Further Ruminations on Macho

July 16, 2009

Thinking over yesterday’s reasoned argument ranty screed about America’s masculine sensibilities and our notions of the heroic, I was reminded of an excellent Foreign Policy article by Riehan Salam about the very particular place men play in this recession, both as its cause and its victims.  He makes an interesting argument, though I hesitate to draw quite the conclusions as he does… Big historical events are always more complex than the quantities of testosterone could reveal.  And yet:

For several years now it has been an established fact that, as behavioral finance economists Brad Barber and Terrance Odean memorably demonstrated in 2001, of all the factors that might correlate with overconfident investment in financial markets—age, marital status, and the like—the most obvious culprit was having a Y chromosome. And now it turns out that not only did the macho men of the heavily male-dominated global finance sector create the conditions for global economic collapse, but they were aided and abetted by their mostly male counterparts in government whose policies, whether consciously or not, acted to artificially prop up macho.

Its worth your time to read the whole thing, if you haven’t already.  It was pointed out in the comments section to yesterday’s post that there’s a world of difference between stock brokers and pilots, which I think goes without saying.   Excepting Glenn Beck-inspired lynch mobs, the level of danger in securities trading is quite low.  Yet to hear it told, many in the financial world were under the belief that their work should have carried a comparable level of cachet… Or, at a bare minimum, that the levels of ballsiness required to do investment banking elevated it above the tedium that that profession is legendary for. Think about Paulson, or Cassano, or Cohen, or any of the iconic figures to emerge from the financial crisis: the thing that is striking about all of them is (a) just how heroic/cutthroat/testosterific they saw their work and (b) how their taste for “innovative” financial products amplified that self-image well beyond its proper constraints.  While the traits singled out in (a) are going to be operative at the top of any field as a matter of necessity, they rarely acquire the heroic undertones they did in the run-up to the collapse, and its that bubble-born mentality Domenach is praising that, at least so far as it relates to business, should probably be confined to the ash-heap. (And, if Salam is right, already has been.)

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