If you’re not currently 100 percent sold on the president’s re-election—and odds are you’re not—then you’ve got to be hoping and praying the Democratic Party will serve up some good stuff. Instead, one of their brightest stars speaking at a big liberal conference this week seems to have gotten a ton of attention for a joke that involved the political trifecta of #fail: Not funny, pandering, and making the joke-teller look stupider than she probably is.
The culprit was Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand—Hillary Clinton’s replacement in the U.S. Senate, and a Democrat who quite a few politically savvy Republican women have been looking to as the Democratic Party’s best hope for earning their votes in 2020.
The joke in question was this: “If it wasn’t Lehman Brothers but Lehman Sisters we might not have had the financial collapse.” Cue the mass eyerolling and inevitable negative comparisons to her senatorial predecessor.
Political humor is hard, maybe especially for women, who have to pull off “serious” without seeming “shrill.” Still, the joke—such as it was—is deserving of a critical dissection so its deliverer really gets why it shouldn’t be replicated and never uses it again.
Let’s start with the obvious point that the gender of the founders of an individual financial firm cannot be said to have any sort of causal link with the things that actually caused the financial collapse: Overleveraging by individual borrowers who did not repay their mortgages on the terms originally envisaged, thus making them less profitable overall to the holders of the debt; stupid securitizations of said wrongly-valued debt that masked risk by shuffling and repooling underlying assets to achieve better ratings; and over-investment in risky assets by lots of people, including women and people whose assets were managed by women.
Let’s add to that that in the run-up to Lehman going south, it actually had a prominent woman in a prominent position: Erin Callan, its CFO.
Let’s further add that the financial crisis was not purely the fault of Lehman Brothers or the result of just Lehman Brothers’ actions; the reason we talk about a failure of the financial system was that it was, well, a systemic failure. And let’s remember that Gillibrand represents the state that’s home to Wall Street, and was originally a lawyer at two major Manhattan law firms. Ergo, she either thinks you’re stupid, or she’s significantly less bright than she wants you to believe. Either way, it’s a bad look.
Presumably what Gillibrand was actually trying to get at was this: Voluminous studies indicate that women are more collaborative, less competitive and mean and nasty than men. The world of high finance is rightly perceived as cutthroat, slash-and-burn, very much not collaborative, and extremely male. Gillibrand was probably trying to bring onside Hillary Clinton supporters who relish 90s-era, Spice Girls-esque rhetorical “Girl Power” flourishes, while making the point that if women ran the show, capitalism would be less bloodthirsty.
But one problem with this is we have no way to test the hypothesis. Another is, it doesn’t pass the smell test for a lot of women, who were presumably the ones Gillibrand was trying to win over with the joke. Ever eavesdrop on the conversations of a bunch of girlfriends sipping cocktails at your local bar? There’s good money to be had in placing a bet that they were talking smack about other women’s wrinkles, muffin tops, cankles, handbags, shoes, husbands, cars, children, dogs—and everything else.
Whatever social science studies show, the truth is, women are not all that nice to women; in everyday conversation, we’re as ruthless about mere appearances as a bunch of male (and female) Wall Street execs are about money. Maybe if women were running the financial system and it biggest players, things would be somehow different. But that’s no guarantee things would be better, by any measure, except perhaps in reduced volumes of sexual harassment.
That’s not unimportant, but it doesn’t speak to the volume of unaffordable balloon mortgages marketed to non-creditworthy strippers in Las Vegas, or the willingness of financial megalodons to package them all together, get a AAA rating slapped on them and market them all over the place, and then wait for the underlying assets to prove much less valuable than expected, and mass failure to ensue.
Gillibrand knows this, and next time, if she wants to call out Wall Street culture, she should just do it directly by making a philosophical argument for more regulation to restrain behavior she believes can be checked by government and would have prevented the financial collapse. She can also throw in a dose of, “Hey, let’s get more women into boardrooms, too, so the financial sector isn’t dominated by people who think a good pickup tactic is slapping your dick on an uninterested co-worker’s desk at a.m.”
That would be a rallying point for liberals, who favor more financial regulation or at least less deregulation, and for the bevy of moneyed Republican women who have shown an interest in Gillibrand because she took a hardline stance against (former fellow) Sen. Al Franken with regard to #metoo infractions, because of her work to change the rules governing the treatment of military sexual assault, and because of her moderate record from back when she was a congresswoman.
Leave the “the world would be awesome if women ran everything” shout-outs to someone else who can’t get, and then sacrifice, crossover votes. Make your mark by being obviously smart and well-informed; not with lame jokes that make you sound dumb or patronizing. You can do better, and a lot of members of the sisterhood on the other side of the aisle seem to be banking on it these days.