Thursday, November 5, 2009


Porch of the Caryatids, the Erectheon, Athens (author's photo)

Architecturally, a caryatid is a female figure acting as a column to hold up a structure. In a more figurative sense, I can't help thinking how much these caryatids on the Acropolis remind me of the American people. Our special burden isn't architectural, of course. It is debt, public and personal.

For some of us the burden is immediate and acute. The fallout of the financial crisis has left many unemployed, buried in debt, and foreclosed or at risk of foreclosure. States and cities are going broke as their tax base has withered. The elderly who lived prudently and saved their money are being punished by a financial system that keeps savings interest rates low, but quickly loans funds to speculators.

As for the rest of America, those not being crushed by debt, most of us are probably not overly worried about debt. But that may be a mistake. Since the start of the 21st century, Federal government debt has been rising due to lax fiscal policy, tax breaks for the rich, subpar economic growth, funding endless wars, and many other reasons, political and economic. Most recently, bailouts of our reckless financial sector ballooned the Federal debt to previously unimaginable levels that should give us all pause for our futures. Meanwhile, a recession has reduced the tax base from which to pay for the ballooning national debt. Even as economic growth shifts overseas, policies to renew economic growth seem lacking.

Now that the national debt is ballooning, and the economic capacity to service the debt is declining, our creditors seem to be growing increasingly worried. If they come to believe that they won't be paid back anything close to 100 cents on the dollar, they may look elsewhere to invest. That dollar could tank, interest rates rise, and the resultant defaults send the economy into a deep depression.

Rodin transformed the architectural convention of the female form supporting weight in the Fallen Caryatid Carrying Her Stone. In her fatigue, the caryatid can no longer support her weight. As she is crushed under the stone, what is going through her head?

Those who have lost jobs, homes, or lifetime savings know what it is like to support a weight too heavy to endure. The rest of us should care, because we are all caryatids now.

Fallen Caryatid Carrying Her Stone, Auguste Rodin, Musee Rodin, Paris