What Fresh Hell Is This?

December 28, 2008

Jack Kelly Sunday

This week, Jack Kelly turns to poetry, Rudyard Kipling's The Gods of the Copybook Headings, to be exact, to illustrate our current economic crisis.

I thought this most curious as a few months ago another columnist, Roger Cohen of the New York Times, also used the same poem to illustrate our current economic crisis.

Huh. What are the chances? Well post hoc ergo propter hoc and all that, so I'll assume the two are unconnected.

Not only that, but the poem's already made the rounds of local conservative pundits. Here's Jerry Bowyer from almost exactly 7 years ago describing the exact poem:
For those who do not know, a “Copybook” is the British equivalent of America’s McGuffey readers; they were used to improve penmanship, as English children would copy the heading on each page (which consisted of some wise saying) repeatedly below.

The poem was written near the end of the first World War, a war which shattered the belief that fashionable thinking could prevent war and conflict. The “Gods of the Marketplace” that Kipling refers to are not Free Markets, but Government. This poem talks of the enduring nature of those old wise sayings, and the morals they instill that remain constant when all trends and fads of thinking have faltered.
Anyway, Jack quotes:

"We were living in trees when they met us. They showed each of us in turn, that water would certainly wet us, as fire would certainly burn. But we found them lacking in Vision, Uplift, and Breadth of Mind, so we left them to teach the gorillas, while we followed the March of Mankind ...

"With the hopes that our world was built on, they were utterly out of touch. They denied that the moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch; they denied that wishes were horses, they denied that a pig had wings; so we worshipped the gods of the Market, who promised these beautiful things ...

"In the Carboniferous Epoch, we were promised abundance for all, by robbing selected Peter, to pay for collective Paul. But though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy, and the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: 'If you don't work, you die.'

"... And after this is accomplished, and the Brave New World begins, When all men are paid for existing, and no man must pay for his sins, as surely as water will wet us, as surely as fire will burn, the Gods of the Copybook Headings, with terror and slaughter return."

No poetry scholar, I, so I'll have to fumble my way through the piece as best I can. Whether the "Gods of the Marketplace" are Free Markets or Government or whether the metaphor is a deeper one is certainly a worthwhile debate. One that's not necessary to go into here.

In any event, Kipling's point seems to be that the Copybook Headings are a realistic view of things (i.e. "common sense") while the Gods of the Marketplace promise all things, however attractive, that run counter to reality (that the moon is made of the cheese Stilton).

Interesting that Jack now sees the value of common sense. Where was it when he was using Newsmax.com as a "news" source? Or World Net Daily?

I wonder what Jack would think of this Kipling quote. Here goes:
If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.
Do I need to fill in the blanks? 4,000+ troops dead. Lies from the administration. Where was Jack's adherence to common sense then? And wasn't Jack Kelly worshipping the Gods of the Market who promised such beautiful things as "the troos being welcomed as liberators" or "the war will pay for itself" or "Saddam has WMD."

Interesting time to change Gods, Jack.

Questions? Comments? Remarks? Drop me an e-mail.

UPDATE: From Ed Heath:
I spent some time (on my blog) writing about how Jack Kelly tries to indict the Democrats, but his complaints about the way things are seem to miss the fact that the Republicans have been in charge for some time. He accuses America of having been on a thirty year bender (perhaps referring to how credit cards became available nationwide in 1978). But that accusation sweeps in Carter, Reagan, both Bushes and Clinton as having failed to protect us from ourselves.

I wonder if “gods of the marketplace” does not refer to both the government and industry that seem so wrapped up together. I don’t know what the state of regulation was in Kipling’s day, but maybe Kelly showed more wisdom than it seems in invoking the Kipling poem. Certainly we have just gone through a period where Wall Street heavily invested in the housing market (as we all know). I don’t remember whether the housing market was already called the “housing bubble” in the waning days of the Clinton Administration, but certainly early in the Bush administration we all knew housing prices would stop rising sometime relatively soon (it did seem improbable to think they would actually fall, at least early on). Yet banks and mortgage brokers continued to sell mortgages, with less and less due diligence and more and more complicated set ups (adjustable rates with teasers, no interest, etc). Wall Street picked up the mortgages and turned around and sold them as securities. All this happened because even though individually Wall Street people knew better, collectively the pressure from stockholders, mangers and competitors meant that either you hung in and did more than other Wall Street people, or you lost your job to someone who would. And instead of steeping in and putting on the brakes, the government allowed Wall Street (and its campaign contributors) to continue this way, with occasional attempts here and there by individuals to complain. Chuck Hagel tried somewhere around 2006, John McCain signed onto Hagel’s bill (which probably doomed it, as McCain did annoy the Republican leadership sometimes) and Obama had (possibly among others) sent a letter to, I believe, Ben Bernanke, at some point. But mostly our government in the last eight years played along, up to the end.

Still, I don’t think Kipling’s prescription of simple truths and aphorisms are a panacea. They might be a place to start, but we need a steely eyed realism that recognizes market pressures and steps past them. We need to have regulators that will tell banks and other institutions that issue mortgages that they have to follow the rules. Which means we need a President that will appoint treasury secretaries who will hire tough professionals as inspector’s general. We need a Congress that will use consumers’ groups to write laws to regulate the financial industry, instead of using industry lobbyists. We need a Congress that recognizes that any entity that provides a mortgage needs to be regulated, not just banks (and banks need to actually be regulated). We need a Congress that will pass those laws, and behave sensibly in conference sessions to reconcile House and Senate versions. But we need the laws not to strangle the banks and mortgage shops, just rein them in. In other words, Congress needs to recognize that Wall Street is under pressure to make money, and Congress needs to grit their teeth and tell them they can’t make too much money. And if that’s what Jack Kelly means, then I am with him. But if (as it seems) he just means that we have made a mistake in electing Barack Obama, then I say that Kelly is as fooled by the gods of his marketplace as anyone he accuses.