Thursday, 8 August 2013

Women and money: highbrow very serious non-fictional policy circles

(This post can also be read as an article on Femusings)

While I continue to think deeply about the political structure and founding myths of fictional desert city-states, and the British liberal commentariat slowly destroys itself over complex questions of whose opinions are the most profound and important, the USA is in the process of replacing one of the most important people in global political economy: the dude who runs the Fed.

To increase the production values of this blog, I intend to increase the number of pictures I source from hilarious political conspiracy websites. This, and the source, are both extraordinary.
That's right: the international household name that is Ben Bernanke (nice beard) is stepping down as the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, which is the US equivalent of the Bank of England or European Central Bank, which means that it prints money and does exchange rates and is regarded with constant scepticism from the segment of society who remains confused about why we don't still pay with everything using gold doubloons (inflation! Fiat money! What are these crazy ideas! Money was much less confusing when it was cowrie shells). Bernanke's most obvious successor is Janet Yellen, who is currently vice chair of the board of governors. Unfortunately, things are not straightforward, for the simple fact that Janet is a woman.

Yeah Janet, I'm wearing that face about it too.
Having spent too long recently in the mire of "not-sexist-BUT" reactions to Twitter and freedom of speech and and all that business in this country, it's almost refreshing how straightforwardly sexist the backlash against Yellen is. Sure, there's some political and economic reasons people don't like her, which are boring because the US political process is so obsessed with legitimising right-wing libertarian weirdness which wouldn't fly anywhere else, and also with explaining their political differences using bird metaphors, meaning that everything boils down to comparing Yellen's "economic dove" policies to "economic hawks" or "economic ostriches" (I hope somebody somewhere invented those before I did) and really, who cares that much about those words. But mostly the argument seems to be a good old fashioned doubt of female capabilities.

What is the problem with women and money? Well, having a woman in charge would force everything to devolve into gender politics and "female dollars", and also it is impossible to separate her brilliant credentials and work history from the fact that some people think giving the position to a woman would be a good break from hundreds of years of men. Also, she doesn't have gravitas, which I assume is code for "white men cannot help but imagine she is about to offer them delicious baked goods, because she's a little old lady". To be fair, I have spent almost a quarter of a century wondering if every man who looks vaguely like my grandfather is going to force me to play renaissance-era recorder duets, so I sympathise. It was very hard to survive both a politics degree and a development degree with Henry Purcell playing in my head every time tall white old men became relevant to the conversation. And it is naturally so much harder to take women seriously, so I can see where... nah enough pretending about that actually, what a load of nonsense. Not the bit about Purcell, that was legit (he was baroque, not renaissance though. WHERE IS THIS GOING).

It's incredible how economics sets itself up as so hostile to women ‒ and, I would argue, to most of us social scientists who want to spend our time thinking about people as people and not Trying to Look Like Physics. There's a brilliant section in Deirdre McCloskey's Economic Writing about how much academic economics is made impenetrable by economists deliberately writing to look "scientific", as if the only way to legitimately study "how do societies distribute stuff?" is to ensure that the distribution looks as natural and divorced from human agency as possible. If I were getting my own conspiracy theory on I would point out how this seems to help a lot of people accept why the answer to "how do societies distribute stuff" is so different from "how do we think stuff should be distributed in society", but although I will one day make good on the pun in calling myself a "class feminist", now is not the time. Although part of my undergraduate degree is in economics, I have never got on with a subject that aims to represent as much human experience as possible in equation form, whilst ignoring the fact that these equations are based on the same mythmaking and storytelling and collective beliefs as all other human experience. Even before I connected my general feminist leanings with my academic interests, making reductive science out of people honestly all seemed a bit... masculine. It's hard to get behind Objective Social Science when your life experiences all demonstrate how nonsensical the assumption is for the vast majority of people.

I don't want to suggest that Yellen, or any women in policy circles, are somehow betraying the feminist cause by being where they are, knowing what they do or even for having the priorities they do (the idea that Yellen will actually have "female dollar" policies and close economically-based gender gaps is laughable ‒ even if she wanted to, or if her role was about those things, she wouldn't have the power). I wouldn't get very far even as a rampaging negative armchair lefty without understanding the need for economics and for understanding how it impacts society. But the fact that "being generic" is considered an important characteristic for being able to understand and manipulate economic policy is sort of terrifying. It's the opposite of what we saw in Doctor Who casting last week, where cries for diversity were drowned out by "CAPALDI IS THE BEST MAN FOR THE JOB" (brilliant article on that here by the way). This is a mantra which ignores the fact that rarely is there only one person who could do a given task, and the reason we only see one is usually because we are biased against the rest in some way. For Yellen, her opponents are arguing the other way around: sure, she could do the job, but can we really not find an equally qualified white man to do the same thing? If he's a "hawk", metaphorically or literally, so much the better. It's just too risky to let the liberals win, even on the agenda of "not everybody in charge of money ever has to be a man".

Or like, a superhero hawk. With a superhero dove partner. I don't really know or want to know about what this comic is.
It'll be interesting to see how the nomination process pans out, and whether Yellen actually does find her way to the top. Her main rival still appears to be Larry Summers, the man who once suggested that women weren't really smart enough to be university professors in large numbers (whilst running to be president of Harvard, no less!) which to my mind does not seem to be the kind of person we should hold up as "brilliant generic homo economicus". If she does get it, I've no doubt the right wing inflation-fearing conspiracy theorists will grumble on, and bring us some grade A sexist commentary for a while. But honestly, I'm hopeful that they'd then return to just criticising "OMGWTFBBQ YU NO GOLD??" and "socialist conspiracy with the Rothschilds" and "Obama wants to sell us all to China" and not so much "... but she's a woman?" I don't often argue that "gender blindness" is a good end goal for something, but in the case of "things that tinfoil hat folk want to criticise about successful political figures", I'm all for it.

It's day 16 and that means "only" 14 more blogs to go. Tomorrow: comic books!