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Palin Shows Limits of Woman Wisdom: Amity Shlaes

(Corrects reference to female chromosomes in 11th paragraph.)

Women just feel it. They sense trouble and will instinctually right it. They’re like mama grizzly bears, “who kind of just know when something’s wrong” and when to raise a paw to stop it. So women should get to govern now. Or else.

That’s the message of Sarah Palin’s latest video, “Mama Grizzlies.” She isn’t the only woman who is finding feminine judgment to be a selling point.

Unlike Palin, Harvard Professor Elizabeth Warren doesn’t choose to play up her gender. But it is clear that one reason she was able to push the Consumer Finance Protection Agency into being is that she presents herself as a refreshing picture of maternal common sense.

Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Sheila Bair likewise doesn’t play the mama card. But she has won approval of what might be called the nanny solution to the too-big-to-fail challenge posed by the largest banks.

Rather than let them fail like big boys and girls, Bair’s solution, and our new law, monitors banks so that they never get close to collapsing. Like a terrified mom with a 180-pound 17-year-old to discipline, Bair seems to think upping the punishments and scaring her charges will give her continued control. She recently warned banks that if they misbehaved they would face federal retribution equivalent to “the nuclear bomb that you hope you never have to use.”

Shirley Sherrod, another name in the news, fits in here, too. The Agriculture Department official came into the news because a right-wing blogger posted selected excerpts of an acceptable speech she gave to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, making it seem unacceptably racist.

Personal Discretion

But the flap over race obscured another feature of Sherrod’s speech: a Palin-esque emphasis on personal discretion. A farmer, she said, had “come to me for help.” But “what he didn’t realize what I was trying to decide just how much help I was going to give him.” Somehow, this line drew laughs of support from Sherrod’s audience, in part, one senses, because Sherrod is a woman.

The womanly wisdom theme also came up last year in the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. It emerged that Sotomayor had mentioned that one of her qualifications was that of a “wise Latina” who might make better legal decisions than a white man.

Whence the premium on female wisdom? The first source is obvious. Women, especially Alaskan women, Latina women and black women, count as diverse. And geographic, racial and gender diversity are believed to be a requirement of American politics. That “Mama Grizzly” advertisement comes straight out of ancient playbooks of some masculine people, like Karl Rove and Dick Morris.

Men’s Work

But the second reason for the popularity of feminine instinct is newer. Masculine discretion has failed the country so monumentally recently, whether in economics or politics. It was men at the Treasury or Federal Reserve who scanned the charts and opted to tell us that housing prices could only go up. Men headed -- and still run -- the investment banks, and men placed bets on toxic derivatives and credit default swaps.

Men, mostly, sold the subprime mortgages. Men chose a man, John McCain, who promptly led the Republican Party to a defeat mitigated only by his XX-chromosome running mate, Sarah Palin. Maternal instinct is supposed to be change we can believe in.

All this doesn’t mean that maternal wisdom warrants that faith. Maternal instinct of the grizzly variety, after all, is primitive. But instinct isn’t so valuable when it comes to complex decisions, like how to craft a rules-based reform of Medicare Part D. Have a grizzly evaluate the risk of a derivatives product and your outcome will be no better than the result of a guess by the most unwise Wall Street trader.

Common Sense

Maternal common sense is likewise a limited construct. To place common-sense women at the heads of financial institutions may be a good idea. Of course, there is nothing uniquely feminine about common sense.

What’s more, there’s such a thing as an overdose of common sense. Risk, even now, is still part of our life. To overdose on common sense is the equivalent of condemning ourselves to an economy of all mutual funds and no hedge funds. As for intuition, it is just another variety of the discretion exercised by men that got us all into so much trouble in the first place. Intuition is almost worse, because it dispenses with the necessity of logic.

Female wisdom in and of itself is also overrated in the non-market parts of our lives. Having a wise Latina on the Supreme Court will improve the court’s jurisprudence only if those new justices respect the structure of the Constitution. For Sherrod to be cleared of racism charges isn’t enough to fix federal programs for bankrupt farms. What would fix them would be a rules-based system that reduced the individual discretion of officials, black or white.

To develop such rules-based systems will require the input of intelligent females as well as intelligent males. If Sarah Palin’s dumbing-down does win her the White House, she may find it harder to make the subtle calls presidents have to make.

(Amity Shlaes, senior fellow in economic history at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Amity Shlaes at amityshlaes@hotmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net.

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