Harvard’s ex-president, now one of President Obama’s top economic advisers, hasn’t caused any controversy in some time, which is unlike him. And many serious economic thinkers credit Summers and the Obama team with staving off a depression.
But Summers still seems unable to completely shake his past—or move beyond the compartment of “brilliant economist” to the category of “popular brilliant economist.”
In the Washington Post, Dana Milbank chastises Summers for his use of cold, impersonal language at a time when millions of Americans are feeling economic pain.
Summers spoke recently at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, Milbank reports:
What he delivered…was a lot of econo-speak that could only baffle Americans worried about finding or keeping a job. He spoke of “the multiplier process” and “a range of catalyzing investments.” He invoked the “liquidity trap” and “tail risks.” He alluded to the “width of the confidence interval” and the need to “achieve the sustainability criterion.”
Milbank’s conclusion? (Which I think is right on the money.)
Obama has a problem. There’s building evidence that he’s pursuing the right economic policy, but his administration isn’t very good at explaining it.
…In part this is because Obama lacks a credible economic spokesman to deliver the message. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner lacks gravitas in public appearances. Paul Volcker is 82 and only a part-time adviser. Christina Romer, head of the Council of Economic Advisers, is perceived to lack clout. CEA member Austan Goolsbee is a gifted spokesman but doesn’t have one of the top jobs. Then there’s Summers. He’s radioactive because of his tenure at Harvard, where he clashed with women on the faculty. The clashes have continued at the White House, according to Jonathan Alter’s new book, “The Promise.” When Romer protested that Summers tried to cut her out of important meetings because of her sex, Summers reportedly yelled at her: “Don’t you threaten me!”
“Don’t you bully me!” Romer replied.
Kinda wish you were a fly on that wall, don’t you? Christy Romer, whom Drew Faust rejected for tenure for no good reason, feeling that Summers was excluding her from meetings because she’s a woman…remarkable.
Meanwhile, in New York magazine Jonathan Heileman writes this about Obama’s choice of Tim Geithner as Treasury secretary:
Summers, a past occupant of the post who’d emerged as candidate Obama’s dominant economic adviser, badly wanted the job. But his confirmation would have been problematic thanks to his controversial tenure as president of Harvard and his part-time job at hedge fund D. E. Shaw and Co. And then there was his famously abrasive personality. “Fifty percent of the people Obama asked about Larry said no fucking way,” remembers an Obama adviser.
Of course, it’s a testament to Summers’ determination and, yes, strength that he recovered sufficiently from his Harvard ouster to be doing what he’s currently doing. (And to his book smarts, of course, if not emotional intelligence.) It just doesn’t sound like the experience changed him much.
Students of journalism, by the way, might consider the difference between the way Geithner is presented by Milbank and how he’s presented by Heileman, who presumably is working on a book and needs ongoing access. Bleh.