Saturday, May 12, 2012

In Praise of Walls

The $2 billion trembler at J.P. Morgan Chase yesterday, on the economic Richter scale no more than 4 in magnitude (“Noticeable shaking of indoor items, rattling noises. Significant damage unlikely.”) again brought back the notion that some organs of society are too big to fail, that everything’s connected, and so on. Those two idea are linked, of course. If things were properly organized, walls of all kinds would protect us. Connections enable us to build huge social structures, but connections that bring the good also, when things go awry, link us to the evil consequences.

Back a ways I read Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War. It struck me then how vital a role walls played in the foundations of Graeco-Roman—and hence by extension our own—civilization. Here is a link to my summary. Indeed, connection is exposure. But at the very core of biological life is a wall. It is the skin that forms the original cell—an old topic of discussion for Brigitte and me going back to her days of studying biology. Life’s clever resolution of this conflict—between the need both to be connected and to be protected—is the formation of walls that let through what we need and to keep out what can harm.

Would life have succeeded in conquering the globe, as it were, if we all had the same liver, kidneys, lungs, and heart? Nature believes in walls.

As in all things that relate to this dimension, we must find the middle way between conflicts. Unity is good—but when it isn’t structured right, it can become oppressive. Hence the somewhat poorly named subsidiarity principle. It’s poorly named because it says that the higher the power the more it should be in the background —whereas we tend to think of government as the be-all, end-all manager on high. The principle applied says that the federal should not do what the states can, states must avoid what counties do, counties what towns and cities do, and the last level should not attempt to do what the household can do best. Government as last resort. The meaning of the word comes from “sitting behind”—waiting, in other words, to help, but only when necessary. This principle arises within Catholic doctrine—paradoxically, but only if that tradition is misunderstood: it is assumed that Catholicism is a top-down sort of thing—and urging this principle, it seems to be promoting libertarianism. A relatively modern formulation of this principle is found in the papal encyclical, Quadrogesimo Anno (1931). I’ve written a post on it a while back on the old LaMarotte (link).

As in all things, the knowledge is there, the rules are known. We can read the laws by studying nature; the cell is a good starting point. The application of these laws, however, requires rather a high level of cultural awareness, insight, and unity of purpose—which, in the current Information Age, are difficult to find.

1 comment:

  1. It happened possibly to the same day of the "Flash Crash" of May 6, 2010.

    I found it interesting that in an article of March of this year:

    "In a breakdown that resembled a mini version of the 2010 "flash crash," a series of blunders hit the market debut of BATS Global Markets Exchange Inc on Friday, causing the company to take the extremely rare step of withdrawing its initial public offering of shares..."

    we see the following quote:

    ""It's just another black eye for the fragmented equity structure," said Joe Saluzzi, co-head of equity trading at Themis Trading in Chatham, New Jersey, and a frequent critic of U.S. equities market structure. "Every day we see things like flash crashes and now IPOs that can't get off the ground."

    "Every day" !? Perhaps $2 billion is small potatoes, and not much worse than a bad hair day.


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