Is Larry Summers a Scientist or a Politician?

May 14th, 2011 at 3:54 pm | 10 Comments |

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A couple things in this interview by Andrew Goldman of Larry Summers currently irritated me. I’ll give the quotes and then explain my annoyance.

1. Goldman: What would the economy look like now if $1.2 trillion had been spent?

Summers: I think it’s an artificial question because there would have been all kinds of problems in actually moving $1.2 trillion dollars through the system — finding enough bridge projects that were ready to go and the like. But the recovery probably would have proceeded more rapidly if the fiscal program had been larger.

. . .

2. Goldman: You’re aware of — and were making light of — the fact that you occasionally rub people the wrong way.

Summers: In meetings, I’m more focused on trying to figure out what the right answer is than making everybody feel validated. In Washington and at Harvard, that sometimes rubs people the wrong way.

OK, now my reactions:

1. Not enough bridge projects, huh? I don’t believe it. We’ve been hearing for decades about America’s crumbling infrastructure. Summers (and, more generally, Obama’s economic team) had a staff, right? If they had put in the effort I think they could’ve found lots of bridges, water pipes, etc., that needed repair.

I also find it a bit annoying that Summers tries to have it both ways on this: (a) there weren’t enough projects on which to spend the money, (b) a bigger stimulus plan would’ve been better. It’s no surprise that people were skeptical of (b) given that the government’s most prominent economist was claiming (a)!

2. I think Summers is missing the point here. If everything had gone OK with the economy, nobody would be complaining about his style in meetings. But the economy has not gone so well so it’s natural to think that maybe he and the rest of the Obama team could’ve done better. And given the financial crisis of 2008, it seems reasonable to wonder whether Summers, Greenspan, et al. really “figured out what the right answer is.” Even at the time those policies were enacted there were many dissenting voices.

If being “focused on trying to figure out what the right answer is” actually gets you the wrong answer, then maybe you question your strategy.

Why does this bug me?

Politicians and pundits say silly things all the time and I usually just let it go (unless it happens to hit one of my pet peeves). But I hold academic social scientists to a higher standard.

It seems to me that Summers is torn between his two roles. As a researcher, he wants to admit his uncertainty and think about how to do better. As a politician, it’s all about Never Surrender, Don’t Give an Inch, etc.

I don’t know the best solution here, but if I were in this position, I might limit my public pronouncements to my area of expertise and defer to others on theirs. For example, Summers could say, “As a macroeconomist, my judgment is that a stimulus plan of $1.8 trillion would’ve been best. But other government experts told me there weren’t enough bridges to repair etc. Even so, etc.” Whatever credibility Summers has on the macroeconomics is diluted by his willingness to express certainty on any other topic that he’s asked about. Again, this looks to me like a worst-of-both-worlds combination of the academic’s freedom to speculate and hypothesize and the politician’s air of certainty.

P.S. Goldman has a talent for getting people to say things that make them look bad, as did Deborah Solomon (his predecessor in this NYT magazine column). Or could you make anybody look bad by taping them for long enough and then stringing together some of their more embarrassing statements? An interviewer could probably make me look pretty foolish in that way.

Originally posted at The Monkey Cage.

Recent Posts by Andrew Gelman



10 Comments so far ↓

  • ottovbvs

    Get a life. Summers is a professor of economics not a participant in a Dale Carnegie beauty pageant. And why get concerned about his answer on the size of the stimulus. Sure it should have been larger as Paul Krugman never ceases to remind us but there was never any political possibility of passing a larger one. Your concern should be directed at Republicans not Summers.

  • SqueekyFromm

    What did you expect from Larry Summers. The guy had one job while he worked for President Wonderful—protect Wall Street from meaningful reform.

    http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2010/11/obama%E2%80%99s-problem-simply-defined-it-was-the-banks.html

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter

  • maxfieldj

    I lost some faith, not all, in Obama when he appointed this man to his economic team. He bears some responsibility for the mess we are in now. What this man did to Brooksley Born, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/25/AR2009052502108.html, was covert misogyny. Geitner also was in on that hatchet job. Everyone knows now that Brooksley Born was right and Summers was wrong. Everyone that is except Larry Summers. Checkout what happened to Harvard’s endowment under Mr. Summers.

    The man has never admitted a mistake in his life. It is hard to understand how the planet earth can support his ego along with Trump and Gingrich.

    • ottovbvs

      The man has never admitted a mistake in his life. It is hard to understand how the planet earth can support his ego along with Trump and Gingrich.

      Probably because more intelligent than most people he has contact with. And the difference with Trump/Gingrich is that he has an intellect that justifies hte ego unlike them.

  • Rabiner

    Did the author really quote ‘…’? Really?

  • indy

    Seriously? Frum Forum is the go to place to list petty annoyances now I guess. Sort of an advanced tweeting platform, is that it? Frum Forum: when 140 characters just won’t do! C’mon.

  • balconesfault

    Less filling.

  • bibs

    Economics is not science. Science requires a hypothesis and then a means of measuring that theory against reality. Economic theories don’t and usually can’t meet this criteria unless they are trivially obvious. Behaviorial economics come close as it tries to account for the fact that economics is significantly driven by human emotion.

    So in short Larry Summers is not a scientist, and not a politician. He’s a whore with a PhD who will sell his “intellectual support” to the highest bidder. In other words, an economist.

  • armstp

    Gelman,

    My response to your responses:

    “1. Not enough bridge projects, huh? I don’t believe it. We’ve been hearing for decades about America’s crumbling infrastructure. Summers (and, more generally, Obama’s economic team) had a staff, right? If they had put in the effort I think they could’ve found lots of bridges, water pipes, etc., that needed repair.”

    I don’t think you have a real feel about what went on with the stimulus. They were looking for projects that were shovel-ready and could begin as soon as possible. So, although we know there is a lot of poor infrastructure in this country, not much of that infrastructure was immediately ready to be upgraded (ie. they could not wait for studies, plans, etc to be drawn up, they had to grab the projects that were already largely green-lighted and ready to go immediately).

    “I also find it a bit annoying that Summers tries to have it both ways on this: (a) there weren’t enough projects on which to spend the money, (b) a bigger stimulus plan would’ve been better. It’s no surprise that people were skeptical of (b) given that the government’s most prominent economist was claiming (a)!”

    I am not sure I understand you logic here. Sumners is not at all trying to have it both ways. Where exactly does he say we should have had a bigger stimulus? He was one of the people arguing for the size of the stimulus we got. There is nothing inconsistent in his statements. You can say that there were not enough projects and also say that a bigger stimulus would have helped more. What is inconsistent with that?

    2. You are knit-picking on BS. You clearly have a problem with Sumners. I am not sure what rubbing people the wrong way has to do with the success of his economic policies. That does not make sense. You can still be hugely successful and piss people off. Have you ever worked in a tough work environment? By the way the economic policies that Sunmners was pushing have been largely successful and have done exactly what they were suppose to do, which was to kick-start the economy, stop the freefall and to stabilize the financial system.

  • Rabiner

    bibs:

    “Economics is not science. Science requires a hypothesis and then a means of measuring that theory against reality. Economic theories don’t and usually can’t meet this criteria unless they are trivially obvious. Behaviorial economics come close as it tries to account for the fact that economics is significantly driven by human emotion.

    So in short Larry Summers is not a scientist, and not a politician. He’s a whore with a PhD who will sell his “intellectual support” to the highest bidder. In other words, an economist.”

    Actually Economics is a Social Science. No one has ever claimed it was a Natural Science such as Biology, Chemistry, or Physics.