Larry Summers is known for being mercurial, but in my
numerous interactions with him I never saw that side of his
personality. Until recently.I had always liked Summers, the
erstwhile Harvard University president who served as chief
economist at the World Bank, Treasury secretary in the Clinton
administration, and economic adviser to President Obama before
returning to Harvard as a professor. The first time I called
him, in 1990, I was a reporter at Reuters and wanted to
interview him for a story. He said he was too busy but that
hed love to speak with me in the future.
He was cooperative when I wrote a profile on him for
Bloomberg in 1995, and he sent me a nice note last year after I
wrote a piece for Institutional Investor comparing him to John
McEnroe for their brilliance and their occasional intemperate
I saw Summers at several economic events in the 1990s, and
he was always open to conversation. When he wrote an essay
about education in the New York Times five years ago, I sent
him one paragraph of praise and six paragraphs of criticism.
His response: Points all fair.
I even defended him after one of the biggest controversies
of his career, in 2005, when he faced a firestorm of criticism
for remarks he made at a conference in which he questioned
whether women have as much innate scientific ability as men. I
felt certain the remarks were just idle talk. When my parents,
who were both professors, told me their friends at Harvard
considered him a bully, I told them hed never been a
bully to me.
So it was with some excitement that I learned Summers was
coming to Palm Beach, Florida, where I live, in April to speak
at a conference organized by local billionaire real estate
investor Jeff Greene. But it didnt turn out quite as
Before the event I sent Summers an e-mail asking if I could
interview him there, but he didnt respond. I figured
Id just listen to his remarks and perhaps say hello
afterward. But once I was at the conference, I was able, to my
pleasant surprise, to arrange an interview. I hadnt
prepared any questions but figured I would just work off things
he said in a question-and-answer session with Greene or ask
general questions about the economy.
Much of the Q&A following Summers talk consisted
of the former Treasury secretary offering fair but obvious
criticisms of the Trump administration pointing out the
folly of making policy through Twitter, for example. And
Summers made a few points that you might not expect. He gave
the Trump administration credit for doing more to stoke
business confidence than the Obama administration had, though
he was quick to add that he thought Trump and his people are
endangering the environment and financial stability in the
Summers also had interesting thoughts about the idea of a
guaranteed basic income. He opposes it but acknowledged that he
would have found problems with the introduction of Social
Security, too. His primary objection to guaranteed income is
that, according to him, the math doesnt add up: A $25,000
annual stipend to 200 million Americans would cost
$5 trillion a year, but tax receipts now total only
$1.4 trillion a year. He added that vocation is
fundamental to human identity.
When the Q&A was over, I didnt see anywhere
further to go on the topics that Summers had discussed, so I
figured it would be easy to engage him in a discussion of the
economy. I was in for a rude awakening.
My first question was straightforward: How do you view
the health of the economy? He immediately protested that
he already had expressed his views on the economy elsewhere.
(Presumably, his criticism of Trump for running policy via
Twitter counted as fresh insight.) But he deigned to answer
Indicators are looking quite positive, he said.
I also was able to extract from Summers that he thinks the
economy is vulnerable to a recession (though one is not yet
foreseeable); that the Feds fingers are a little
itchy on the trigger, but no damage has been done; and
that secular stagnation will last in industrialized economies
for some time.
But he continued to criticize my questions as he answered
them, complaining repeatedly, in an irritated tone, that I was
treading over well-worn territory. I offered several times to
shift the discussion to a topic that interested him more, but
he refused. After about five minutes he ended the interview,
derisively telling me he had discussed all of these things
before and that I was conducting a CNBC-style
interview, implying my questions were superficial and
He asked me if I read his blog. I replied truthfully,
telling him I didnt, but I declined to elaborate on why:
I find most blogs to be a waste of time. He replied that if I
wanted to interview him, I should first read his blog and then
form my questions.
As we talked I felt myself growing heated, literally; my
face was probably turning red. As a journalist Im
accustomed to criticism, but Summers all but told me I was an
idiot who wasnt worthy of his time. It was humiliating,
all the more so because we conducted the interview out in the
open, with conference officials and a few hangers-on
Once the interview ended I was in a state of shock and
readied myself for a hasty exit. But all of a sudden, Summers,
who had been so dismissive of all my questions for him, had a
few for me. He asked me what I wrote about for II and whether I
still wrote about tennis. He told me how much he liked my piece
comparing him to McEnroe. It seemed like he wanted to engage in
friendly chitchat, but by then I just wanted to leave. As I
started walking away, he said, Well, it was nice to see
you after such a long time.
Later that day I decided to look at his blog to see if there
was anything there that would lead to a more insightful
interview than the one Id tried to conduct. But for all
of Summers criticism of my unoriginal questions, the blog
didnt exactly break new ground either. If anything,
looking through Summers blog reminded me why I dont
read blogs. The top item focused on a comment from Steven
Mnuchin in which the Treasury secretary declared that he
doesnt see artificial intelligence taking over U.S. jobs
any time soon; the problem is so far in the future that
its not even on his radar. Not surprisingly, Summers took
Mnuchin to task. During the conference Q&A he called
Mnuchins remark stupid and inconceivable. But
it seems unlikely that Mnuchin holds that literal view any more
than Summers truly believes women are inferior in science.
Shortly after the interview I needed to express to Summers
how I felt. I figured a polite but sarcastic e-mail would do:
Thanks so much for your extremely illuminating answers to
my questions today, Larry. They will certainly create the
foundation for a superb story. Ill make sure you get a
copy as soon as it comes out.
He apparently didnt get the sarcasm, responding,
Glad it helped.