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The Lawrence Summers speech

Reuters
announces that Harvard President Lawrence Summers--bowing to faculty pressure--has released the full text of his speech on women. This is the so-called controversial speech that almost put an end to his career as president. Here is the full text
of the speech. The Reuters story also states that he released "a letter in which he again atoned for the things he said." I couldn’t find the letter. Now look, do yourself a favor and read this speech, which includes questions and responses, and then ask, is Summers deserving of the kind of treatment he got? Are his detractors--you know, the ones who thought they would have to run outside to throw up because of his opinions--correct in saying that this guy is some sort of closed-minded ideologue? Or, is the world quite mad? If I’m missing something, please inform me. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that college presidents (Summers, and maybe six others) never have anything interesting to say. Go ahead, make a cup of Java, and read it. I’d like to hear some opinions on this.

Discussions - 8 Comments


Summers does indeed deserve the heat he’s gotten -- not on the merits, but existentially. Given his position near the pinnacle of academic life, he could have used this incident to become a clear voice for REAL academic freedom ... perhaps with the effect of helping many, many much smaller dissenters much further down in society.

He chose not to. He chose, instead, to place his reputation among the Establishment censors, and his job security at Harvard and any similar institution that might consider hiring him, ahead of his duty to the academic calling and American society. Summers has revealed himself as a weak man who defers to bad rules for no good reason.
Given that he chose to kowtow instead of fight, life’s too short to waste our sympathy on him. There are many other people far more worthy of it.

For those not bothered by anything in Summers’s speech (everyone here, I suspect), I offer this choice nugget from a memo Summers released back in 1991, when he was chief economist for the World Bank. I suspect you’ll applaud its sentiments also, but nonetheless, here you are:

DATE: December 12, 1991


"TO: Distribution


"FR: Lawrence H. Summers


"Subject: GEP

"’Dirty’ Industries: Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging MORE migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs [Less Developed Countries]? I can think of three reasons:

"1) The measurements of the costs of health impairing pollution depends on the foregone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality. From this point of view a given amount of health impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.

"2) The costs of pollution are likely to be non-linear as the initial increments of pollution probably have very low cost. I’ve always though that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted, their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City. Only the lamentable facts that so much pollution is generated by non-tradable industries (transport, electrical generation) and that the unit transport costs of solid waste are so high prevent world welfare enhancing trade in air pollution and waste.

"3) The demand for a clean environment for aesthetic and health reasons is likely to have very high income elasticity. The concern over an agent that causes a one in a million change in the odds of prostrate cancer is obviously going to be much higher in a country where people survive to get prostrate cancer than in a country where under 5 mortality is is 200 per thousand. Also, much of the concern over industrial atmosphere discharge is about visibility impairing particulates. These discharges may have very little direct health impact. Clearly trade in goods that embody aesthetic pollution concerns could be welfare enhancing. While production is mobile the consumption of pretty air is a non-tradable.

"The problem with the arguments against all of these proposals for more pollution in LDCs (intrinsic rights to certain goods, moral reasons, social concerns, lack of adequate markets, etc.) could be turned around and used more or less effectively against every Bank proposal for liberalization."

They stretched him out on a "rack" and he recanted his heresies. Cobarde!

As for his original talk, it’s just common sense. Le faltan cojones.

So, who’s more likely to lose his job--Lawrence Summers or Ward Churchill?

As Jerry Pournelle states at www.jerrypournelle.com, "A woman scientist acts like a typical hysterical woman when confronted with ideas she disagrees with, and the entire Harvard faculty seems to believe this is the way scientists behave when confronted with theories they don’t accept. Interesting as it proves that if they are correct, women must be unfit to be scientists since hysterical reaction--I couldn’t breathe, I felf physically sick-- to opposing theories is pretty well ipso facto disqualification to claims of being scientific.

Where are the women scientists to point out that the scientific response to incorrect theories is not witch hunts and hysteria, but scientific confrontation with data? But not at Harvard.

Why does anyone want to go to a school that sanctions hysteria"

To Brad Preston: Thanks for this. A great comment from Pournelle, and old (quite old!) friend of mine, by the way. I had him out at the Ashbrook Center about six years ago. He was great. Unfortunately that was before we were recording everything.

Do you think that some of the same people who are excoriating Summers are the ones defending the right of Churchill to label those killed in the WTC on 9/11 as "little Eichmanns"? If so, what does that tell you about their standards?

Certain kinds of wealth-creating (ergo beneficial) activities can have side-effects that may be undesirable (e.g., pollution), and hence can be understood as costs incurred by those activities. Weighing and probing the relationship between benefits and costs in particular cases (e.g., those of poorer countries) are legitimate avenues of economic analysis, and even informed speculation about alternative policies to just crying, in effect, "Any and all pollution is an absolute evil! We must never allow any activity that causes it, no matter what the benefits of that activity may be!"

Summers is an economist. I hold no particular brief for the guy or for the World Bank, but I suppose it’s worth noting that one of his jobs at that institution was no doubt to perform this kind of analysis--which, by the way, is not the same thing as "expressing sentiments."

His memo reminds me of passages in my college econ textbooks about the possibility of state-to-state or country-to-country trading in effluent licenses, or why Nevada leases landfill space to New York City: Any or all of these may or maybe not be a good idea, but hardly one that it’s somehow wrong or evil to think about and discuss. His memo’s analysis--like his speech at Harvard--may certainly be disputable, but is it also supposed to be scandalous or somehow outrageous? I’m sorry but I just don’t see it. This doesn’t strike me as a matter of applauding or not applauding certain "sentiments," but more of understanding what economic [or more broadly, scientific?] analysis is and how it tries to clarify problems like cost/benefit tradeoffs in pollution policy and other areas. Some people may find thinking about pollution in terms of tradeoffs to be distasteful, but these tradeoffs exist whether we like it or not, and their nature is not something that economists should be blamed for thinking about.

On a personal note, I’ve read about industrial-age London and Pittsburgh (and Taipei or Seoul today) and how smokey they were or are, and I don’t suppose I’d want to live there. On the other hand, a friend who recently did a bunch of traveling in central Africa told me that the air is clear and you have a wonderful view of the stars quite frequently but that’s in large measure because so few people have electricity for lighting and because there are no factories--and most folks live on about a dollar or two a day. Given the choice I guess I’d have to say that I’d take smoky but prosperous Seoul over that.

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