Time to free the prisoner of Harvard Business School

If the Great Recession has increased your interest in financial and economic matters, then perhaps the next time you’re in Boston, you’ll set time aside to visit the scenic Baker Library at the Harvard Business School. The library is much more than a depository of books and research materials for the business school’s faculty and students. It also presents some very interesting public exhibits that summarize important chapters in America’s economic development.

In the basement of the Baker Library, you will find elements of some of the past exhibits mounted on the walls. But what will really catch your eye is a bronze-colored old plaque that shows two men grasping hands, with the words “Credit: Man's Confidence in Man” engraved below. It stands out amid the basement’s other artifacts – such as business-themed Wall Street Journal cartoons – like a relic of some lost civilization.

One of the men appearing on the plaque is dressed to represent the American industrial labor force, while the other is clothed like a Davy-Crockett-type adventurer. (Perhaps the second man represents agriculture, mining and other economic activities associated with the extension of the US frontier.) Since the two men are shaking hands, one wonders if the artist’s goal was to create a symbolic representation of 19th century American economist Henry Charles Carey’s theory of the “harmony of interests.”

Also appearing on the plaque are what author Christine S. Richard describes as “symbols of a prospering economy.” These include a wheel, some wheat, an old-fashioned scythe and numerous buildings.

At the bottom of the plaque, these words appear:

“Commercial credit is the creation of modern times and belongs in its highest perfection only to the most enlightened and best governed nations. Credit is the vital air of the system of modern commerce. It has done more — a thousand times more — to enrich nations than all the mines of the world.”

(The quote comes from an 1834 speech delivered by statesman Daniel Webster.)

This plaque is a reproduction of a much larger piece of art that used to hang outside the entrance to credit rating agency Dun & Bradstreet’s old building at 99 Church Street in New York City.

As others have already noted, this old plaque says something important to us about the “power of credit” and the need to use it wisely. This lesson was clear to past generations, but seems to have been forgotten by today’s lords of finance. Instead of focusing on how to use credit to promote the physical production of tangible goods or infrastructure, they prefer to use it to accomplish complex feats of financial engineering that create little of lasting value.

While the plaque hardly qualifies as great art, it carries an important message about credit. Would it be too much to ask the Baker Library to please move the plaque to a place where it can attract more attention? At a minimum, the plaque ought to be moved to the library’s entrance, where students, faculty members and visitors can see it.

The plaque has a job to do. It cannot do that job as long as it remains like a prisoner, trapped in the basement of the Baker Library. It is time to parole the plaque.

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