September 02, 2009

Are men to blame for the economic crash?

That’s become a popular theme in the press.

For example, the BBC’s business editor Robert Peston recently stated in “€œWhy men are to blame for the crunch:”€ “€œI routinely characterise the credit crunch as “€˜men behaving badly”€™”€”because it’s almost impossible to find a woman to blame.”€ He went on to list the usual suspects: “€œreckless chief executives of banks,”€ “€œfinancial engineers,”€ “€œcentral bankers and regulators,”€ and “€œfinance ministers.”€

Similarly, the New York Times headlined “€œMaybe the Meltdown’s a Guy Thing,”€ giving this idea a biochemical spin: “€œThe study suggests that raging hormones might explain why the men who rule the global markets send them rocketing up when they”€™re on a roll, and swooping down when they get scared …”€

All guilty as charged.

And yet … for something as absurdly awful as this collapse to have happened, there had to have been two failures. The BSDs of Wall Street concocted mountains of leverage on top of what turned out to be molehills of ability to pay back mortgages.

So, who bought houses and home improvements they couldn”€™t afford in the first place?

Ordinary people.

And who, on the whole, were those ordinary people who insisted on buying too much house?


Perhaps it’s different in the BBC’s domain. My awareness of the balance of power in English domestic life is limited to Fawlty Towers reruns. And, here in the U.S., my wife and I managed to avoid the entire Housing Bubble, so I”€™m not speaking from bitter personal experience.

In American marketing, though, it’s not exactly a secret that women have greater influence than men over the purchase of most things other than beer and video games. In good times, the power of the purse is widely celebrated in the business press. For example, in the introduction to Martha Barletta’s 2003 book, Marketing to Women: How to Understand, Reach, and Increase Your Share of the Largest Market Segment, Tom Peters (the “€œIn Pursuit of Excellence”€ business maven), exclaimed:

Women are responsible for 83% of all consumer purchases. Home furnishings … 94%. Vacations … 92%. Houses … 91%. Consumer electronics … 51%. Cars … make 60% of purchases, significantly influence 90%. … Translation: Earth’s largest economy … American Women.

Now, don”€™t ask Tom Peters to detail the methodology behind that 91 percent figure for houses. Having spent the “€˜80s and “€˜90s in the marketing research business, I can assure you that sales convention speakers such as Peters are there to provide inspiration, not exactitude.

Yet, I can also assure you that it’s taken for granted by most marketers that women, not men, are their prime targets. In reading the trade press, you constantly see statements like, “€œAn often-cited marketing maxim holds that around 80 percent of consumer purchases are driven by women.”€ Or, “€œWomen’s Marketplace Dominance Is Clear in Every Area.”€ Or, “€œWomen Are America’s Chief Purchasing Officers (CPO’s).”€

Each year, on balance, men hand trillions of dollars they”€™ve earned over to women to spend. Some of these vast transfers are through the tax system, and some through inheritance by widows. ( claims, for whatever it’s worth, “€œSenior women age 50 and older control net worth of $19 trillion and own more than three-fourths of the nation’s financial wealth.”€) Nonetheless, most male-to-female handovers are from husbands who are specialists at making money in a particular career to their more generalist wives, who take on for the family the bulk of the onerous task of trying to spend it wisely.

Still, women tend not only to be more interested shoppers, but also more enthusiastic shoppers. For example, a 1995 survey found that women are more likely than men to admit that they shop to celebrate, buy without need, buy unplanned items, and can”€™t resist a sale.

When a bubble bursts, however, the business press suddenly shuts up about the role of women in spending. After all, advertisers don”€™t want to offend their biggest customers.

(By the way, the rise of the Internet, by wrecking the subscription model for all but HBO, World of Warcraft, the Wall Street Journal, and a few other male-targeted media enterprises, is making the media even more female-oriented. That’s because selling advertising”€”which consists, more or less, of attracting female eyeballs”€”is now the only way to get paid.)

Two exceptions in the financial media have been John Carney and Joe Wiesenthal of Business Insider. One of the commenters on Carney’s “€œDid Women Cause the Recession?“€ Becky, wrote:

As an architectural designer with 20 years of experience working with people, it is a good generalization that women drove the new home market. I might start out with a couple on the first meeting, then work with the wife the rest of the time. The husbands generally get the basement and garages (the least expensive construction), and the wife is focused on what other women have and what is in all the magazines. Women worry about keeping up with the Joneses much more than men. Men will give in to women easier than women will give in to men also.

Similarly, women outnumber men almost three to two among dues-paying members of the National Association of Realtors.

Speaking of real estate ladies, Wiesenthal has flagged a Century 21 commercial from 2006, the peak year for over-inflated home prices. This 30 second spot was formally called The Debate, but it’s now better known as Suzanne Researched This:

Basically, the commercial touts the fact that your Century 21 broker will team up with your browbeating wife and guilt you into buying the home you can’t afford. It must be watched. We still think it kind of might be a parody.

God, I hope so.

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Unfortunately, Suzanne Researched This was almost certainly meant seriously as a training flick for the wives of America. Strikingly, the giant real estate firm did not advise wives to use tears or seductiveness to get their husbands to plunge far into debt. Instead, women of America, you should employ derision and hostility to bend your feeble mates to your iron wills!

Here’s the script:

Husband [the usual overweight, doofusy-looking white guy husband/father we know from a million other commercials, stalling for time]: It’s not the point, the point”€”
Wife [Pointedly]: What is the point? What?
Wife: I love that house. Plus the schools.
Husband: The kids are three and one.
Wife: They”€™re going to grow up.
Wife: What? [At the 0:14 mark, the wife makes a very brief but hate-filled gesture toward her husband, thrusting her face at him with a look of contempt and repulsion on it.]
Wife: Suzanne researched this!
Suzanne [the Century 21 realtor, whom the paterfamilias has allowed to listen in on the speaker phone]: This listing is special. John, you guys can do this.
Wife [wheedling]: We can do this.
Husband [dazed and defeated]: Yeah … okay.
Wife: Are you kidding me? [Hugging poor dumb bastard husband
] This is awesome!
Husband [trying to look on the bright side of his upcoming bankruptcy]: See the size of that garage?
Wife [triumphant]: Yes!
Suzanne [on the speakerphone]: Ka-ching! Oh, that’s great, now let me get to work.

After seeing the original, you should watch this version with subtitles explaining what the characters are really saying.

That women tend to be more house-proud than men is often a very good thing. It keeps most of the human race from living in the kind of dumps with which so many bachelors are content.

Yet, when women go over the top with spending on homes, as too many did in this decade, they merit criticism, just as Wall Street guys are taking their deserved lumps.

The ethics of this is not complicated. It’s Aristotle 101″€”the golden mean. Don”€™t spend too little or too much.

Should women qua women be criticized for helping get us into the mortgage mess?

Of course they should.

Women should be reminded, frequently, that each one of them needs to be on guard against her sex’s tendency to overspend on homes.

Criticism makes people behave better. Look at white men. We”€™re just about the only people you are allowed to criticize as a group these days, and now, under this stream of constant criticism, we”€™re usually on our best behavior.

The alternative (and more popular) theory is that criticism depletes crucial self-esteem vitamins, causing the formerly criticized groups to live down to their stereotypes. Thus, no critiques are allowed today of the propensities of women, blacks, homosexuals, Latinos, and most other organized pressure groups. With so few targets left, TV advertising humor is now directed relentlessly at putting down the clueless white guys who run everything.

Of course, that just underlines the fact that white guys are still primarily the ones keeping this society running.

And that means that if the conventional wisdom istrue”€”that public criticism is horribly deleterious to self-esteem”€”this would imply, logically, that white males are going to stop creating new things and increasingly just retreat in a funk into playing WoW“€”well, then, we”€™re all in big trouble.


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