The Weekly Quill — The Spartan of Central Banking

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Markets Test The Fed’s Mettle

Invincibility can be a curse. Josiah Ober is the Mitsotakis Professor in the School of Humanities and Science at Stanford University. In 1998, he perfectly portrayed the unconquerable Spartans:

“Once, the very sight and sound of an advancing line of Spartan soldiers had been enough to break the nerve of opponents, even before the shock of arms. In their signature scarlet capes, nodding horsehair helmet plumes, and close-ordered shields, each emblazoned with L (lambda, for ‘Lacedaemon’ or ‘Laconia,’ two names for the Spartan home territory), the Spartans appeared as a series of rippling horizontal lightning bolts, the unbroken lines of warriors striding forward in measured lock-step to the shrill music of military pipers. Their capacity to move quickly over difficult terrain, concentrate their forces suddenly, and execute complex pre-battle tactical maneuvers was legendary. The shock of their final charge was as sure and deadly as the sky-god Zeus’s thunder weapon.”

After years of combatting the neighboring Greek city-state of Messenia, in 724 B.C., the Spartans’ hegemony was secured. Given they’d once ruled over the Messenians, Sparta believed they held claim to the territory. What began with the raiding of the Temple of Limnatis in 743 B.C. climaxed nearly two decades on with the theft of a Messenian Olympic champion’s cattle. That final provocation proved to be the break point which culminated in a costly and bloodily won Spartan victory. Over the next 75 years, more Messenian Wars, conquers, revolts and reconquests would follow. With each triumph, the legend of Sparta grew.

Establishing greatness was assisted by male Spartans’ limited career paths. The choices: the world’s most disciplined and dedicated soldiers or outcasts. Formal training started at the age of seven and continued in isolation for 13 years, an environment that engendered a unique culture. As per Ober, “The Spartans believed that homosexual relations between young men encouraged unit solidarity and battlefield valor.” Even a hint of fear in battle was grounds for expulsion to a lower caste and life of misery. Surrender was never an option, which psychologically crippled Sparta’s enemies before the first spear flew. Supremacy on the battlefield continued through the year 404 B.C., with the defeat of the mighty Athens of naval might which established Sparta as the unquestioned dominant Greek state.

And yet, a mere 34 years later, Sparta was crushed at the hands of the Thebans at the Battle of Leuctra. Of all things, in a culture that shunned luxury and remains synonymous with thrift, economic suppression spurred Sparta’s downfall. To attain the standing of a “citizen,” dues had to be paid into the Agoge, a training system that became the envy of the world, but also favored comrades over family to the detriment of the birth rate. Even at its 6th century peak, the ranks of citizens numbered 9,000. By 371 B.C., they had dwindled to 4,000, too few to support the Agoge, which drove a debilitating divide between the rich and the poor even as the multitudes in lower castes swelled. Among those with no fealty to their captors cum superiors were the Messenians, whose memories of being overthrown never died. Like others Spartan subjugates, they were driven by a lack of rights and income inequality, a combination that brought on the ultimate demise of a 350-year empire.

Even in seemingly perfect systems, flaws can surface. Today, modern society operates under the auspice of unquestioned central bank omnipotence. Though few in the political leadership question this unshakeable faith, the passage of time and the increased insularity of policy threaten an order most have long since accepted as gospel.

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