This content is from: Portfolio

A Confrontation With Larry Summers

The brilliant but unpredictable Harvard economist shows Institutional Investor why his reputation for being prickly is well deserved.

  • Dan Weil

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 he’d 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 antics.

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 he’d 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 didn’t turn out quite as I’d hoped.

Before the event I sent Summers an e-mail asking if I could interview him there, but he didn’t respond. I figured I’d 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 hadn’t 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 process.

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 doesn’t 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 didn’t 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 briefly nonetheless.

“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 Fed’s 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 ephemeral.

He asked me if I read his blog. I replied truthfully, telling him I didn’t, 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 I’m accustomed to criticism, but Summers all but told me I was an idiot who wasn’t 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 watching.

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 I’d tried to conduct. But for all of Summers’ criticism of my unoriginal questions, the blog didn’t exactly break new ground either. If anything, looking through Summers’ blog reminded me why I don’t read blogs. The top item focused on a comment from Steven Mnuchin in which the Treasury secretary declared that he doesn’t see artificial intelligence taking over U.S. jobs any time soon; the problem is so far in the future that it’s not even on his radar. Not surprisingly, Summers took Mnuchin to task. During the conference Q&A he called Mnuchin’s 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. I’ll make sure you get a copy as soon as it comes out.”

He apparently didn’t get the sarcasm, responding, “Glad it helped.”