If you’re not an economist you may not have heard of Larry Summers. He’s the nephew of Paul Samuleson and Kenneth Arrow, and has himself received the John Bates Clark medal, been president of Harvard university, Chief Economist of the World Bank, Secretary of the Treasury for Clinton, and Director of the National Economic Council for Obama. So, a fairly stellar CV, really. What makes this interesting? Well, Wikipedia tells us:
Summers resigned as Harvard’s president in the wake of a no-confidence vote by Harvard faculty that resulted in large part from Summers’s conflict with Cornel West, financial conflict of interest questions regarding his relationship with Andrei Shleifer, and a 2005 speech in which he suggested that the under-representation of women in science and engineering could be due to a “different availability of aptitude at the high end,” and less to patterns of discrimination and socialization.
Summers stated in a 1991 interview: “There are no… limits to the carrying capacity of the earth that are likely to bind any time in the foreseeable future. There isn’t a risk of an apocalypse due to global warming or anything else. The idea that we should put limits on growth because of some natural limit, is a profound error and one that, were it ever to prove influential, would have staggering social costs.”
In December 1991, while at the World Bank, Summers signed a memo … stat[ing] that “the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that…. I’ve always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly underpolluted.”
Whatever you think of the substance of those comments, they’re probably not what you’d put in your firm’s PR material. So Summers is not exactly a stranger to controversy. Just imagine your thought process when faced with a man that has such a history of gaffes: he would have to absolutely stun you with his brilliance to win your confidence such that you’d appoint him to a role under any public scrutiny. Yet, Summers continues to win the most prestigious positions that an economist could hold. If that doesn’t reveal how persuasive and impressive the man must be in person then I’m not sure what would! Unfortunately, it probably also says something about how first-world institutions view statements that appear to demean socially disadvantaged groups.