November 4, 2008


What Would George Bailey Do? (EDWARD ROTHSTEIN, 11/04/08, NY Times)

So debased had judgment become, and so unpredictable were the consequences, that the safest thing to do was absolutely nothing. Liquidity turned solid; credit froze. And this reflected a collapse not just of business activity but also of trust, or, to use George’s word, of faith.

It might seem strange to think of these enormous disruptions as reflections of something so elemental: trillions of dollars are now being expended to re-establish trust? But we can see how this issue came up in earlier periods of cultural transition. Consider Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice.” Written at a time when Elizabethan England was being transformed by European trade and its own growing international ambitions, the play can even seem to be about how to create trust in a tumultuous marketplace.

The play lampoons cultural differences in cosmopolitan Venice. A buffoonish Spaniard, a scimitar-wielding Moroccan, drunken Germans, a Jewish usurer — these types are all invoked in the work. But how are such varied figures to interact in “the trade and profit of the city”? Only through the presence of a strong central law that would guarantee trust in the midst of distrust.

Shakespeare, though, does not minimize the difficulties in creating consistent methods for judging, whether assessing products or the people who make them. Are the goods what they seem? Are people? Portia’s suitors are forced to choose a gold, silver or lead casket — uncertain about which will disclose the true image of their beloved. Characters confuse lies and truth, ornament and essence, mercy and ruthlessness. In the midst of all this it is amazing that any kind of social and economic interchange is possible.

An election may be just the sort of shock the system needs at this point.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 4, 2008 11:39 AM
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