Archive for January, 2012

Where Did You Go, Richard Perez-Pena?

Posted on January 31st, 2012 in Uncategorized | 12 Comments »

I keep waiting for the Times’ Richard Perez-Pena to write some new story furthering his “reporting” on Yale quarterback Patrick Witt, but it doesn’t seem to be happening, and I think there’s a very good possibility that that’s all we’re going to hear from Perez-Pena—he’s letting the story drop.

Which is, when you get right down to it, hideous: Perez-Pena smeared Witt’s character, realized that he couldn’t prove a thing that he was saying and was very likely wrong, and then weaseled out of the dilemma by saying that there were “diverging” stories.

To recap: Last Friday, Perez-Pena authored a 2, 000-word piece in the TImes accusing Witt of pretending to abandon his Rhodes scholarship candidacy to play in the Harvard-Yale game when, in fact, he was abandoning it because he’d been accused of sexual assault and the Rhodes committee found out.

To support his accusation, Perez-Pena noted that Witt was a member of a fraternity, had had two minor brushes with the law, and was serious about high school football.

After the article came out, Witt, through a spokesman, flat-out denied that the sexual assault accusation had influenced his decision about the Rhodes, and noted that he had publicly proclaimed the likelihood that he would choose to play in The Game before he was notified by the Rhodes committee of any problem with his candidacy.

No matter: The Internet lit up with condemnation of Yale, which was roundly derided for honoring the wishes of a female student and keeping a sexual assault complaint confidential, and Witt, who was widely characterized as a rapist, a liar and a con man.

Some readers did think it important that a New York Times reporter present some evidence to support his damning charges—such as knowing who made them, what they were and how they were resolved.

I like this excerpt from a post by someone named KC Johnson on a blog called “Minding The Campus“:

With a few days perspective, it’s become clear that the Times’ mishandling of the Witt story was, in two specific ways, even worse than originally believed.

First, Times reporter Richard Pérez-Peña strongly implied (though he carefully avoided ever coming out and saying so specifically) that Witt had withdrawn from Yale.* In fact, according to a statement issued by a representative of the student, Witt has finished all academic requirements except for his senior thesis, and is off-campus this semester training for the NFL draft, as are many talented college football seniors.

Second, in what could only be deemed a deliberate attempt to smear Witt’s character, Pérez-Peña devoted more than eight percent of his article (163 of 1956 words) to discussing what he termed “two minor arrests” in Witt’s past. But the paper didn’t even attempt to claim that these matters had any bearing on the article’s ostensible topic–the suspension of Witt’s Rhodes application. Negative insinuations, it seems, were all the news that was fit to print.

Forced to respond to the fact that everyone who had the time to think about it seriously thought his story unworthy of seeing the light of day, Perez-Pena followed up the next day with an article titled “Diverging Stories of a Rhodes Candidacy.”

That article basically went like this: Perez-Pena: Though I have no proof, I accused you of misbehavior. Witt: You’re wrong, and here’s why. Perez-Pena: I continue to accuse you of misbehavior.

And that’s kind of where things stand. I’m sure Perez-Pena doesn’t want to write about this again, because he knows now how seriously he screwed up. So he’ll call it a day with the self-justifying idea that there are two sides to the story and both are equally valid.

Meanwhile, on the Internet, quite a few stories point out that the Times made an enormous error publishing this story. But there are many, many more which basically say that Witt is a scumbag and Yale is an institution whose primary function is to cover up rape.

It seems inevitable that the Times’ public editor will address this issue, and in that bland, on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand way that all Times’ public editors seem to exude when they sit down at the keyboard, he will probably fault some aspects of the Times’ story before making a mild suggestion about how to handle these complicated issues better in the future.

But that’s really not enough. The Times—and, yes, Richard Perez-Pena—owe Patrick Witt an apology. Then Perez-Pena and the editor who green lighted this story should be fired.

Don’t hold your breath….
_________________________________________________________________________________________

* Blogger: This is exactly right. Perez-Pena noted that Witt had left campus and was writing his senior essay, clearly implying that his leaving campus was a punishment related to the sexual assault allegation—when, in fact, it wasn’t, just a function of the fact that Witt had finished all his course work but had not written the essay.

“So-called Glass Steagal”

Posted on January 30th, 2012 in Uncategorized | 6 Comments »

Reuters blogger Felix Salmon brought the following interview with Larry Summers to my attention. In it, Summers proclaims himself a great defender of the environment, says that he was generally for greater financial regulation in the ’90s (seriously), and says that the documentary Inside Job, which blasted Summers for having close ties to Wall Street, “essentially had all its facts wrong.”

It takes a few minutes to get going, then becomes increasingly tense and fascinating as interviewer Krishnan Guru-Murthy starts to ask tougher questions. (I love the part where Summers accuses him of reading from “a couple articles brought to you by a researcher.” You can tell how pissed Summers is when he starts accusing you of not knowing what you’re talking about.)

The part about Inside Job, which comes near the end, is particularly fascinating in its disingenuousness. Summers says that Inside Job had its facts wrong because how could he have been corrupted by Wall Street buckraking when he never made any significant money from Wall Street until five years after he left the Clinton administration?

But unless I remember incorrectly, that’s not what Inside Job charges: Inside Job says that Summers was corrupted by the millions of dollars (8 of ‘em, I think) he received from hedge fund D.E. Shaw and Wall Street banks such as Goldman Sachs for, essentially, showing up and chewing the fat from time to time—and that this investment by Wall Street in Summers was repaid by its recipient when he went to work at the Obama White House and made it his mission to protect the interests of the big banks.

It’s a rather clumsy tactic on Summers’ part, and it shows, I think, that sometimes he really does think everyone is sadly and significantly less intelligent than he is (but in thinking so, he proves the opposite). Oh, I’ll just misstate the argument of Inside Job and that will take care of that….

So sayeth the brilliant economist.

The interview is fascinating—it’s about 18 minutes long, and well worth-watching.

More on Patrick Witt

Posted on January 28th, 2012 in Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

In the Washington Post, columnist Kathleen Parker blasts the New York Times for printing the Patrick Witt story.

It’s not until the 11th paragraph that readers even learn about the half-dozen anonymous sources. Not until the 14th paragraph does the Times tell us that “many aspects of the situation remain unknown, including some details of the allegation against Witt; how he responded; how it was resolved; and whether Yale officials who handle Rhodes applications — including Richard C. Levin, the university’s president, who signed Witt’s endorsement letter — knew of the complaint.”

Translation: We don’t know anything, but we’re smearing this guy anyway.

In the Hartford Courant, columnist Jeff Jacobs—who had previously written about Witt—calls on Yale president Richard Levin to speak (which would likely violate the confidentiality of the sexual assault investigation). Jacobs also reveals that he was solicited to write about Witt in late October; I wrote yesterday that I would be surprised if Yale had actively prompted the original stories about Witt’s dilemma, so mea culpa—sounds like I was wrong about that.

In the YDN, editor Max de la Bruyere explains his decision not to run the Witt story (thereby showing more editorial judgment than the fabled New York Times).

In order to be fair to all those involved and the process they had adhered to, and because the nature of the complaint meant that all its details remain allegations, the News chose not to print a story.

Sometimes in journalism, not running a story is the hardest thing you can do—much harder than running with a story—and de la Bruyere deserves a huge amount of credit for showing so much maturity.

Not so much Richard Perez-Pena. In one of the most self-justifying follow-ups I’ve ever seen written, Perez-Pena defends his decision to run with a story based on a victim he doesn’t know making allegations he doesn’t know fed to him by sources he can’t disclose. This article is as shoddy and disingenuous as Perez-Pena’s hatchet job yesterday.

Titling his article “Diverging Stories of a Rhodes Candidacy“—those stories being Witt’s and, let’s be honest here, Perez-Pena’s—the author continues to frame Witt’s handling of the Rhodes-vs-football matter as deceitful.

I’m going to quote P-P at some length here, because it’s important:

The complaint and its outcome remained secret, with no word sent to officials with the Rhodes scholarship trust. And Witt went on to be the often glowing subject of news media coverage, held up as an exemplar of brains, brawn and character, a young man torn between attending a required final Rhodes interview on Nov. 19 and taking part in the football team’s season highlight, the game against Harvard the same day.

But in early November, the Rhodes Trust informed Yale administrators that it had learned of the allegation against Witt, according to people with knowledge of the episode who were granted anonymity to discuss confidential matters. Rhodes officials informed Yale that Witt’s candidacy had been suspended, and Yale would have to decide whether to re-endorse Witt if it wanted his candidacy to remain viable, the people said.

On Nov. 13, Yale and Witt announced that he was withdrawing his candidacy and that he would play against Harvard. There was no mention that any concerns had been raised by the Rhodes officials.

A couple of huge facts that P-P rather craftily omits: As Witt’s spokesperson pointed out yesterday, in this New Haven Register article dated November 1—which is to say, sooner than Witt and Yale heard from the Rhodes Trust—Witt indicates that he’s leaning toward withdrawing his application. It’s called: “Patrick Witt Places ‘the Game’ Over Rhodes Interview.”

While Witt didn’t make his final decision public until later, that’s a pretty important piece of information not to provide immediately. Why does Perez-Pena wait until a few paragraphs before the end of his story to do so? Because he knows that it makes him look ridiculous, and makes his entire house-of-cards journalism collapse. If Witt gave several interviews indicating that he’d probably play The Game rather than attend the Rhodes interview before he’d heard anything from the Rhodes people , where is the story here? It doesn’t exist.

Here’s the other fatal flaw in P-P’s argument: The implicit assumption that Yale officials had to tell the Rhodes Trust of the allegation against Witt, and that because they didn’t, they were engaged in a cover-up.

But how can Perez-Pena make this claim when a) he doesn’t know what the allegation was, and b) he doesn’t know (at least he didn’t in his story yesterday) of its resolution? In other words, if Yale thought that Witt hadn’t done anything, why would the university have any obligation to send the Rhodes Trust information that would likely stain Witt’s reputation regardless? (Just as Perez-Pena’s unsupported allegations have stained Witt’s reputation.)

The irony is that, in fact, P-P does know more about the outcome of the case than he did earlier—thanks to Patrick Witt, whose spokesperson and Max de la Bruyere are—and this is important—the only people to go on the record in all the thousands of words written by P-P. The only ones willing to put their name to what they say.

At the meeting’s end, Witt was told to stay away from his accuser. No other action was taken.

Who knows what this information really means—doesn’t sound particularly serious to me—but Perez-Pena only knows it because it came from Witt, not because any of his anonymous sources provided it.

We also know from Witt that he asked for a formal inquiry into the allegations, apparently because he wanted a record that would establish his innocence, and was denied on the grounds that there was no need for one. Sounds like Yale might want to reconsider that policy.

Nonetheless, Perez-Pena continúes to smear Witt with innuendo, though. Like this:

The Times also reported Thursday that Witt had twice been arrested, once when he was a student at the University of Nebraska and again in New Haven in 2010. Witt’s agent said he was not sure whether Witt had disclosed to Rhodes officials his two arrests, neither of which led to a criminal record. Yale’s own Rhodes application does not ask about any disciplinary history outside the university.

Magazu said Witt disclosed his Nebraska arrest to Yale at the time he transferred in 2009.

What on earth is the point of this? Perez-Pena seems to be trying to suggest that Witt has a history of bad behavior in an effort to buttress his implication that Witt is a sexual predator. But of course, Witt’s prior brushes with the law, which sounded extremely minor, aren’t necessarily relevant to any subsequent allegation, and Perez-Pena certainly never establishes that they are—he only implies it. If he really believes that these things demonstrate something meaningful about Witt’s character—something relevant to the sexual allegation—he should come out and say so. That he only implies it is gross.

He’s also implying that Witt has a history of covering things up—but given that the Yale Rhodes application doesn’t ask you to include any disciplinary history outside the university, P-P is maligning Witt for, possibly, not including information on an application that doesn’t ask for it.

Vile.

By the end of this embarrassing article, Perez-Pena is so desperate to defend his hackwork that he resorts to this claim:

Indeed, in a Wall Street Journal article published Nov. 12 — days after Witt now says he had told Yale of his decision to play against Harvard — both Witt and Yale’s athletic director were quoted talking about what they said remained a very difficult choice.

“I just need to make a choice and live with it,” Witt told the newspaper.

Those are the last words of Perez-Pena’s article. But you know what a good reporter does, Richard? He/she calls up the author of that Wall Street Journal story and says, hey, when did you interview Patrick Witt for that story you wrote? Was it the day before…or a few days before?

If a reporter doesn’t do that, you know what that usually means? That he didn’t want to know the answer.

The Times needs to yank Perez-Pena from this story and start looking into how this fiasco made its way into print.

By the way, one of the reasons I’m so passionate about this subject is because I’ve reported on issues surrounding violence against women, and I know when you go to press with a story and when you don’t. Lives change when you go to press; people get hurt; you don’t do it if you don’t have your facts. Already Perez-Pena’s original story has prompted hundreds of follow-ups, most of which talk about the “doubt” cast on Witt’s character. One talks about WItt’s “deception.” It goes on and on.

If you’re interested, take a look at this piece I wrote about a Republican political strategist accused of beating two former wives. It has court records and on-the-record statements from half a dozen or so sources corroborating the allegations.

The “Collapse” of Patrick Witt

Posted on January 27th, 2012 in Uncategorized | 46 Comments »

The New York Times’ Richard Perez-Pena publishes a lengthy article today alleging that Patrick Witt, the Yale quarterback who famously turned down a Rhodes Scholarship interview to play in the Yale-Harvard game, was at the same time facing a charge of “sexual assault.”

The article is called “At Yale, the Collapse of a Rhodes Scholar Candidacy,” and in my opinion it is a terrible piece of journalism.

Perez-Pena’s story is simply this: That Witt received an enormous amount of attention for withdrawing his Rhodes application because the interview for the Rhodes Scholarship conflicted with the time of the Yale-Harvard game. The attention was highly positive. (I myself made fun of David Gergen for this.) But in fact, Witt had been accused of sexual assault by a woman, someone told the Rhodes committee about the charge, and the committee had suspended Witt’s application and given Yale a week to decide whether it wanted to re-nominate him or not. Witt himself suspended his application before he knew what Yale’s decision would be.

Perez-Pena based his story on interviews with six people who reportedly have “knowledge of all or part of the story”—though Perez-Pena acknowledges that the Times has not spoken with Witt’s accuser and does not know her name. In the process, he smears Witt with unrelated accusations and strongly implies that Witt was a) probably guilty and b) at the very least, guilty of deceptive behavior.

Perez-Pena writes:

The revelations about Witt’s Rhodes candidacy being compromised are just the latest to muddy the inspiring picture of a scholar-athlete torn between brain and brawn.

This is, in fact, not true. It’s a reference to the fact that WItt’s coach turned out to have lied about his own alleged status as a former Rhodes candidate—which was deeply unfortunate, but didn’t have anything to do with Witt and whether he is or isn’t an inspiring scholar-athlete. That’s what you call guilt by association, and it is at best a poorly written sentence, and at worst sleazy innuendo.

Here’s some more guilt by association:

Last year, Yale overhauled its systems for handling such [sexual harassment and assault] complaints and imposed a five-year ban on campus activities by a fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon, whose members and pledges had engaged in highly publicized episodes of sexual harassment.

Witt was a member of that fraternity and lived in its off-campus house.

I have no love for DKE or sexual harassment, but the linking of these two sentences clearly implicates Witt in sexual harassment, whether he participated in any of DKE’s rather gross hazing activities or not.

Again: at best, a poorly written pair of sentences. It’s possible that it’s also a very purposefully crafted pair of sentences.

Perez-Pena dredges up the fact that Witt had two minor brushes with the law. Are they relevant? I suppose they add more detail to the picture of a widely praised young man—though Witt never seems to have made any claims for sainthood about himself and can’t be held responsible for the nonsense that people like David Gergen wrote about him. On the other hand, they do imply that Witt has a track record of misbehavior–yet Perez-Pena doesn’t have all of the details of what actually happened. So the implication may well be unfair.

(Someone is clearly out to get Witt, because you don’t just happen to find out that Witt paid a $90 ticket for getting into an argument with a bouncer at Toad’s Place. There’s no way that Perez-Pena wasn’t tipped off to this stuff—perhaps by the same person who tipped off the Rhodes Committee. It’s Times’ policy to try to characterize anonymous sources and their motives for leaking material and staying anonymous; Perez-Pena does not indicate why someone came to him with this story, but since he doesn’t know the name of the woman involved, it obviously wasn’t her.)

Perez-Pena reports that someone told the Rhodes Committee of an allegation against Witt; the Committee suspended his application and gave Yale the time to consider whether to re-nominate him—which sounds like an appropriate way to handle the situation, because surely the Rhodes Committee didn’t know all the details of the matter, since surely they were told of it by someone with an agenda—and that before Yale had informed Witt of its decision (or possibly made its decision), Witt himself withdrew his application. The media reported it in the context of a scholar-athlete giving up individual achievement for the sake of his team, when probably it wasn’t.

“I will be playing in the Yale-Harvard game this Saturday,” [WItt's statement] said. “I have withdrawn my application for the Rhodes scholarship.”

The quarterback did not tie the two sentences, but journalists did….

Which, clearly, irritates Perez-Pena. [Remember: Perez-Pena covers the media for the Times. Not athletics. Not crime. Not universities. The media.]

But who knows, really? Maybe Yale would have re-endorsed Witt, because, you know, maybe he didn’t do anything. Or maybe he would have dropped out anyway. I suspect he would have, because what football player would rather interview for the Rhodes than play in the biggest game of his life? Can you imagine Witt saying, “Nah, I’m gonna blow off The Game for my Rhodes interview?” Never happen. Particularly given the huge emphasis Witt’s family gave to boosting his football career, which Perez-Pena writes about iin a rather sneering, media-elite sort of way. (Perez-Pena writes that Witt’s family moved towns to get him into better football programs, which he suggests is extreme behavior but in parts of the country other than New York City might be considered good parenting.)

So here’s my complaint: Perez-Pena basically has Witt strung up, guilty not just of sexual assault but also of a massive media deceit. Witt’s certainly not guilty of the latter; he wasn’t the one seeking all the publicity, and he seems to have handled it pretty graciously, under what must have been very awkward circumstances. And while for understandable reasons he didn’t volunteer the accusation leveled against him, he looks like he went out of his way not to tell any lies, or make himself out to be the hero that others were portraying him as.

Yet what do we know of this allegation, really?

Well….

Many aspects of the situation remain unknown, including some details of the allegation against Witt; how he responded; how it was resolved; and whether Yale officials who handle Rhodes applications — including Richard C. Levin, the university’s president, who signed Witt’s endorsement letter — knew of the complaint.

Here are “some details” of the allegation:

In September, according to people with knowledge of the situation, a female student went to Yale’s Sexual Assault Harassment and Response and Education Center, claiming Witt had assaulted her in her dormitory room.

That’s it—that’s all we get. What does it mean? That Witt raped her? That he tried to kiss her? Something in-between?

(Clearly the implication is rape, because newspapers tend to use the term “sexual assault” instead of the term “rape,” because rape is considered stigmatizing. And also because “sexual assault” is broader and includes violence against women that doesn’t include rape—but still, most people who read “sexual assault” think “rape.”)

Or maybe the accusation was made up by someone who doesn’t like football, doesn’t like DKE, and was out to make a political statement by filing a claim against Yale’s star QB.

Or maybe it was a statement made up by someone incensed that Witt was sleeping with her best friend after having promised fealty to her.

What if the accuser had made other such allegations in the past that turned out to be false? (Something Perez-Pena couldn’t investigate—unlike his ability to investigate Witt’s past—because he doesn’t even know her name.)

The truth is, we just don’t know. Anything’s possible. So we shouldn’t assume the worst. But, inevitably, some of us will.

We do know that the woman filed a complaint with the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct.

Like many colleges and universities, Yale offers accusers a choice between making a formal complaint and an informal one. This student chose the informal process. In that process, an individual or a few members of the committee are charged with resolving the issue, without a full investigation or a finding of guilt or innocence. The most significant outcome might be an agreement to move the accused to a different dorm.

Wait a second—the most significant outcome might be an agreement to move the accuser to a different dorm?

Let’s say it’s true that Witt did something. We don’t know what, but….something happened.

What level of seriousness does that maximum punishment indicate? (Especially when, as Perez-Pena noted higher up in the article but does not correlate here, Witt already lived off-campus, so Yale couldn’t have imposed that maximum punishment.)

Perez-Pena goes on to hint at other dark suspicions:

University officials would not discuss other issues, like why Yale did not officially alert the Rhodes Trust of the complaint; what it did upon learning the candidacy had been suspended; and whether Yale ultimately decided not to endorse Witt before he withdrew on his own.

This is of course entirely appropriate; Yale officials shouldn’t discuss anything about the matter. No police charges were brought, and it involves students. There’s nothing underhanded about such silence; it’s the appropriate way to handle a disciplinary case that a reporter calls to inquire about. Maybe Yale didn’t inform the Rhodes Trust of the complaint because its committee members were trying to protect Yale’s star quarterback—but maybe they didn’t notify the Rhodes because they thought that Witt hadn’t done anything. We don’t know—and neither does Perez-Pena.

So what we do really know here? That an allegation by a woman we don’t know, whose details we don’t know, was made; that the Rhodes Committee, rather than ruling on the allegation, kicked it back to Yale; and that Patrick Witt decided to withdraw his application for reasons that may or may not have been related to the allegation.

But what does Perez-Pena strongly suggest? That Patrick Witt raped someone and then tried to cover it up while deftly portraying himself in the press as a heroic scholar-athlete.

Would I have run this story? I can see the argument for doing so: Certainly Witt’s decision was a big story and there’s a lot of background controversy—Yale’s sexual harassment problem and its former coach’s lying. (But these things are not Witt’s fault.)

And I can see the temptation; this story will get a lot of attention.

And yet….an anonymous accuser whose name the reporter doesn’t even know. An accusation we don’t know the details of. An unknown resolution.

It boils down to this: Essentially, the Times has allowed itself to be used to publicize an anonymous accusation of “sexual assault”—rape—and smear a young man’s character, reputation and future through implications that it can not verify and insinuations that it can not prove.

That, I think, is shameful. And as juicy as the story may be—no, I don’t think I would have run it. Not without knowing more facts and naming more names.

Bob Dole Attacks Newt Gingrich

Posted on January 26th, 2012 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

I kinda miss Bob Dole. Liddy, not so much.

Anyway, today Dole released a statement attacking Newt Gingrich, and boy, it is juicy reading….

In my run for the presidency in 1996 the Democrats greeted me with a number of negative TV ads, and in every one of them Newt was in the ad. He was very unpopular and I am not only certain that this did not help me, but that it also cost House seats that year. Newt would show up at the campaign headquarters with an empty ice-bucket in his hand — that was a symbol of some sort for him — and I never did know what he was doing or why he was doing it.

Apparently the bucket symbolized ice that used to be delivered to Congressional offices.

“If there was any one symbol I wish we could be remembered by,” Gingrich said in 1996, “I believe it should be an ice bucket.”

Jan Brewer is Just an Awful Person

Posted on January 26th, 2012 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

The Mexican-hating Arizona governor says that she “respects the office of the President,” but doesn’t hesitate to make clear that she doesn’t respect the President himself.

Yale Goes to Harvard…

Posted on January 26th, 2012 in Uncategorized | 5 Comments »

…and hires four of its coaches.

The Globe reports,

Since he took over following the resignation of Tom Williams, [Tony] Reno has hired not one, not two, but three Harvard assistants: wide receivers coach Kris Barber, offensive line coach Joe Conlin, and defensive line coach Dwayne Wilmot.

This is probably a bit of a bummer for Harvard, but seems entirely logical to me, and not unlike what the two universities do with academic departments; if one of them steps it up a level, the other counters. And Harvard has clearly been investing heavily in its athletic programs, altering the rather laid-back dynamic once typical of Ivy League sports. It’s a (throwing) arms race!

Fact-checking Larry Summers

Posted on January 23rd, 2012 in Uncategorized | 6 Comments »

The blog Rough Type catches Summers in an embarrassing mistake.

“Before the printing press,” writes Lawrence Summers in the Times’s Education Life section today, “scholars had to memorize ‘The Canterbury Tales’ to have continuing access to them.” That has to be one of the most dunderheaded sentences ever written by a former Harvard president and former Treasury secretary. The bound book was invented more than a thousand years before the printing press came along, and people were writing stuff down – on scrolls, tablets, blocks of wood – long before the book was created. In the 100 or so years between the writing of Chaucer’s masterpiece and the establishment of a printing trade in England, handwritten copies of “The Canterbury Tales” were fairly abundant…..

Interestingly, the version that I look at now says “scholars might have had to memorize ‘The Canterbury Tales’….”

The article has clearly been corrected, but that correction is not noted. Bad New York Times! (One other correction is noted…but you’ll have to read the article to see.)

It’s a funny mistake, but it’s worth pointing it out—and thank you, Rough Type, for doing so—because it’s typical of two characteristics of Summers’ “brilliance.” One, it consists more of the accumulation of facts than any particularly interesting or profound interpretation of them. And two, it is bolstered by Summers’ mode of presentation by certitude, his utter conviction that everything he says is incontestably right.

Even when it isn’t.

By the way, here’s a great Larry Summers story someone told me the other day. This person, an accomplished financier, was a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania who wanted to major in economics. (This was about 30 years ago.)

This guy was pretty intellectually precocious, so he asked the department advisor—who happened to be Larry Summers’ father, Robert Summers—if he could skip intro econ and proceed right to the intermediate level.

Robert Summers replied, “The only student I know who is smart enough to do that is my son, Larry.”

Which, if you think about it, is a very odd thing to say.

The World’s Banker?

Posted on January 20th, 2012 in Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

Bloomberg (et al) report that President Obama is considering naming Larry Summers head of the World Bank when Robert Zoellick ends his term later this year.

While a Summers nomination may draw criticism from some Democrats who disagree with his past stances on deregulating the financial industry, he has support inside the administration from top officials, including Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and current NEC Director Gene Sperling, said one of the people.

Which is to say that Summers has the support of Goldman Sachs, which has close relationships with and/or invested heavily in those two men.

And why not? Ever since Summers “saved the world” in the currency crises of the 1990s, he has been a strong advocate of putting the interests of creditors ahead of those of working people.

Would Summers make a good head of the World Bank? I doubt it. After all, the lesson of every management situation Summers has ever been in is that he’s a terrible manager. (And Ron Susskind’s book supports the thesis that Summers really didn’t change at all after his disastrous stint as Harvard president.)

As the very good Reuters blogger Felix Salmon writes, management is kinda important at the World Bank.

You also need to be an almost superhuman manager. The World Bank has more than 10,000 employees from over 160 countries, with offices in more than 100 countries around the world. The range of cultural expectations they bring to their jobs is truly enormous, and the amount of political jostling and mutual incomprehension which results is entirely predictable. In order to manage this rabble, you need a very high level of cultural and interpersonal sensitivity.

Sounds like Larry Summers to a T, right?

My concern with Summers has always been that someone would mistake his formidable talents for leadership and place him at the top of an un-democratic organization—the Fed, for instance. Or the World Bank. Putting Summers at the head of an immensely powerful but little understood and not-very-transparent organization is exactly the wrong way to use his skills.

Is Summers confirmable (as he would have to be, by the World Bank’s executive board)?

“Larry is controversial,” said Erskine Bowles, who served as Clinton’s chief of staff. “Anything you appoint Larry to, you know there are going to be some people who are going to take shots at him. But you know he’s a brilliant economist, which I think everybody recognizes.

That last line is a wonderful example that if you just say something enough, eventually people will believe it. (Sort of the foundation of modern American politics, really.) Because, while that description of Summers as a “brilliant economist” is so liberally used people have come to take it for granted, a survey of Summers’ success in policymaking doesn’t particularly support it. Summers has a very powerful mind, no question about that; I marvel at his ability to absorb and retain and deploy massive amounts of information.

And yet—when one looks at his record, what exactly has that powerful mind been right about over the years? (Hello, repeal of Glass-Steagal…)

And I think you also have to wonder about Summers’ cozy relationship with the financial industry. No one’s watching this now that Summers is a private citizen, but how much buck-raking is he doing these days?

The Susskind book is fascinating on the subject of Summers, and I’ll write about that shortly.

My Head is Exploding

Posted on January 19th, 2012 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

So let’s see if I understand….

Newt Gingrich is (almost?) winning in South Carolina…but he wanted an open marriage with his second wife.

But that isn’t stopping Rick Perry, who was once the conservatives’ favorite, from dropping out and endorsing Gingrich.

Meanwhile, Rick Santorum actually won Iowa, it turns out, which might have had a significant impact on his current situation if only he’d won Iowa at the time he won Iowa.

And the ostensible frontrunner, Mitt Romney, makes $375,000 in speaking fees, which he calls not very much, pays about 15% of his income in taxes—which actually isn’t very much—and also probably means that most of his income is from capital gains, which means he’s making a huge amount of money on capital gains (if $370, 000 is not much), which means he’s maybe even richer than we thought. But maybe it’s because he’s been parking his money in the Caymans, a notorious tax haven?

(Here’s what I really love: In the article linked to above, Romney admits that he’s put money in the Caymans. His defense is that his wealth is managed by a blind trust and he doesn’t know what happens with it. So how does he know that some of it is in the Caymans? Crazy stuff.)

Maybe the Republicans should just not nominate anyone at all this year….