Where are we?

Question: How will this age be remembered?

Lawrence Summers: I think when somebody writes the history of our time, 250 years from now, the two largest stories in it will be the rise of Asia and the developing world, where living standards are increasing so spectacularly rapidly. That in a matter of a few decades, countries enjoy more growth than the United States has since the American Revolution. How that impacts the billions of people in these countries and how that impacts the world system.

And I think the second defining feature of our time will be the developments in the life sciences that are going to profoundly change our conceptions of human nature; that are going to free people from pain and suffering at a rate and on a scale that has never been seen before.

We are increasingly developing the capacity to change the way people think, to change the way people behave. How we’re going to manage all of that; how we’re going to manage the life science side of all that; how we’re going to manage the remarkable things that are happening in information technology.

And as those things come together, these two things, I think, will be the central stories of our time when history is written 250 years from now.

With respect to the developing of the rising world, are they going to be gradually welcomed members of a widening circle of opportunity? Or are they going to be angry outsiders crashing a restricted party? And if we can make it be the first, which would be great as anything that has happened in human history – if people feel it is the second, the consequences can be cataclysmic.

I think it’s hard with respect to the developments in life science to even begin to think about what all the issues are going to be. You know, suppose there’s a pill created that can increase your IQ by 30 points, but it’s enormously expensive. What’s that going to mean for equality of opportunity? Suppose there are ways of knowing in advance the likelihood that people will develop their diseases? What’s that going to mean for decisions about couples getting married, or employers hiring people, not to mention insurance? What’s it going to mean if there are medicines that curb your temper and in the same process reduce your passion? How are we going to feel about those things, and how are we going to think about managing them as a society? What is going to happen when there are computer programs or pieces of software that are able to have creative scientific ideas in certain spheres? Who’s going to have access to those? Who’s going to get the credit?

These are just a few of the kinds of questions that could come. What I hope is that we will deal as a society with these things in a way that is thoughtful and rational. I worry that the teaching of more anti-evolution and intelligent design in the public schools than at any time since the Scopes trial, and the attitude in many non-scientific intellectual circles that denies that relevance of biology to almost any aspect of behavior, is leaving us in a problematic place with respect to the making of these decisions.

I think we’ll get to the best place if we debate them and discuss them in the freest possible way with as many perspectives brought to bear as possible. Out of the best argument, we are likely to see the best kinds of outcomes. But that’s going to require bringing many people to the table for that argument. That’s going to require putting a premium on really understanding the issues for those who are going to be involved in the argument. That’s going to put a premium on being open to points of view that may, at first, seem unwise or unfashionable.

And those are the processes and aspects of the process that I think are likely to lead to better outcomes. I think that for all its problems, the American system does stand out for its openness, for its reduced insistence on conformity, for its commitment to reason. And therefore I’m hopeful that we will find our way, and that leadership from the United States will be essential in shaping the way all these developments play out internationally.

For us, it’s going to be regaining our balance after the last eight years [of two George W. Bush administrations]. Power depends on legitimacy, and legitimacy depends on a perception of competence. And in important ways we’ve sacrificed that. For us, it’s a matter of crafting an international system that both enables countries to flourish, and at the same time, sets some parameters within which they flourish.

I think it’s harder to know just what the right questions even are with respect to the evolution in the life sciences. It’s easier to see how it can go wrong. People, because they’re scared of it and cause it to show up elsewhere, people can let the genie out of the bottle in ways that they later come to regret. People can move too slowly, and as a result, miss potential huge opportunities. I think all of these more negative outcomes are risks. I think they’re risks that will be exacerbated if the United States abdicates in the establishment of international norms in these areas. I think, for all our failings, the kinds of norms that we establish are likely to be more constructive than the kinds of norms that would be established in our absence.

Oh I don’t know.

I suspect in the election Iraq, economic security for middle class families, attitudes towards the social issues are likely to be central concerns in the election, rather than these longer term and more profound challenges.

But I suspect the debates over those issues will give a chance for candidates to demonstrate their philosophical orientation, and perhaps something about their competence as potential leaders and managers of the federal government.

Recorded On: June 13, 2007

Larry Summers thinks one of the most important measure of our age will be how we will welcome the developing world into the league of developed states.

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