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Titanic Futility

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

On April 15, 1912, the Titanic sank. The following year a constitutional amendment made possible the graduated income tax, and Congress set a top rate of 7 percent on incomes above $11 million (in 2012 dollars).

At first taxes were due in March, but in 1955 the due date moved to April 15—apparently for bureaucratic convenience, and not to equate the ship of state with another vessel once thought unsinkable. Titanic arrogance caused 1,517 deaths in 1912. A century later the Obama administration is taking us full speed ahead toward an iceberg of debt.

One strange aspect of the Titanic's sinking: Morgan Robertson, 14 years before the great disaster, wrote Futility, a novel about the sinking of another enormous Atlantic liner. Robertson's fictional ship had almost the same length and tonnage as the Titanic, with a high-society first-class passenger list and an insufficient number of lifeboats. Robertson had his ship striking an iceberg on a cold April night and sinking. The name of his fictional ship: the Titan.

No one, to my knowledge, has written a novel so prescient concerning our current, slow-motion economic disaster. Some say Ayn Rand did that with Atlas Shrugged, but she missed the connection between a biblical worldview and American economic success, and had her hero at book's close making not the sign of the cross but (literally) the sign of the dollar. Her new economic order would have been built on sand.

Nor have the analyses I've seen of the crash of 2008 gotten causality right. Sure, politicians pressured bureaucrats who pressured bankers to loan money to people unlikely to pay it back. Sure, greed in high places and low played a big role. But I think the novel to describe how we've come to our present pass should have a historic title: Futility.

Here's the plot of a new Futility: We used to have a virtuous cycle in Western culture. Parents worked hard to provide for their children. When the parents could no longer work, the children provided for them. That was social security through the centuries. Given the vagaries of life it wasn't always secure, but in general it worked—and when it did not, extended families, churches, and charitable ministries came alongside widows and orphans.

A new Futility would show 20th-century government replacing children as the primary provider for those aged and needy. The change liberated elderly folks who were free to move away from their children, and often did. Florida or Arizona grew, but intergenerational contact tragically decreased. Another unanticipated effect: With Social Security, children became financially optional.

That change does not alter the goals of Christians and others who know the true value of children. Bible-believers give up some liberty—children restrict mobility and require responsibility—because we trust God when He says children are a blessing. Our chief purpose in life is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever (which begins right now), and children help us do both: Gifts from God, they bring parents joy.

That change does affect materialists. Some who could have children do not. Others stop at one. This has economic consequences: Yes, children are temporarily a money pit, but they are also a great incentive to work. Without that incentive many people work less and depend on the state to bail them out. Children are also an economic blessing to society as they grow and become creators.

A good novelist would show the psychological consequences of the change: Without an emphasis on work and family, many lack purpose. Some fill up the creeping days and weeks with experiences of different kinds, such as seeing new places and sexually seeking new people. Those who lose sight of eternity define a good life by consumption on earth—whoever gets the most toys wins—rather than preparation for heaven and the training of a new generation.

The novelist would show social consequences: We replace the virtuous cycle with a downward spiral. Fewer children means fewer workers to support the elderly. When some societies bring in more immigrants to do the work that the never-born members of the next generation would otherwise have done, additional tensions arise.

Politicians unveil plans to save Social Security, Medicare, and other programs. We need such plans, but without cultural renewal we can stamp all those plans: Futility.

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