After reading the follow-on comments to Sheryl Sandberg's recent defense of Larry Summers on the Huffington Post and her endorsement of his candidacy for the Treasury, we at Big Think feel obliged to further this important conversation. Many commenters were quick to seize on certain impolitic remarks as disqualifiers of Larry's candidacy for Treasury secretary. But Sheryl's personal account of how Larry mentored and encouraged her and other women in the Treasury invites a serious reconsideration of all the attacks waged against him, not just those involving his views on women. Most arguments against Larry share a backwards premise. Larry's gaffes are byproducts of an expansive way of thinking, unrestrained by politics, which is precisely why he should be at the helm of the Treasury Department under President Obama.
Larry engages the world with a true devotion to reason and logic. Anyone who has ever sat across from him in a bid to earn his support for an initiative or idea, as we once did in pitching him the concept behind Big Think (he is now an investor), knows that his first response to any idea is 'tell me the best argument against it.' You find yourself standing on the opposing side of your own beliefs and interests--a perspective far too few of us adopt, least of all our politicians. Solving our current economic crisis demands transcending orthodoxy. By nature—and will—Larry strives to see issues from all sides; he is not bound by ideology.
If President-elect Obama truly does forecast a new Age of Empiricism, then Larry is the best choice for Treasury.
Claims that Larry’s blind allegiance to capitalist dogma helped cause the economic crisis in his prior tenure at Treasury omit a number of critical facts and ignore the bigger picture. In an online petition opposing his nomination, Larry's critics cite his support of 1999 banking deregulation measures “that led to the rise of ‘mega-banks’ and the current financial crisis”. According to the non-partisan Factcheck.org, that measure, known as the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, was supported by a broad coalition on both sides of the aisle—signed by President Clinton—and is now widely considered to have softened the banking crisis by diversifying the interests of many banks. The critical failing of that measure, says Factcheck, was its failure to “establish a single, independent regulatory body with jurisdiction over Fannie and Freddie.” It was Larry who warned of the twisted set of incentives under which the quasi-government mortgage companies were operating. Unfortunately, those concerns were brushed aside during a legislative process in which all of D.C.'s worst tendencies were in overdrive.
An article in The Daily Beast offers a similar red herring. Alex Gibney suggests that Larry is at fault for causing the Enron scandal even though, the author readily concedes, he had no awareness of it whatsoever. Larry's crime here was mediating between the energy industry and the state of California. It was failings on both sides, including California's insane restrictions on building new energy plants, which led to the impasse. In that case, Larry left the problem to the market and the market resolved it in due time. It’s not Larry’s fault that several of the top brass at Enron were cooking the books and lining their pockets at the same time. Larry demonstrated wise judgment regarding when to use the wealth of government and exhibited the intellectual nuance necessary to guide us, by reason, into a post-partisan era.
In 2001, Larry left Washington to pursue an agenda of radical reform Harvard as its new president. He believed Harvard could be ground zero for rethinking how we prepare students for a global age driven by science and innovation. In his inauguration speech, Larry asked why students are so comfortable with scientific illiteracy; he went on to infuriate the campus mandarins in Cambridge with charges of academic puffery and, worse yet, irrelevance, as he boldly shifted resources and curricular emphasis in new directions. For each enemy he made on the faculty, he made two friends among Harvard students and alumni who largely supported his crusade. Despite his short tenure, Larry’s legacy of change is reflected in institutions like the Broad Institute, which brought together Harvard and MIT for innovative research collaborations on stem cells.
A study of Larry's record reveals a trenchant and pragmatic understanding that the free market, intelligently governed, is the greatest vehicle for progress. As Larry reminded the audience at Big Think's economic forum last month, alongside George Soros and Robert Merton, he is a thoughtful and forward-thinking leader who inspires famous, and occasionally infamous, determination. If President-elect Obama truly does forecast a new Age of Empiricism, then Larry is the best choice for Treasury. He will approach every decision with intellectual sophistication and sober objectivity. These days, we don’t have time to placate political correctness. We need the best minds at work.
Peter Hopkins is a graduate of Harvard College and a former producer at Charlie Rose. He co-founded the knowledge website Big Think in 2007.