Lawrence H. Summers
Charles W. Eliot University Professor and President Emeritus, Harvard University
06:31

What do you believe?

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Using reason to engage a lack of reason in others.

Lawrence H. Summers

Lawrence H. Summers is an American economist. He is the Charles W. Eliot University Professor and President Emeritus at Harvard University, where he became one of the university's youngest tenured faculty at age 28.

The author of over 150 journal articles, Dr. Summers' wide-ranging contributions to economic research were recognized with the John Bates Clark Medal, given every two years to the outstanding American economist under the age of 40. He was also the first social scientist to receive the National Science Foundation’s Alan T. Waterman Award for outstanding scientific achievement.

Beyond his academic career, Dr. Summers has held a number of distinguished appointments in government. He previously served as Director of the National Economic Council for the Obama Administration, Secretary of the Treasury for the Clinton Administration, and Chief Economist of the World Bank.

Lawrence Summers received his S.B. from MIT and his Ph.D. in economics from Harvard. He and his wife Elisa New, a professor of English at Harvard, have six children.

Transcript

Question: Do you have a personal philosophy?

Larry Summers:

I think the lens through which I see things is analytic. It is evidence-based. It is based on a need for internal consistency.

And I think the discipline that thinks about questions relating to the flow of capital and the distribution of income, in those ways, is the discipline that we call economics.

But those habits of thought are important if you want to think about the future of relations between the United States and China. Or if you want to think about how resources should be allocated to different parts of research and the life sciences. Or if you want to fight crime effectively.

I do try to consistently bring to bear a focus on data, on thinking about incentives, on thinking about outcomes, and thinking about how systems can be modified to produce better outcomes, and thinking systematically in that way can drive better outcomes. I don’t think thinking about my relationship with my children, or my thinking about the play I enjoyed a couple of weeks ago, that’s not about taking an analytic perspective. That’s about something--things that are very different.

But in the professional spheres that I’ve chosen, I think that being resolutely analytic is the way to get the best thinking. I’m proud of identity as Jewish, and took great pride in my children’s bat mitzvahs and bar mitzvahs. But in thinking about the kinds of questions we have been discussing, the supernatural or faith do not play an important role in my thinking; though clearly in thinking about some aspects of the very important role that faith plays in other spines is something one has to very fully recognize.

You know, I don’t know that that’s something I have been called on, issues I’ve been interested in or involved in, to take on particularly. But I think that you have to try as best you can to understand the world, the world view of others.

So when I was at World Bank, perhaps the most dramatic thing I did when I was there was do a substantial body of research that made the case – that I think has stood up rather well – that sending girls to primary school was probably the highest social return investment you can make in the developing world. Well I decided the place to present that work was in Pakistan, which stood out at that time for the fact that there were only 90 living women for every 100 men, in sharp contrast to what was true in the rest of the world. But in order to make that a presentation that would connect not just with my concerns, but with my audience’s concerns, with the aid of others who were far more knowledgeable than I, I reflected on some of those parts of the Koran that extol the importance of fair treatment of girls and of women. Because I thought it was important to try to see that issue not just through a kind of narrow-minded prism of what would reduce mortality rates and the like, but through the prism through which others were more likely to see it. And I think that that kind of effort to understand others is almost always availing.

Question: What is the measure of a good life? 

Larry Summers:

I probably, to this point, have been sufficiently busy living my life that I probably haven’t focused a lot on measuring my life. But I hope that I made the world a better place, and I think everyone can think about whether they made the world a better place for their children, for their families, made the world a better place more broadly. That, I think is the ultimate test for me.


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