Iceland And Wall Street’s Demise: It’s The Testosterone

Have you read up on Iceland’s implosion? The whole nation, roughly 300,000 highly educated, inter-related people who still believe in elves, plunged into economic chaos by the same means as Wall Street. I have read, and tried to understand, what happened in Iceland. It is such a spectacular flame out of such an interesting little country.

It was with great interest that I read Vanity Fair’s Michael Lewis’ exposé on Iceland. Here’s a snippet:

One of the distinctive traits about Iceland’s disaster, and Wall Street’s, is how little women had to do with it. Women worked in the banks, but not in the risktaking jobs. As far as I can tell, during Iceland’s boom, there was just one woman in a senior position inside an Icelandic bank. Her name is Kristin Petursdottir, and by 2005 she had risen to become deputy C.E.O. for Kaupthing in London. “The financial culture is very male-dominated,” she says. “The culture is quite extreme. It is a pool of sharks. Women just despise the culture.” Petursdottir still enjoyed finance. She just didn’t like the way Icelandic men did it, and so, in 2006, she quit her job. “People said I was crazy,” she says, but she wanted to create a financial-services business run entirely by women. To bring, as she puts it, “more feminine values to the world of finance.”


It was with that in mind that I walked, on my last afternoon in Iceland, into the Saga Museum. Its goal is to glorify the Sagas, the great 12th- and 13th-century Icelandic prose epics, but the effect of its life-size dioramas is more like modern reality TV. Not statues carved from silicon but actual ancient Icelanders, or actors posing as ancient Icelanders, as shrieks and bloodcurdling screams issue from the P.A. system: a Catholic bishop named Jon Arason having his head chopped off; a heretic named Sister Katrin being burned at the stake; a battle scene in which a blood-drenched Viking plunges his sword toward the heart of a prone enemy. The goal was verisimilitude, and to achieve it no expense was spared. Passing one tableau of blood and guts and moving on to the next, I caught myself glancing over my shoulder to make sure some Viking wasn’t following me with a battle-ax. The effect was so disorienting that when I reached the end and found a Japanese woman immobile and reading on a bench, I had to poke her on the shoulder to make sure she was real. This is the past Icelanders supposedly cherish: a history of conflict and heroism. Of seeing who is willing to bump into whom with the most force. There are plenty of women, but this is a men’s history.

The whole article is very interesting, but the conclusion: that men and the risk-taking impulse of men, is to blame seems to be an easy cop-out.

Men have channeled their risk-taking nature into many achievements, including financial achievements. One could argue that if women ran things, America would be devoid of spectacular feats like the Hoover Dam (114 men died) and the Panama Canal (over 5000 men died in the making).

So it’s not men. It’s morality. Men (and women) can put their efforts into something building and positive or something destructive and negative. And sometimes, people who believe that they are building something positive are actually losing sight of how their actions destroy.

Greed, in short, is not good. Enlightened self-interest that won’t harm others is good. There’s a difference. A person can be motivated for personal gain but not do it at the expense of others. It seems to me, that the Icelanders and the Wall Streeters wrongly believed that their actions were harmless to others. Or they thought they would gain and others would lose and didn’t care.

Unfortunately, their actions harmed not only others but themselves, too. Usually works that way. Blaming men is a lazy cop-out. Blaming an inherent risk-taking nature ignores the benefits of that nature when rightly applied. Blame human nature. Something for nothing is a very big lure.

Cross-posted at

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