Mercury Rising 鳯女

Politics, life, and other things that matter

A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats Out of Context

Posted by MEC on April 6, 2009

Certain “fiscal conservatives” are fond of claiming that President Kennedy would support their obsession with cutting taxes, because President Kennedy after all said that “a rising tide lifts all boats” and that rising tide, as they all know, is the wealth of wealthy people.

There’s a slight problem with that claim. Professor Emeritus Donald Lazere has been looking for an original source for the quotation that supports this interpretation, and can’t find one. The people who are so fond of quoting it, such as President Reagan’s economic guru Arthur Laffer, can’t provide a source.

President Kennedy did actually say, more than once, that “A rising tide lifts all [the] boats.” In the actual documented instances, however, he wasn’t talking about letting the rich get as rich as they can.

“After an extensive library and Internet search (including the data bases of the Kennedy Library and the University of Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project)”, Professor Lazare cites three speeches:

September 1960, in Cheyenne, Wyoming:

I think that there is a direct relationship between the policy of no new starts in developing our water and power resources, and irrigation and reclamation and conservation, and the fact that our agricultural income has dropped so sharply in the United States in recent years, and the fact that we are using our steel capacity 50 per cent of capacity. Pittsburgh, Wyoming, Montana, Wisconsin are all tied together. A rising tide lifts all the boats. If we are moving ahead here in the West, if we are moving ahead in agriculture, if we are moving ahead in industry, if we have an administration that looks ahead, then the country prospers. But if one section of the country is strangled, if one section of the country is standing still, then sooner or later a dropping tide drops all the boats, whether the boats are in Boston or whether they are in this community.

August 1962, in Pueblo, Colorado:

What I preach is the interdependence of the United States. We are not 50 countries—we are one country of 50 states and one people. And I believe that those programs which make life better for some of our people will make life better for all of our people. A rising tide lifts all the boats. And as Colorado moves ahead, as your steel mill produces, it is benefiting all the people, as they are benefiting you.

October 1963, in Heber Springs, Arkansas:

These projects produce wealth, they bring industry, they bring jobs, and the wealth they bring brings wealth to other sections of the United States. This State had about 200,000 cars in 1929. It has a million cars now. They weren’t built in this State. They were built in Detroit. As this State’s income rises, so does the income of Michigan. As the income of Michigan rises, so does the income of the United States. A rising tide lifts all the boats and as Arkansas becomes more prosperous so does the United States and as this section declines so does the United States. So I regard this as an investment by the people of the United States in the United States.

In those speeches, Kennedy was talking not about individual wealthy but about public policy and government projects. He was, in fact, speaking in praise of the government spending that rightwingers misuse the quotation to oppose.

Do you think The Usual Suspects will stop using that quotation now that we know their meaning is not what President Kennedy meant at all?

…Neither do I.

One Response to “A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats Out of Context”

  1. Charles II said

    The right-wingers further abuse the quote by linking it to his tax reform bill, which lowered the upper marginal rate, which no one was paying because of tax avoidance. But if one reads his analysis associated with the bill, it’s clear that this was intended to rein in tax cheating, thereby recapturing a significant portion of the tax cut. Furthermore, the individual tax cuts were targeted at the lower end of incomes.

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