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January 17, 2010
David Warsh, Proprietor


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Things Fall Apart?

I was reading Marlowe’s Soldiers the other day, by Alan Shepard, evading the mysteries of the business cycle in favor of Elizabethan war stories, when this passage, from Geoffrey Cates’ The Defense of Militarie Profession, of 1579, caught my eye. (Elizabethan spelling retained)

There must bee therefore an other state and profession of men, whose power and prudence must comprehend, the maintainence and defence, not only of the Seate of Justice, but also of the Cowe and Plowe, of the Bed and Cradle, yea of the Alter and the sovereigne state: which resteth in the profession neither of the Priest nor Lawyer, nor the occupation of the Housbandmen, Artisans nor Merchants: but lieth in the prowesse and value of them that professe Armes.

Not bad, I thought. Four centuries later, we assign ultimate responsibility for the web of trust that underpins the social order to democratically-elected leaders of constitutional governments, not to soldiers. Otherwise, the sentiment today probably is pretty much the same as it was in the time of Kit Marlowe, William Shakespeare and the Spanish Armada. We want capable leaders who are in touch with interests larger than our own selfish ends, leaders who are far-sighted and steady, cunning and ruthless in pursuit of their goals.

Indeed, if you believe Jane Jacobs, the conviction hasn’t changed much since the ancient Greeks. In her 1992 book, Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics, the author of The Death and Life of American Cities, argued that two great ethical systems identified by Socrates and his pupil Plato still dominate the human order, often in opposition to one another.

A guardian sensibility is the province of political parties and organized religions; kings and war-lords; legislatures and courts; armed forces and police; government ministries and their bureaucracies; union councils and deans; regulators, watchdogs and critics of all sorts, including the press. (A fascination with the contradictions of the guardian life is, I think, what the story of government agent Jack Bauer, of the Fox television series 24, is all about.)

A commercial sensibility, according to Jacobs, governs most everyone else, those engaged in trade and the production of goods, services and knowledge. Two very different casts of mind are required to make a smoothly functioning society, one of them disciplined, generous and aloof; the other collaborative, open and honest. Back in October 2008, when the current crisis broke, EP provided a lengthier gloss on Jacobs’ ideas.

This week seemed like a similar moment of crisis. The Senate seat from Massachusetts held for nearly fifty years by Edward M. Kennedy is up for grabs. A Republican candidate has come out of nowhere to run neck-and-neck with a Democratic prosecutor who lacks broad political experience.Without that vote in the Senate, the health care bill could fall apart. The symbolism is vast.

Meanwhile, Federal Reserve Board chairman Ben Bernanke is under fire from his fellow Republicans for his defense of Alan Greenspan’s Fed. And the The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, a Congressional investigation that seeks to patterns itself on the 9/11 Commission that investigated the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, appears to be zeroing in on Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who is the linchpin of President Obama’s economic policy.

“Maybe he can’t,” writes Edward Luce in the Financial Times, of Obama, a president who he says is coming up against the limits of his power. “Time to Get Tough,” headlined The Economist.

It is a good time, in other words, to wait and see. EP is traveling and will return to the fray next week. Meanwhile, keep in mind the latest specimen of the wisdom of Martin F. Nolan, who for many years was Washington bureau chief of The Boston Globe (and who these days he can be found on the website of The Huffington Post): Polls are the last refuge of a scoundrel.

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