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The Decoder: Own the leverage

By Branko Brkic 20 December 2009

For a long time it sounded a lot better to be leveraged than to be indebted. And once the credit apocalypse hit, there wasn't much difference.

“Give me where to stand,” said Archimedes, “and I will move the earth.” Generally regarded as one of the greatest mathematician/innovators of all time, the native of Syracuse, Sicily (in 500 BC, an independent Greek city state), the venerable bearded boffin ran the numbers, and figured that if he stood in just the right place, armed with a suitable length of wood, he’d harness the ability to shift the weight of the entire planet.

World-changing sums were once just a brainfart away: “Eureka,” the tub-soaker once yelled, “I’ve found it!” According to a website heralding Archimedes’s achievements, he invented “many war machines used in the defence of Syracuse, compound pulley systems, planetarium, water screw (possibly), water organ (possibly), burning mirrors (very unlikely)”. He wrote on topics as varied as “plane equilibriums, Quadrature of the parabola, On the sphere and cylinder, On spirals, On conoids and spheroids, On floating bodies, Measurement of a circle, The Sandreckoner, On the method of mechanical problems”. And so on.

Archimedes met the quintessential dork’s end: while Syracuse endured a Roman siege that was supposed to be thwarted by his burning mirrors (very unlikely), he was slain after snapping at a Roman soldier who stumbled into some equations the master had scratched in the sand. He had the last laugh; number crunchers still grapple with his problems, and his legacy is as large as Newton’s. The iconic Archimedes lever – depicted in numerous artworks (bearded Greek tough straining at lifting globe with plank); quoted by, mostly, neo-conservative ex-Reagan functionaries – has made its way into everyday usage.

The paraphrasing of Archimedes’s famous aphorism has proliferated in American politics. Jefferson once said, “The good opinion of mankind, like the lever of Archimedes, with the given fulcrum, moves the world.” But at some point, though, the lever was appropriated by those who would use it for ill, and the term “leverage” entered everyday usage.

The term lever we can date back to 1297, from the old French (much of which was derived from vulgar Latin) word levier. The term leverage, as in “actions of a lever”, we can trace back to 1724; it’s figurative sense, however, is only 150 years old. And “leverage” in the financial sense was born of the dying days of the Depression; it was generally used to define usury in a positive way. After all, “borrowing”, in the Biblical days of the ’30s era dustbowl, had awful Judgment Day connotations. One didn’t borrow. One was leveraged.

The questions become: Who bandies the lever, how steady is the fulcrum, what exactly is it that’s leveraged? With the United States trembling before a looming credit crunch, and South Africa a decade or so away from the same, borrowing has become a way of life. We are leveraged – it could be our defining adjective. But whenever I hear the term used, I cannot help thinking of the engravings of Archimedes straining against the lever, the globe balanced on the tip of his plank of wood. There he strains, full beard cascading over muscled chest, biceps bulging, while the globe, shrunk to the size of a beach ball, is hoisted slowly through space.

Archimedes could just as easily have said, “He who owns the lever, owns the world.” Right now, those who are leveraging us are in the guise of the great mathematician, hoisting us up and flinging us into the unknown. But there is hubris in Archimedes’s thinking: his maths may be sound, but his grandiosity is problematic. The earth, after all, has its place, and the Archimedes theories only work in accordance to it.

The man was, of course, illustrating science by way of a metaphor. But if we examine that metaphor in a financial sense, those who are busy doing all the leveraging, and those of us so willing to be leveraged, are disturbing the place of things. We are complicit in moving the earth from its natural orbit. And there’ll be hell to pay.

There is a day, not so far off from this one, when “leverage” will be a very dirty word indeed. Myriad financial terms crawled from the dust of the Depression, but this may perhaps be the most dangerous. Borrowing money is the oldest of human pursuits, but leveraging is a newer spin on that concept. It pays to make sure that one is not sitting on the tip of a lever, because the fulcrum is no longer sound, and the whole mess may well come crumbling down, the world along with it. Thanks for nothing, Archimedes.

By Richard Poplak

The Decoder was a regular feature in the now-defunct Maverick magazine. It is republished here for the first time. Richard Poplak is a Canadian freelance writer and author who wrote his first book, Ja, No, Man: Growing Up White In Apartheid-Era South Africa about his childhood in this country. His latest book is The Sheikh’s Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop Culture in the Muslim World, and he is working on a couple of interesting new projects.

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