How do you contribute?

Ambition and impatience, Larry Summers says, go hand in hand.
  • Transcript


Question: How do you contribute?

Lawrence Summers: I hope we understand how data, and not just argument, can inform thinking about economic decisions to a greater extent because of the kinds of techniques and the kinds of approaches I pursued when I was a research economist.

I hope we’re bringing more of that kind of analytic energy to bear on questions like health and education because of the work I did in the development field at the World Bank.

I hope that history will judge that the policies that I supported President [Bill] Clinton in pursuing will be judged to have promoted a prosperity that made lives better for millions of people in this country and tens of millions abroad by being wisely crafted, and crafted in line with economic realities, being reasoned-based.

And I hope that the initiatives that I started at Harvard will be carried through in ways that will cause the university to be seen not just as a great iconic institution for itself, but as a much larger institution promoting the social good, whether it’s through its financial aid, equal opportunity policies; whether it’s through the contributions it makes to science; whether it’s through a much greater engagement with the rest of the world.

So I hope that I will be seen as someone who raised science to what was possible in all the things that he did; and that by raising the sights, he caused more to happen than otherwise would have taken place. Oh I don’t know. That’s for others to judge. But I guess I am somebody who believes that the more important something is – perhaps even the more sensitive it is – the more important it is to think carefully about it. And that part of thinking carefully about it is thinking about every possible perspective on it and being willing to explore every possible perspective on it. That’s something that I always try to do. I’ve never been comfortable making a decision unless I felt that I understood the downsides of my decision as clearly as anyone I could have access to understood the downsides of the decision. Because only then did I feel I had really weighed the costs.

I always think it’s hugely important to try to understand – you may completely reject it – but to understand what the other perspective is in any situation. So I will always be asking people, “What’s the best argument for the opposite position?” Or how do people see it from the other perspective.

I was talking to somebody the other day who was very upset about a grade she had gotten and wanting to protest it, change it and so forth. And I said to her, “It sounds like an injustice took place here. But if you want to be effective here, you’ll be able to tell me how the world looks from the point of view from the person who gave you that grade. And maybe the person who gave you that grade will say, ‘Gosh, I was an unreasonable, bigoted, unthinking person, and you showed me that I’m wrong. And so I’ll change the grade.’” But probably a more plausible path is that the person will see that there’s a broader perspective to take, and will understand why, by taking a broader perspective, they can produce a more constructive outcome.

So that’s always the kind of way which I have thought about problems, and it’s, I think, the kind of thing that frankly is central for universities to try to encourage. That, too, is for others to judge.

I think I’m probably too impatient. I’m probably impatient with people who don’t seem to be following lines of argument. I’m impatient with people who engage through platitudes. I’m impatient with people who are committed – sometimes probably for good reason, sometimes not – to status quo or preservation of their prerogative.

And I think the vice in a virtue I like to have, is always having the greatest ambition for what I can accomplish, or the institution I’m part of can accomplish. The vice associated with that virtue is impatience that sometimes can lead things not to speed up, but to slow down, and sometimes can lead to more friction than I’d like.

Recorded On: June 13, 2007