Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Michael Lewis on the International Financial Crisis. And on Gender.

He talks about his new book with Charlie Rose here. The whole interview is fascinating and I recommend all of it.

But this post is about the bit which runs from minute 31 to minute 38 on Iceland's financial collapse. Lewis argues that the Icelandic financial crisis was an especially male one and that this maleness was part of the reason for the collapse, given what he calls "male overconfidence." After the collapse the Icelanders elected women, to clean house, so to say.

That is the traditional role for women in politics. It's also a thankless role, because if you only get elected to clean house, it means that you always inherit a messy house, and you will not get much credit for those cleanup efforts.

Even if they succeed. In that case the house is ready for another round of getting messed up. But mostly such cleanup efforts will not succeed, because by the time the women are called in the situation is pretty bad. Then the female politicians look powerless and not very efficient, and so it goes.

Something subtler drew my attention in those seven minutes of the interview, and that was the way Lewis explained why women would be especially suited to clean up after a financial crisis caused by overconfidence.

He used an example taken from heterosexual pair experiences: The one about men refusing to ask for directions while driving, even if their wives tell them to, and then the couple getting lost. That was his way of demonstrating the "male overconfidence."

The nuanced bit is this: When I try to understand some behavior which is supposedly stereotypically male, I don't have to use examples from heterosexual pairs in that way. I don't have to think of a "husband" or a "boyfriend" to moor my thinking, because I have worked with many friends and I have male friends and male relatives. Or perhaps because I live in this society as a woman.

I guess those types of examples (which are common in the mainstream media when gender is discussed) strike me a bit like trying to explain a strange land (women) by relating anecdotes about the one woman (a wife) many heterosexual men have some knowledge about. But people behave differently inside the pair relationship than, say, at work, and too many examples of the former kind can bias our understanding of what might be going on with overconfidence in general, as opposed to overconfidence vis-a-vis one's wife or girlfriend. Or the lack of confidence vis-a-vis one's husband or boyfriend, especially if he is driving.

None of this should be taken as a criticism of Lewis' statements. They are just thoughts I had when listening to the interview. And Lewis has a lot of good stuff to say about women and Wall Street.