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03.07.11

Larry Summers Goes Back to School

Obama’s former economic adviser is once again teaching at Harvard, where he had a tumultuous run as university president. In this week’s Newsweek, Samuel P. Jacobs talks to Summers about Romney, The Social Network, and tennis with Geithner.

You just gave your first lecture of the semester, titled “The Recent Financial Crisis.” What do you want kids in the back row to remember?

The three most dangerous words on a ski slope are “Follow me, Dad.” The four most dangerous words in finance are “It’s different this time.”

Do Republicans overhype the dangers of government debt?

Anyone who takes seriously the idea that the debt limit could not be extended and there could be a default even for a nanosecond on U.S. debt is a child with a match in a dynamite storeroom.

Mitt Romney says that if he runs for president, “I won’t be asking Tim Geithner how the economy works—or Larry Summers how to start a business.” Have you ever talked business strategy with Governor Romney?

He was very interested in what Harvard and I could do to help during the time when he was governor of Massachusetts.

Are you surprised to hear him attacking your business acumen?

No. You shouldn’t work in Washington if you are not prepared to become an object of symbolic attack. My recollection is that in his highly successful business career, Governor Romney did a fair amount of job-destroying at a number of companies that his firm purchased.

What did you make of your cameo in the Facebook movie The Social Network?

Making allowances for the movie, it got the general impression right. The Winklevii were demanding, and I was not prepared to be responsive to their demands and not especially appreciative of their degree of insistence. Needless to say, I didn’t tell anyone to punch me in the face.

Will the women-in-science imbroglio ever let up? You were greeted by a protest bake sale in Cambridge last month.

I don’t know. I wasn’t here. I don’t think I’m going to be speaking any more to that issue.

Which is worse: the sniping in Washington or in academia?

I think impressions differ. I’m one of the few people who went to Washington to get out of politics.

Are you still playing tennis with Tim Geithner?

I am.

Who wins?

It can go either way.

Who won the last one?

He did.

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.