Monday, February 9, 2009

Lady luck: the financial crisis and gender equity

by Chris Moses

The homepage of Britain’s Guardian newspaper recently ran a photo display of twelve executives ‘who made £1bn ($1.5 billion) as banks were bailed out.’ These global money-makers played the wheels of fortune and won while everyone else saw savings spin off into oblivion. Yet rather than bankers, the headline pronounced more generally: ‘Men.’ Just like their ‘Twenty five people at the heart of the meltdown’ (a mere two women among them), these male mug shots serialize an hardly discussed fact at the center of our colossal credit crisis. The hubris of sky-high finance has as much to do with gender as failed algorithms and greed.

The sex of those at the helm is but a small sign of credit’s long history as a thing of fickle romance. If anything, fortune’s latest victims fall in a long line of able men seeking to tame and enchant the capricious turns of economic chance. Since it arose as a means for business and an imperative to exchange, credit has been viewed as a specifically female phenomenon. Hard work by hard men earned hard money—silver and gold impressed with heads of male monarchs—in contrast to the more uncertain funds borrowed in advance, subject to risks in business and upheavals of time. To dally in such trade had no other parallel than taking on a woman’s whim.

As credit became a centerpiece of public, political debate—especially at the turn of the eighteenth century in England—writers emphasized the lady-like nature of credit: hard to satisfy, easy to loose and readily subject to disgrace. The patriarchy reigning in household economies metamorphosed as a way to understand economic forces’ impact on households less certainly under a man’s dominion.

Daniel Defoe, great commentator on economic matters, saw nothing clearer than virginity to describe the stark reality of how a loss in credit meant irreparable change (for the worse).

Credit is too wary, too Coy a Lady to stay with any People upon such mean Conditions; if you will entertain this Virgin, you must act upon the nice Principles of Honour, and Justice; you must preserve Sacred all the Foundations, and build regular Structures upon them; you must answer all Demands, with a respect to the Solemnity and Value of Engagement; with respect to Justice, and Honour…—If this is not observ’d, Credit will not come; No, tho’ the Queen should call; tho’ the Parliament shou’d call, or tho’ the whole Nation should call.

You break it, you bought it—this vulgar view of female anatomy not-so-subtly describes the paradox of dealing in credit. She must be pleasured yet remain pure, she must come when put upon yet remain intact for inspection by uncertain lenders. If you’re undone, if indiscretion or risky flirtation merits negative attention, nothing will redeem your worth in a lender’s world: reputation makes or breaks.

Another anonymous pamphleteer also used lustful penetration to describe credit. How dangerous to ruin her in a fit of first-sight indulgence—greater and nobler needs shall inevitably arise for a truly communal fulfillment.

O how are our Manners depraved! If there be but a door open to wealth, we rush in at it, without the least Demurre… And thus, with men that had no Checks either of Modesty or Conscience, the present Interest that determin’d their Practice, was the Hopes of screwing exorbitant Advantages out of the Publick Necessities of the Nation.

Sound familiar?

Yet another writer, John Briscoe, warned that a woman thus put out to the ways of the world will attract untoward competition.

[A] rich, cunning and coy Mistress…her Favors once lost are hardly recovered, because we have many Rivals, who are jealous, wise and wary, and will be sure to stop the least gap we leave, and hit ever blot we make in our conduct.

We hear echoes in commentary about today’s crisis. Credit is too ‘tight,’ and we can only hope that it will again begin to ‘flow’ and ‘loosen’; we must regain the trust needed to enter this now shuttered market. Yet the present mess arose from being too ‘easy,’ loans unchecked and prudence given over to indulgence—everyone a player. Now it’s back to a subtle dance of responsible betrothal—no wonder the scathing criticism of big boy bankers has sounded a lot like the vitriol of a divorce or the unapportioned condemnation of an abusive husband.

Less a parallel, history reminds us of how gender and sexual difference can shape economic turmoil. Whether it be women’s higher rate of job loss or an imperative to cost-cut in ways that exacerbate difference between men and women—not least the culture of unapologetic conquest and blameless entitlement that shapes banking culture—more than dollar and cents are at stake when times get tough.

Gender equity demands a foundational role in resolving what been so wrong for so long. Give credit where credit is due.


At February 9, 2009 at 10:08 PM , Blogger Robert McGibbon said...

Interesting post. I'm not really sure how else to respond... Interesting post.

I'll never hear the phrase "credit is too tight/loose" the same way again.

Robert McGibbon '11


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