Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Paradise Lost

In her 2010 Smith College Commencement speech, Rachael Maddow begins her talk with a story about Carrie Nation and the early Temperance movement in America over 100 years ago.  Ms. Nation helped to launch a popular movement, which, in a few years time would materialize into Prohibition, outlawing alcohol across the country.  Ms. Maddow continues, that so much more bad than good came out of Prohibition, including bootlegging, increased corruption at all levels of government, increased crime and an increase in alcoholism.  Though Carrie Nation’s Temperance movement had achieved the goals of a segment of the population, the country as a whole was worse for its wear.   Rachael Maddow summarizes that “Personal triumphs are overrated.”

This morning I was reading my Wall Street Journal on the train, this time from back to front, and just as we were pulling into Grand Central, I got to the first page, bottom left hand side, reading an article entitled ‘List Grows of Canceled Graduation Speakers’.  The article highlighted three recent cancellations of speakers due to protests from the respective student bodies: Ayaan Hirsi Ali was to speak at Brandies, Condoleezza Rice was to speak at Rutgers, and  Christine Lagarde was to speak at Smith.  Smith College makes the front page of the WSJ and it’s all for the wrong reasons.  I was besides myself.  This was nonsense. 

The crux of this article as well as another in the NY Times was not just that a few speakers would not go on as scheduled, but that campus protests were  creating a “Heckler’s veto” and that “…universities are becoming havens of the closed minded,”.  A few weeks ago, I was on the Smith website for something or another and noticed the College had announced Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, as commencement speaker.  I thought that was a fantastic selection.  I was familiar with her name from news articles here and there as a major female player in the Eurozone.   I was walking through the train station fuming.  What short-sightedness had taken over my college?  The WSJ article quotes a Smith student as saying, “ we are supporting the International Monetary Fund and thus going directly against Smith’s values to stand in unity with equality for all women, regardless of race, ethnicity or class.”  I disagree that a selection of a speaker is a blank endorsement for all they’ve done.  A college (should) select a speaker due to their achievements in life, and the perspective that their journey has to offer, whether or not you agree with their perspective is entirely your decision, but one that should be made after thoughtful deliberation.

It’s totally OK to dislike the IMF.  It’s totally OK to think the IMF has imperialistic tendencies and promotes Western agendas at the cost of developing nations.  That kind of sums up the world economy over the last 500 years (if not longer).  I really don’t like Condoleezza Rice or really anyone affiliated with the George W Bush administration, even if his mother went to Smith, but I am sure Ms. Rice would have much insight to offer.  I was working reunions during 1998 for the Elizabeth Dole commencement speech and you know most of us were not fans, but we listened.  My own speaker in 2000, Judy Chicago, well that was just a trainwreck of a speech.  She was a last minute replacement for Jodie Foster, but having Jodie Foster speak would not imply a blanket endorsement for the sexism in Hollywood, nor human trafficking because she played a child prostitute in Taxi Driver.  When Gloria Steinem comes to campus, we don’t riot because she once worked for Playboy. 

So feel free to hate on the IMF, but please don’t hate on Christine Lagarde, and please have the intelligence to know the difference. 

Here is the difference:  The IMF, like the World Bank and a bit like the UN, are international organizations, comprised of delegates from many nations around the world.  Both the IMF and the World Bank were founded in the mid 1940s after World War II as a kind of Marshall Plan of reconstruction and development programs around the world, but were not entirely funded nor led by the US.  In fact, the IMF has had 11 Managing Directors, and they are all Europeans.  The World Bank has had 12 Presidents, and they have all been men, and up until their current President, they have all been from Western nations.  Between the two organizations and their similar 70 years of service, Ms. Lagarde is the only woman to have headed either organization.  Her predecessor, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was arrested in 2011 in New York City for allegedly sexually harassing a maid at a hotel.  He has also been reputed for soliciting prostitutes in Washington, DC, Paris and Lille (France).  So in 2011, Christine Lagarde comes in to head the IMF during a global financial crisis and to lead after DSK resigns in ill repute.  If she didn’t have her work cut out for her, I don’t know who does. 

If you think the IMF is perpetuating misogynistic policies in finance and economics, maybe you should consider their past leadership.

If you think finance and economics are fields which, on a global scale, are awash in diverse leadership and inclusive mindsets, please go back and read my blog post entitled ‘One is The Loneliest Number’, regarding the US and the world’s lack of female economists and central bankers.  

I was reading an article about the IMF the other day, and how it’s ‘bailed out’ the Ukraine with a $17Billion package.  But any person or organization that lends money is going to enforce restrictions on either the funds or the borrower, if not both, and set some guidelines.  For example, if I stop paying my mortgage, the bank can take my house.  When I had my public matching funds audit job, if a candidate spent money on an impermissible expenditure, our agency could levy a financial penalty.  When the IMF lends money out to countries in distress, it wants them to comply with certain public policies and/or fiscal restrictions.  This compliance with public expenditures, per the WSJ article, seems to be what the Smithies were taking offense with, in that these requirements are disadvantageous to women.   I don’t know but if I were in the Ukraine right now, with a troubled economy and Russia chipping away at me piece by piece, and the EU not really wanting me to be their friend, I’d feel pretty disenfranchised regardless of my gender.  I think women get the short end of the policy stick ten times out of nine, and yes, my math is correct.  And it’s not limited to the IMF, it’s a systemic, pervasive gender equality issue that seems more so exacerbated in the world of finance and economics because it’s a realm in which we are seriously underrepresented.  (Please go back and read my blog post entitled ‘One is The Loneliest Number’, I’m not joking).  And that is why we should be welcoming Ms. Legarde with open arms and listening to her every word.  We don’t have to agree with her.  We have to listen. 

And Ms. Legarde’s career is one worthy of note, however this pans out for Ukraine and the IMF (I’d bet the Ukraine will get shafted, if not by Putin, then by someone else).  The 58 year old Christine Legarde became the first female chairmen of the international law firm Baker & McKenzie, she specialized in antitrust and labor law, she has been profiled by the Financial Times and Forbes, and prior to her IMF post, she was France’s Minister of Finance, and Minister of Agriculture, and Minister of Commerce and Industry.   She may not work for the perfect agency (but who does?  I don’t) but she’s led a unique path for a woman in her field, and I believe she is deserving of the commencement speaker podium.

At 2:52 PM this afternoon I received an email from the Chair of the Smith College Board of Trustees informing me that Ms. Legarde had stepped down as commencement speaker on her own accord and was not asked to step down by the college’s administration.  I’m sure many others received this announcement too, but I wasn’t really infuriated with the administration either.  Kathleen McCartney, Smith’s President issued a statement as well, stating “An invitation to speak at a commencement is not an endorsement of all views or policies of an individual or the institution she or he leads.  Such a test would preclude virtually anyone in public office or position of influence.  Moreover, such a test would seem anathema to our core values of free thought and diversity of opinion.”  Later, online I found an article on Masslive.com that linked to the Smith College Economics Department’s statement, which was signed by almost the whole department, half of whom I had taken classes under.  They state, “We acknowledge the controversy that surrounds IMF policies and, as individual economists, hold a range of views on these policies and the complex, difficult problems they seek to address.  We also recognize the evolving nature of the IMF as an institution and in that context, looked forward to hearing Madame Lagarde’s remarks.  The withdrawal of Madame Lagarde as our commencement speaker represents a lost opportunity to hear directly from the leader of this influential global institution and to use that address as a valuable input to a well-informed, multi-faceted, and nuanced discourse on our campus about crucial issues facing the world.”  I totally agree.

There was one Econ professor whose name did not appear on that letter, Prof. Reinhardt, I think she is on sabbatical, but I had taken her economic development class, which focuses on lesser-developed countries and policies that can help or hinder their growth.  I left that class knowing there is no quick, direct and guaranteed method to bring countries out of poverty for good, and if there was, wouldn’t the IMF/World Bank/UN have found it by now?  Economic development is all still a work in progress.  And last spring, I attended Prof. Mahdavi’s lecture in NYC on the EU and the financial crisis, and was surrounded by both Econ majors and non-Econ major alums.  A small chunk of the Econ alums were now employed by the (wait for it…) IMF.   Even if Ms. Legarde seems like just some well-dressed well-connected French lady, your sister Smithies are IMF’ers just the same!

The WSJ states that a petition was signed by students and faculty to prevent Ms. Legarde from coming to campus.  The petition had 477 signatures.  Out of a student body of 2100.  That’s hardly a majority.   A segment of the Smith community had achieved its goals, but the college as a whole is worse for its wear.  It’s a personal triumph for the protesters.  And it’s overrated.


As compensation for this event, next year’s speaker better be a woman who has made progress in the fields of finance and/or economics.  The Economics department is owed one, big time.  I nominate Janet Yellen or Elizabeth Warren.  Or I’m not making any more donations (but I may not be the only one)  And that sucks when next year’s tuition and fees come in at $61K, and the US median household income is only $53K.  Why doesn’t anyone ever protest that?

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