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You Know Those Old Boy’s Networks You’ve Heard About?


Cass Sunstein wishes to personally vouch for Larry Summers:

Continuing economic difficulties are one reason. Another is that Lawrence Summers, a top candidate, is a larger-than-life figure — unusually well-known and widely admired, but in some circles controversial. The paradox is that those who know him best, and who have worked with him most closely, are his biggest supporters — and that the objections are coming largely from those who know him little or not at all. (Disclosure: Summers is a colleague and a friend, and I co-taught a course with him last spring.)

Saving me some time, Yglesias has preemptively rebutted this line of argument:

It’s tempting to conclude that these people must know what they’re talking about. Tempting, but wrong.

I don’t know Summers, but I have met him and can testify to his genuinely amazing intellectual skills as an on-his-feet debater about big ideas. It’s something I first experienced as a student journalist at Harvard when Summers was president of the university. While nobody who was there at the time would dispute his brilliance, another thing nobody would dispute is that he was a terrible university president. Terrible in exactly the most predictable ways. The problems were not only foreseeable, but foreseen. Until, that is, the search committee tasked with filling the vacancy received assurances from Summers’ close friends and colleagues.

The fact that Summers was a bad university administrator doesn’t mean that he’d be a bad Federal Reserve chairman. But it does show that Summers’ friends have a habit of vouching for him when they shouldn’t. Summers turned out to have exactly the flaws Rubin promised the search committee he didn’t have anymore.


Another parallel that strikes me is it was never clear why Summers wanted the Harvard job in the first place. As of 2001 he was an extremely well-regarded economist with no particular background in academic administration or association with any university reform agenda. It just seemed like the most prestigious job he could plausibly get, and so his friends set about to get it for him. Similarly, Summers hasn’t written or spoken extensively on monetary policy in over two decades. It’s telling that when the job of vice chair of the Fed opened up and Yellen was appointed, nobody had considered Summers a contender for the job. If offered, he surely would have declined and regarded the position as beneath his dignity.

But just as it turns out that universities do well to pick leaders with a record of success in academic administration, there’s a lot to be said for picking central bankers to run your central bank. The conceit within the Summers fan club seems to be that the job is presumptively his, and only shrill over-the-top critics have a problem with that. But nobody is entitled to one of the most powerful jobs in America. Summers’ biggest boosters are those who know him well and are blown away by his intelligence. But these same friends have a track record of badly overestimating his suitability for jobs that require other qualities.

I don’t blame Summers’s friends for making the case for him, of course. But picking Summers over Yellen because the former has more well-connected friends is exactly how glass ceilings are maintained collectively by people who aren’t necessarily sexists individually. And that goes double when the defenses, like Sunstein’s, don’t really address Yellen’s most important advantages or the most important reasons to be concerned about Summers’s track record when you look closely.

In particular, Sunstein responds to criticisms about Summers’s comments about the inferior quantitative skills of women by noting that he’s not Todd Akin:

Those remarks have followed him ever since — an irony given that he has been an unwavering opponent of sex discrimination in all its forms, and a strong supporter and loyal mentor of numerous women.

Well, in all forms but “assuming that women have less quantitative abilities than men.” But moving right along, this isn’t even the key issue. Summers wasn’t engaging in speculation far outside his field of expertise as an academic. He was the president of the university — not saying things that will gratuitously alienate the faculty is a crucial part of your job, and as Matt says this was hardly the first or even the most important example. There are many jobs for which a lack of tact and not having a consensus-driven leadership style aren’t a major negative, but Chairman of the Federal Reserve isn’t one of them. Noting that Summers has mentored individual women doesn’t really address the key issue.

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