoint and knifepoint and had a drunk driver hit him head-on, breaking his back and putting him in the VA Hospital in Miami where he spent three days, never seeing a doctor.
One thing he figured out quickly was that until he got an education, his life was going nowhere. It took eight years, but with the G.I. Bill, plus working and taking on a pile of student loans, he finally got his degree and kept going. There was no such thing as GoFundMe, and he wouldn't have taken it anyway. This past year, he retired as a 747 airline captain.
So why is this a political metaphor? Over the last half-century, we as a people have gone from “Ask not what your country can do for you …” to “Vote for me and everything’s free!” We have 4.1 million federal employees, 21 percent of our population is on some form of government assistance, and the number of people on food stamps has skyrocketed from 2.8 million under President Nixon to a high of almost 48 million under President Obama. Although that number has decreased in recent years, the cost of food stamps (now known as the SNAP program) is extremely high: currently $68 billion. The recipients of such largesse will often be tempted to vote for those who would make that gravy train larger, and these politicians are more than happy to try to buy their votes with taxpayers’ money, not unlike the big sign in front of a bar in Alaska named Chilkoot Charlie’s: “We Cheat the Other Guy and Pass the Savings On To You!”