Ron Suskind’s new book, “Confidence Men,” argues that a “boys club” culture within the Obama administration hamstrung the administration’s response to the financial crisis. Suskin argues that the talents and expertise of powerful female advisers like Christina Romer were systematically squandered at a critical juncture because women couldn’t get a fair hearing.
I haven’t read the book, so I’m not in a position to judge evaluate the thesis. I will say that the country would be better off if Obama had listened more to Christina Romer and less to Tim Geitner, whether sexism had anything to do with the influence gap or not.
Dave Weigel is blogging excerpts from Suskin’s book at Slate today (link). Dave complains that some of Suskind’s examples of purported presidential sexism seem weak.
Like this passage from Suskin, which Dave quotes:
Before exchanging hellos or even shaking hands [with Christina Romer], the president-elect delivered what seemed intended as a zinger.
“It’s clear monetary policy has shot its wad.”
It was a strange break from decorum for a man who had done so outsandingly well with women voters. The two had never met before, and this made the salty, sexual language hard to read. Later it would seem a foreshadowing of something that came to irk many of the West Wing’s women: the president didn’t have particulary strong “women skills.”
But is “shot its wad” actually a salty expression? The expression comes from a possible misuse of a musket; stuff the gun wrong, and there’ll be a spark, the wad will fall out, but no musket will fire. It’s more recently become sland for premature ejaculation, sure, but it’s used both ways. The more important part of this conversation was actually Romer’s belief that Obama was wrong. “There’s quite a bit we can still do monetarily,” she says, “even with the historically low interest rates.” But here, and throughout the book, Suskind draws out the idea that Obama and his team made some screw-ups because they didn’t listen enough to women.
To which I say, c’mon. Pointing out that “wad-shooting” referred to muskets in the 17th Century is like saying that “cock” sometimes means rooster. True, but we’re all adults here. Downplaying the sexual subtext is like Bart Simpson gleefully calling Homer a bastard when he finds out that Homer was born out of wedlock because “That’s the correct word, isn’t it?”
“Shot its wad” is a mildly crude expression, but it’s not an intrinsically sexist thing to say.
Women aren’t exactly clamoring to metaphorically reclaim the Federal Reserve for our gender. Maybe men are sick of hearing “the Fed is impotent” and not “the Fed has vulvodynia.” If it makes them feel any better, the next time the Federal reserve is completely tapped out, I promise to say “The Fed has ovulated.”
As Dave points out, if this is an example of the president’s “poor woman skills,” it probably has more to do with making Romer feel belittled for her dissenting views. She thought there was still more that could be done with monetary policy, even though interest rates were at zero, and the president’s wad-talk didn’t stop her from immediately restating her case.
It’s not clear that these are poor women skills, as opposed to poor management skills, or even good management skills. Keeping the upper hand with hordes of smart, assertive advisers jockeying for your attention is part of being an effective president.
Another example Dave discusses is Suskind’s account of a 2007 meeting in which the future president objected to a proposal to create health care jobs on the grounds that many men perceived this to be “women’s work,” a phrase that didn’t go over well. Is that evidence of sexism? You can read the relevant passage on Google books (link) for yourself.
A lot of people do think of health care as women’s work, including many feminist economists, who favor job-creation in health care precisely because it’s a female dominated sector of the economy. Something like 88% of home care aides are women. Is that perception a good reason not to create jobs in health care? That depends on why you think that perception is a problem.
If the president was worried that unemployed sexist men would refuse to retrain as home care aides (or that unemployed women would reject these jobs as pink collar dead ends) he might have had a point.
Men lost more jobs than women in the Great Recession of 2007, and male-dominated industries like construction and manufacturing were among the hardest hit by the economic downturn. So, it made egalitarian sense to put some priority on putting men back to work because more men needed jobs. However, if the future president was focused on the needs of unemployed men to the total exclusion of the needs of unemployed women, would be a major policy blindspot and arguably a form of sexism.
Whatever candidate Obama’s possible blindspots, the Obama administration did a pretty good job of making the stimulus gender equitable. Romer later calculated that 42% of the jobs created by the economic stimulus went to women and more money was spent on rescuing state budgets (to prevent layoffs in female-dominated sectors like teaching and health care, amongst other things) than on construction.
If these examples are the best Suskind has to offer, it sounds like he’s a long way from proving his point.