Small victories

Two news stories this week caught my attention, both of which qualify as feminist victories, and are worth being celebrated as such.  The first is the selection of Condoleeza Rice to serve on the College Football Playoff Selection Committee.  The second is the nomination of Janet Yellen to serve as Chair of the Federal Reserve Board.  I do not mean to suggest that the appointment of two women to positions of prominence is noteworthy simply because they’re women. I say that these two outstandingly capable women should have been easy and obvious choices.  What strikes me as significant is not that they were selected for these jobs.  It’s that they were not not selected. Let me explain.

To begin with the less important job: former Secretary of State Rice’s appointment to the College Football job.  College football, unlike essentially all other major team sports, does not have a coherent, thoughtfully devised system for crowning a champion.  In college basketball, for example, the NCAA has a end-of-year tournament.  68 teams are chosen to participate in that tournament, and it’s very exciting, watching 68 whittled down to 64, then to 32, then to 16, and so on, until a championship game features the two surviving teams.  This year, Louisville beat Michigan.  Louisville is the champion.  No one disputes it.  They won.

Not so in college football, where for years, at the end of the season, ‘National Champions’ were chosen by opinion polls, basically, and not decided on the field of play.  In 1998, something called the ‘Bowl Championship Series‘ was created, which decided who would play who in the most lucrative bowl games, with one of those games chosen more-or-less arbitrarily as the ‘national championship game.’ The BCS is widely loathed by college football fans, and now, finally, it seems to be going away, replaced by a new committee, this College Football Playoff selection thing. That committee will choose four teams, which will have a little two game mini-playoff, the final of which will choose a national champion.  This new system is likely to be hated too, which is why the makeup of the committee is considered important.  The people who serve on it need to be prominent and respected, to confer upon the game itself some measure of legitimacy.

Condoleeza Rice’s name was floated a couple of weeks ago, and proved a controversial nomination.  Why?  Because she never played college football.  ESPN analyst David Pollock began by saying that the committee should be limited to people who had played college football. When pressed, he said essentially, ‘yeah, that means no women on the committee.’ Then Pat Dye, former Auburn coach weighed in:

All she knows about football is what somebody told her.  Or what she read in a book or what she saw on television. To understand football, you’ve got to play with your hand in the dirt.

Condoleeza Rice is known for being a particularly enthusiastic and informed college football fan.  But because she never played ‘with her hand in the dirt,’ she shouldn’t, in Pat Dye’s opinion, serve on this committee.

All right then, what credentials should a committee member have?  First of all, this committee’s work is going to be scrutinized by college football fans.  If you’re the fan of a good team, and your team isn’t chosen for this mini-tournament, you’re going to be seriously ticked off.  So whoever serves on it should be a person of prominence.  A former Secretary of State would seem to meet that criterion.

Does she know football?  Her father, with whom she was very very close, was a high school football coach.  She grew up watching tape with him, helped him develop game plans.  One of her best friends is Stanford coach David Shaw.  She was offered the job as Pac-12 commissioner.  She was one of the finalists for the job of NFL commissioner.  She knows the game.

This committee is going to have to sell their selections to the public, and to the business community (who will buy advertising and pay for sponsorships). Rice serves on seven corporate boards.  The committee also needs members who understand university politics.  She’s a director at Stanford.  Also, it’s a committee. A small group of people sitting in a room, making important decisions.  You think a professional diplomat wouldn’t be of value?

The rest of the committee has been announced.  As expected, it includes some prominent former players–Archie Manning, Oliver Luck, Pat Haden–as well as former coaches.  And college administrators (who never played college ball), and sportswriters (ditto). But guys who weren’t controversial, because they were guys.  People who learned about the game by listening, talking, watching.  You know, the way human beings learn things.

Condoleeza Rice is not just a good choice for the college football job, she’s almost ridiculously over-qualified for it.  The feminist victory is not that a woman was selected for a job in a traditional male preserve.  It’s that a preposterously capable person was not rejected for a job she obviously would be great at.

Likewise Janet Yellen.  No woman has ever been nominated to serve as Fed Chair.  But she’s been vice-Chair since 2010. She’s got a tremendous academic background at Cal Berkeley.  She’s married to a Nobel laureate in economics.  She served on President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors.  She’s got a raft full of awards and positions and honors.  Honorary doctorate from Brown.  Adam Smith award winner.

Most importantly, she’s been right.  Here’s The Wall Street Journal on her:

Predicting the direction of the U.S. economy with precision is impossible. But the Fed must forecast growth, inflation and unemployment to guide its decisions on interest rates.  The Journal examined more than 700 predictions made between 2009 and 2012 in speeches and congressional testimony by 14 Fed policy makers—and scored the predictions on growth, jobs and inflation. The most accurate forecasts overall came from Ms. Yellen, now the Fed’s vice chair.

For a long time, it looked like President Obama would choose Larry Summers would be the Fed nominee.  Summers is a sexy-rock-star type economist, former President of Harvard, generally referred to as ‘the brightest guy’ in whatever room he finds himself in.  But Summers was an enthusiastic supporter of Gramm-Leach-Bliley, the bill that essentially repealed Glass-Steagal, thus deregulating the financial markets, which led directly to the 2008 financial crisis.

And Summers is also a sexist pig.  Well, maybe not. Here’s a longish excerpt of the 2005 speech that got him labeled porcine.  He’s clearly just speculating, spinning out a theory he hasn’t thought through.  But any discussion of ‘innate differences’ accounting for the disparity of men and women in the sciences pretty much has to be controversial, and may well have been a factor in his decision to withdraw his name from consideration for the Fed post.

I’m more worried about his economic views. We don’t need a deregulation cheerleader at the Fed.  Nor do we need another Goldman Sachs-ist Robert Rubin disciple.  How about instead we stay away from the ideas from the guys who nearly destroyed the economy?

Opposition to Yellen is more obviously sexist.  The Wall Street Journal editorial page (which resides on a different planet than the rest of the Journal), worried that the ‘liberal diversity police’ were happy with the choice, calling her nomination ‘gender pandering.’  The New York Sun pointed out that the Fed’s role is to preserve the value of the US currency, not ‘create a female dollar.’  See, monetary policy requires a big tough man, don’t you see?  Someone, you know, male.

It’s obviously nonsense. Janet Yellen is clearly the most qualified person in the country for Fed Chair.  Her selection is a major victory for the cause of gender equality. Not because a woman got a job only men had previously held.  Because the fact that the best person for the job was not denied it because of gender.  Nicely done, Mr. President.

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