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Separation helps keep us safe

Marketplace Staff May 14, 2010
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Separation helps keep us safe

Marketplace Staff May 14, 2010
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TEXT OF COMMENTARY

Kai Ryssdal: The oil spill in the Gulf and the financial reform bill being debated in the Senate might not seem to have too much in common at first glance. But there’s at least one point of comparison. In both cases, people on opposite sides of the issues are talking past each other. President Obama’s blaming the oil companies. Oil companies are blaming each other. Senators want tougher rules for Wall Street. Wall Street says it’s just trying to make money. It’s like nobody is speaking the same language.

Commentator K.C. Cole says those barriers are frustrating, but the separation helps keeps us safe.


K.C. Cole: A friend liked to say that the worst disease afflicting humankind was “hardening of the categories” — that science and business and art shouldn’t be walled off in separate containers, because really, they’re part of a whole.

But containers can also mean survival. For lack of a container, a seemingly unstoppable oil spill is spreading like some sci-fi ghoul in the Gulf. The Earth sprang a leak and unless it’s contained, we’re in trouble. Like a breach in a heart wall that kills you.

“Containerization” is also central to software. It keeps operating systems separate from applications like word processing and spreadsheets. Hand-off codes let these containers “talk” to each other, just as our brains “talk” to our muscles. But it’s the “separation of concerns,” as computer types call this, that keeps things running.

Our financial system was built on separation of concerns too, until the repeal of the Glass Steagall Act — passed after the Depression to separate commercial banks (which hold your money and lend it), investment banks (which take the risks that help your money grow), and insurers (who cover your back if thing go south).

It’s when regulators stopped thinking in terms of containers that things “ran amok,” in the words of Mike Brown, an expert in software and markets both — having been the CFO of Microsoft and chair of NASDAQ. After all, says Mike, our democracy was built on just such a separation of concerns: church and state, Congress and courts, politics and press.

Containers have to be porous, of course, so that information or money or blood can flow freely. But you can’t bring the wall down completely and not get a mess. That’s roughly what happened when my freezer door stood open all night, and the ice cubes melted, and then later froze into one solid block.

Not unlike our economy.

Except in that case, it seems, the door was left open on purpose.

Ryssdal: K.C. Cole teaches journalism at the University of Southern California. Her most recent book is called “Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens.”

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