Who are you?

Lawrence Summers: Well I wrote on a graduate school application that while some children were taught to believe in God, I came to believe in the power of systems analysis. And I suppose ours was a family where a certain form of analytic reasoning was something that was just in the air and part of what was discussed at the dinner table. And certainly we had lots of schemes for allocating the rights to watch what was the only TV set in the family. But actually, economics didn’t play a large role in my childhood. I left high school to go to MIT thinking I was going to pursue mathematics or physics as a field. I came to economics really because I wanted to use the kind of quantitative analytical tools one uses when thinking about the hard sciences; but also wanted to be involved in the issues of the day. And it seemed to me that economics gave one an opportunity to do both of those things. And I think the modes of reasoning around probabilities and uncertainties, around focusing on incentives, around thinking about issues of coordination that economics provide are enormously powerful – and when more and more widely applied, have great potential to make the world a better place.

Oh I think both my parents and their attitude towards their children and their commitment to what they did. They always referred to it as going to the office, and never referred to it as going to work. And that was quite conscious. It really had an enormous influence on me. And then when I got to college, I worked as an undergraduate and then as a graduate student with Marty Feldstein, who has rather different political beliefs than I do, but who believed very much in the power of economic analysis, the power of looking at data, to help illuminate important issues with potentially very important consequences for the policies that were followed that could make the lives of millions of people better. And I was very much caught up in that aspiration, first as a student, then as a researcher and teacher myself, and then as a person using economics in the policy arena. And then when I came back to Harvard as president, as a person working to create an environment where as much of that kind of thing as possible could take place.

I’m not sure it was given explicitly as advice, but I think there were some lessons that I took away. One was, “Don’t be fungible”. Don’t do things that everybody else is doing. Find your own way. Be distinctive. The second was the one I used to summarize for students as some people master the literature; some people become part of the literature. There’s a certain point you have to do your own thinking and come to your own conclusion. And I guess a third lesson that I saw watching Marty Feldstein, watching others, is it’s what you do and what you accomplish that ultimately matters, not what you don’t do and why you didn’t do it that matters. So I sort of took away this sense of wanting to be individual, wanting to have my mistakes always be mistakes of ambition, not mistakes of insufficient ambition or narrow-mindedness, and with a commitment to try to do things rather than just talk about things. I think those were the lessons I learned in those years.

Recorded On: June 13, 2007

As a child, Larry Summers believed in the god of systems analysis.

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