Since Iceland is something of the epicenter of the global financial crisis — its government being the first to essentially go belly up — it's probably not surprising that the Icelanders have come up with the most novel and interesting theory as to what caused the meltdown. And they may be right.
It's all the fault of men. And not mankind, mind you, but the male of our species.
"The crisis is man-made," said banker Halla Tomasdottir, former general director of Iceland's chamber of commerce and one of the few figures who actually warned a meltdown was coming. "It's always the same guys," she went on to tell a German magazine. "Ninety-nine percent went to the same school, they drive the same cars, they wear the same suits, and they have the same attitudes. They got us into this situation — and they had a lot of fun doing it.
"It's typical male behavior," she added.
In truth, she has a point.
While the Tim Geithners and Larry Summerses of the world were blithely ignoring the coming crisis, it's interesting how many women were playing modern-day Cassandras — predicting tough times and being ignored. Brooksley Born was head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission under Bill Clinton and tried to rein in the growing market of financial derivatives a decade ago. As a result, she came under withering attack from Alan Greenspan, Bob Rubin, and Summers, who himself charged that Born's efforts "cast the shadow of regulatory uncertainty over an otherwise thriving market, raising risks for the stability and competitiveness of American derivative trading."
Guess what, boys? In retrospect, Born was right.
As was Sheila Bair. As chairman of the US Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, she publicly contradicted the Bush administration (of which she was a part), to warn against the dangers of sub-prime loans. She did this back in October 2007, when something actually could have been done to avert the coming upheaval. Even now, she's still out there speaking truth to power, telling Chris Wallace of Fox News recently, "Right now, 98 percent of the banks representing 98 percent of the banking assets exceed regulatory standards for being well capitalized."
And, wouldn't you know it, few are still paying enough attention.
Then there's Elizabeth Warren, chair of the congressional panel to oversee the bank bailout. While the mostly male media toasts the new president and his buddies, Warren is out there virtually alone protesting that, despite the billions of TARP money that has been paid out to banks so far, the exponential growth in lending that was supposed to occur as a result has yet to be seen.
Not measuring up
Like her female colleagues, Warren was prescient in analyzing what was happening to the economy. An April profile by James Scurlock on the blog The Big Money described her this way: "Before the crisis, Warren used to confront members of Congress and ask for the endgame plan for all the debt piling up in the economy. She was inevitably greeted with blank stares and empty smiles. She used to write letters to Alan Greenspan. They went unanswered. Now, as one of the most important people in DC, she is writing letters to Tim Geithner that sometimes suffer the same fate."
You don't need to be Deborah Tannen — the socio-linguist who has pioneered studies on how the genders think and communicate differently — to understand that Wall Street is a man's world, even if some women happen to work there. Taking risks to "show off" to your buddies, not listening to others, competing for who has the biggest everything— that's all typical male behavior.
Despite all the praise the Obama administration receives virtually on an hourly basis, what's striking is how little it has done to shake up the old-boy network of the financial world. From Geithner to Summers to Rahm Emmanuel — said to be the point man for Obama economic policy — this administration is still pretty much a tree-house club with the NO GIRLS ALLOWED sign. The men who were all wrong in the first place got the key jobs again. The women were the real heroes. Start listening to them and we might finally have some change we can believe in.
To read the "Stark Ravings" blog, go to thePhoenix.com/blogs/starkravings. Steven Stark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.