Larry Summers: revealed brilliance

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.”

More recently, he has claimed that there is no point learning to speak any language other than English–the native tongue of only 6% of the world.

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.

  • To be fair, with regards to the last incident he did say it was a “thought experiment” used to show that, when thinking about policies, we need to be clear and transparent with all our assumptions.  If we didn’t believe such trade was fair, there is likely to be closet assumption sitting around that we should make transparent.

    I’ve read that a couple of places, if only I could find the damned link …

    • Yeah, I definitely didn’t attempt to show both sides of every issue there 😛

      I don’t think it really matters, though: the point is that it’s a daft memo to sign if you’re in a position of authority and he does that sort of thing constantly. He’s like the anti-politician in that he doesn’t appear to censor what he says in any way!

      • “He’s like the anti-politician in that he doesn’t appear to censor what he says in any way!”

        I’m definitely a fan of that 😉

  • Richard29

    He also didn’t enamour himself to Obama when he was quoted in the biography as saying to somebody during the bailout decisions “we’re home alone, there is no adult in charge, Clinton would never have made these mistakes” – ouch!

    • Ha, I hadn’t heard that one!

  • On the trade-environment bit, Bhagwati was also clear that shifting pollution to poor countries was probably welfare-enhancing. It’s standard trade theory.
    But, jamesz, isn’t this all old news? Why have you brought it up now?

    • He only just said the language thing, which inspired me to share some of his greatest hits with a wider audience.

    • Also old news is good news – although my guess in this instance is that someone has a man crush on Summers …

      • Actually, it’s because I really dream of being a gossip blogger, but it’s a long way from monetary policy to Katy Perry. The road runs near Lawrence Summers, funnily enough 😉

        • The economics of Katy Perry – don’t forget to include relevant pictures.

        • Relevant to agnitio’s interests.

  • jh

    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.
    …..
    You seem to be suggesting his economists analysis of the state of the natural world is accurate?

  • ArmchairAnalyst

    “Renowned” economist, senior presidential advisor and the guy that smacked-down the Winkelvoss twins and is now therefore probably the only guy M. Zuckerberg has actually gone out of his way to add as a friend on Facebook. Just not fair.

  • “More recently, he has claimed that there is no point learning to speak any language other than English–the native tongue of only 6% of the world.”
    But i guess these 6% have like 30% of the world’s capital?! If you add none native speakers, who are trained in english language (like most of Europe). Would be interesting to get a a number how much of the world’s capital is in hands of people who are capable of speaking english (and compared other “famous” native tongues like spanish). These people might establish english more and more in the world, even though it’s not a wide spread spoken native tongue, it might be the best choice as a world language.