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Against Larry Summers, the Friedmanite

By       Message John Wilson     Permalink
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Rumors abound that Summers may be Obama's choice for Secretary of the Treasury. The Chicago Tribune reports that a choice may be made quickly, and Summers is one of the leading contenders. According to New York magazine, “the inside betting is on a Larry Summers encore. 'They're gonna want somebody who knows the building, knows the economy, has been confirmed before and been advising them on economics,' says the former Clinton aide. 'I'd be flabbergasted if they chose somebody else.'"

Summers would be a lousy selection for this position. Summers is an overrated economist with a conventional free market ideology. But worst of all, Summers has a terrible reputation as a leader after being one of the worst presidents of Harvard in its history. And Summers has shifted even more toward the right-wing in recent years. If Obama chooses Summers, it would send the worst possible message to his supporters: that he may be nothing more than a repeat of Bill Clinton, and that is rejecting the idea of change in one of the most important posts during this economic crisis.

So what's wrong with Summers? At Harvard, there was his sexist speech about women, his dismissive attacks on Cornel West, his right-wing shift toward intolerance, and his rudeness and arrogance that alienated nearly everyone around him. During the Clinton Administration, Summers was infamous for signing a memo urging more pollution in the Third World, as well as his legendary poor treatment of others. Summers' approach to leadership and his ideology run contrary to what Obama espoused during his campaign, and Obama would be making a serious mistake if he appoints Summers to a prominent position.

The sexism of Summers may be the most well-known aspect of him now. On January 14, 2005, Summers spoke at a Harvard Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce. Summers declared,

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"It does appear that on many, many different human attributes--height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability--there is relatively clear evidence that whatever the difference in means--which can be debated--there is a difference in the standard deviation, and variability of a male and a female population."

In other words, Summers was claiming that the inferior genetics of women regarding math was one major reason why so few women were found in science and engineering. By contrast, Summers displayed an extraordinary ignorance of how discrimination works in America:

...Gary Becker very powerfully pointed out in addressing racial discrimination many years ago. If it was really the case that everybody was discriminating, there would be very substantial opportunities for a limited number of people who were not prepared to discriminate to assemble remarkable departments of high quality people at relatively limited cost simply by the act of their not discriminating, because of what it would mean for the pool that was available.”

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Got that? Summers not only advanced the notion of female genetic inferiority, but he largely dismissed the possibility that discrimination is an explanation for the absence of women in these fields. In doing so, Summers cited and embraced the right-wing economics of Gary Becker, whose long-discredited dissertation in 1950s espoused the ridiculous theory that discrimination can't exist in the free market because rational employers would hire superior candidates overlooked by prejudiced employers. In reality, of course, the world doesn't work this way.

But that didn't stop Summers from concluding,

in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination.”

In the question period, Summers brushed off a question about how female scientists are much more common in France and other countries: “My guess is that you'll find that in most of those places, the pressure to be high powered, to work eighty hours a week, is not the same as it is in the United States.” So aside from calling women innately dumb, Summers was arguing that women are too lazy to be good scientists. Perhaps not surprisingly, “the number of women receiving tenure each year at Harvard had dropped precipitously since Summers became president -- down to 4 of the past 32 offers.”

But it is a mistake to think that Summers was forced out of his job as president of Harvard because of his sexist remarks (and I believe he should be free to express these stupid, offensive ideas). In fact, Summers held on to his job long after he made his obnoxious remarks. The conservative board running Harvard was fully behind him. Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted 218–185 to pass a motion of “no confidence” in Summers, but this didn't seriously threaten his job.

Summers' end at Harvard came a year later, when he purged William Kirby, the dean of Arts and Sciences, from his post, because Summers wanted to have only his loyalists in positions of power. This prompted the Faculty of Arts and Sciences planned to make another vote of no confidence in Summers on February 28, 2006. But this time, the conservatives at Harvard did not rise up to support Summers. Summers had alienated them completely. Summers announced his resignation on February 21, 2006, and received a substantial golden parachute.

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As I note in my book, professor Stephen Thernstrom, who is one of the most prominent conservatives at Harvard, supported Summers but admitted that Summers is in the “top tenth of one percent of any scale measuring abrasiveness, arrogance, and overbearingness.” When some of your best friends and ideological allies admit that you're not suited for an important job, it signifies something very important. Does Barack Obama really embrace “abrasiveness, arrogance, and overbearingness” as the model for his cabinet?

Harry R. Lewis had resigned as a dean in 2003 because of his disagreements with Summers, and was sharply critical of him: “For all his extraordinary talents, he just hasn't provided the kind of leadership to the university that people were prepared to follow.” These words are important because Harry R. Lewis is a darling of the conservative movement in higher education. Yet Lewis concluded, “His misfortune arose from the impatience, harshness, thoughtlessness, and lack of candor.”

The lack of candor was a reference to Summers' dealings with Andrei Shleifer, a close friend of Summers who cost Harvard a $26 million settlement with the U.S. government. Shleifer violated conflict-of-interest rules by making secret investments in Russia at the same time he was working for a Harvard group contracted by the U.S. Government to advise the Russian government. In 2004 a federal court found Shleifer liable for conspiracy to defraud the U.S. Government. While Shleifer was being investigated, Summers was pushing to have Shleifer promoted to a prominent chair at Harvard.

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John K. Wilson is the author of five books, including "Barack Obama: This Improbable Quest" (Paradigm Publishers, 2008), www.obamapolitics.com, and "Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies" (Paradigm Publishers, 2008). He is the (more...)
 

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