Djcnor’s Weblog

Obama’s Choices – #3 Larry Summers

Posted on: December 31, 2008

Larry Summers will be Director of the National Economic Council, which advises the President on matters related to the US and global economy. This sounds like a duplication of Tim Geithner’s position, but the role of the National Economic Council seems to be more of a coordinating role, making sure that policies established by all the different agencies whose activities affect the economy are not conflicting with one another and are consistent with the economic goals of the President. So Mr. Geithner will advise Obama on what policies to make and the Council will look at how those intentions were carried out and whether the results are what were intended or not. Sounds like a pretty good checking system since Geithner and Summers were no always on the same side of debates when they were both in the same department.

Larry Summers is another Ivy League-er, but his connections are more current, since he has been working at Harvard lately. In fact, he was President of Harvard from 2001 to 2006. During that time, he stepped on some toes and showed some rather out of date attitudes. He appeared to regard the African Studies department as fluff. He offended women in science  and engineering by explaining away the glass ceiling existing in those areas as reflecting women’s lesser willingness to make the necessary commitments, women’s lesser innate abilities in the field, acknowledging but giving lesser importance to discrimination or socialization. (As a past woman scientist, I could easily refute this, but that would be off-subject for this post.) Eventually, the faculty expressed its disapproval in a vote of no confidence, some alumni stopped donating, and he resigned.

Summers comes from an academic family. Lots of professors, mostly of economics. He did his undergrad at MIT, so we can assume he has some knowledge of technology and science as well as economics. His approach to economics reflects that background. He defines a question specifically and narrowly, then uses mathematical, analytical, and statistical tools to get a numbers-type answer. He loves having something to count.

In science, this approach can lead to an experiment conducted under conditions with all the reality squeezed out. When I was in grad school we’d say it was an “Assume a spherical chicken” experiment. But, since an economist is stuck collecting his data from whatever reality exists, he doesn’t have that problem. Instead he has the problems of not having any control situation to compare his results against and not being able to control conditions enough to be sure his results are truly related to his assumed causes.

That’s one more appointment of someone to a position of authority over economic policies who has no personal background as someone on the lower end of that economy. It seems we’ll have to rely on Obama, and the people who contribute suggestions at his website, to provide that. Perhaps there will be will be someone among the others in the top 20.

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