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1/2 social scientist + 1/2 politician = ???

- May 14, 2011

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.

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