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Putting Alabama's top-heavy government back on an even keel

I was pumping gas at a local station near an interstate offramp once and thought I heard a bomb go off. It reminded me of the sound of a car bomb that went off next to my convoy in Baghdad. It was that loud. It turns out it was an 18-wheeler whose load had shifted as he rounded the off-ramp curve and then heeled on over and slammed into the ground.

I’ve been in military aircraft and watched as the loadmasters worked to distribute the loads and personnel so that the weight was evenly distributed. It’s a heck of a thing for a cargo plane to be off balance. But the worst for being top-heavy may be sailing vessels. When a ship is designed and built it is often what you cannot see below the water line that makes it an effective sailing ship. How deep the draft is, by virtue of the size of the keel, can be what prevents a ship from literally capsizing under its top weight.

Let me tell you about one of the worst maritime disasters ever. We’ve all heard about the Titanic. The Titanic struck an iceberg in 1912 and nearly 1,500 people drowned. You may have also heard of the Lusitania which was torpedoed by a German submarine. The Lusitania claimed 785 lives. But have you ever heard of the Eastland?

The Eastland disaster occurred while at port in Chicago. While tethered to the dock, the Eastland was loaded with over 2,500 passengers. An unsafe ship whose draft was originally designed to support its first life as a cargo vessel the Eastland literally rolled over under its top-heavy weight and 844 passengers lost their lives. One account from Smithsonian Magazine says this:

“Critical to a boat's stability is what is known as its metacentric height. Floating objects are like an upside-down pendulum, with a center of gravity and the ability to roll, or heel, to either side before righting itself. The distance between fully upright and the maximum heel—the point beyond which it will capsize— is its metacentric height. …. For such a ship, where the distribution of passengers was highly variable, normal practice would have been to provide a metacentric height of two to four feet, fully loaded. Changes made to the Eastland…..had reduced its metacentric height to four inches.”

It was supposed to have been a celebratory day. Western Electric had shut down plant operations to take all of its employees and their families on a day-long excursion to a park across Lake Michigan. The plan was for a huge picnic, bands, and entertainment. It was set to be a day that no one could forget, and it was, but for all the wrong reasons.

It was July 24, 1915, just 10 days after the sinking of the Lusitania. A new set of regulations now required that all sailing vessels have increased numbers of lifeboats and floatation devices, all of which added an incredible amount of weight to the Eastland’s top decks. The passenger manifests for that day showed that the boat was also allowed to be overloaded with men, women and children.

But perhaps worst of all, the Eastland had been known to be unstable because its keel had never been improved as the ship was morphed from a barge to a Great Lakes passenger liner. With a wink and a nod, it had always been signed off as “safe” despite the fact that several prior listing incidents had occurred. Harbor crews referred to it as a “hoodoo ship”.

On that morning in 1915, as whole families boarded in their party clothes and began dancing to the band on the top deck the top-heavy Eastland is said to have suddenly listed 45 degrees to port, and as its cargo and passengers then lurched to that downhill side on the slanting decks the ship completely rolled over in less than two minutes.

Whole families — moms, dads, children — all drowned that day. One recounting of the aftermath says that the water was so filled with bodies that you couldn’t see the river. Smithsonian Magazine again said this:

“On Wednesday, July 28, Chicago was a city of funerals. So many were scheduled that there were not enough hearses. Marshall Field & Company provided 39 trucks. Fifty-two gravediggers, working 12 hours a day, couldn't keep up with the demand. Nearly 150 graves had to be dug at the Bohemian National Cemetery alone. By day's end, almost 700 Eastland victims had been buried.”

All of this because no one chose to say anything about a ship with virtually no keel. A ship they kept building up but never chose to properly build down. It became so top-heavy and unwieldy that it literally capsized while moored to the dock. Not because of a torpedo, or an iceberg, but because of the self-inflicted wound of being top-heavy. Over 800 people lost their lives in 20 feet of water.

Now let me switch gears on you. Keeping the concept of being top-heavy in mind, what about the government? If you imagine a government as being a ship (an analogy that Gov. Kay Ivey used several times when she took office as Governor Bentley resigned, saying then that her job then was “to right the ship of state”) what happens when a government becomes so top heavy that it cannot sustain itself.

The “keel” of government is the people. We are there to support and sustain and also to be effectively served by the topside. But there has to be a balance, a metacentric height between the government and its people that prevents government growth from loading top while not drawing deep.

Right now we are in a position where the Alabama state government has grown more in the past few years than the governments of California and New York. As neighboring states have openly worked to provide tax relief to their citizens, Alabama’s government has spent surpluses thus far on itself. In the past few years, we’ve seen government shutdowns of businesses, churches and schools. Our own state-funded UAB developed an app for use in tracking people's movements and telling them to quarantine. Right now there is a discussion underway about whether or not to expand the Obamacare Medicaid provisions and put more of Alabama’s citizens into a government-run healthcare program. And that’s just Alabama.

The federal government is certainly top-heavy with the ability to claim a right to direct its attention to virtually every aspect of our lives. Legislation in just this year has passed to fund green energy solutions that cannot stand up without government subsidies, allow for the hiring of 87,000 additional IRS Agents, emplace regulations that change how family farms can operate, and we’ve gone from being a net exporter of oil and gas to requiring imports simply because government said so.

I’m not so libertarian in my leanings that I don’t see the value in government. I know that there are true functions in a society that are intended for government to provide and life would be worse without them. But Ronald Reagan once said that “a government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you have.”

We have to rightsize the government. We have to ensure that the keel, the people, who too often are not seen below the waterline of bureaucracy, are not so outweighed by a top-heavy government that we cannot even remain on an even keel at the dock.

We need to see measurable tax relief from Montgomery.

We need to return to a commitment to streamlining government operations.

We need to know that as a red state those principles matter in our state capital.

We need to stop being so top-heavy lest we capsize under our own weight.

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