Larry Summers

Brad DeLong comes out defending Larry Summers this morning. Shorter DeLong; Summers is the smartest guy in the room and a very competent manager who would be the best qualified to run Treasury.

Conversely, Veronica Arreola isn’t so enthused:

After his infamous statement in 2005 that women and girls had an intrinsic handicap towards math, explaining my job was a moot point. Everyone in my circle of friends and around the country knew the importance of running an academic support program for women majoring in science and engineering at a Research I institution. Despite the fact that women are going to college in record numbers and increasingly majoring in sciences, there are still those out in the world who think women just can’t hack it in the end. It also was an easier sell to donors and funders about the importance of the WISE office and our mission. So thank you, Larry for making my case so eloquently.

After his departure from the Harvard presidency he faded from the limelight. This week his name, along with New York Federal Reserve Chairman Timothy Geithner, has been bandied about as secretary of the treasury in the incoming Obama administration (can I just say how amazing it is to say that? The Obama administration!). Could the man who sold America on change seriously be considering appointing a man who suggested that Malia, Sasha and all of our daughters have a genetic disposition from not being able to math? Sadly yes.

As the head of the U.S. Treasury, Larry Summers would be in charge of advising on economic and tax policy in this country and abroad. This is a man who believes that women’s inability to do math has MORE impact on the lack of women in science and engineering than discrimination. The lack of women in science and engineering is important to our economy in at least two ways. First, our country is sorely in need of scientists and engineers. The fact that women represent just 12 percent of the science and engineering workforce (cited from Obama’s Change.gov website) means that we are underutilizing women’s skills in this area—a fact that Summers just might take issue with because you know, we can’t do math.

This doesn’t strike meas a particularly compelling argument. For one thing, Summers’ infamous controversy really has nothing to do with running Treasury in general,and even less to do with what will be the Department’s biggest responsibility in the near future, managing the bailout. But even beyond that, the construction of Arreola’s post is incredibly flippant and borderline dishonest. For one thing, Summers never definitively declared that women “couldn’t do math,” or science, or anything else for that matter. Rather, he was looking at the question of why women are underrepresented in tha hard sciences, and attempting to provoke a discussion with a rough, somewhat outlandish hypothesis. Anyone who’s taken an economics course would be familiar with the tactic, and Summers is an economist at the end of the day. But it was an academic question, posed in an academic environment, with the goal of ultimately increasing the representation of women in the hard sciences, and it always struck me that the controversy ultimately boiled down to wholly unconnected problems the faculty had with Summers, and merely provided an impetus by which to remove him.

Regardless, it seems to me that the best way to gauge how Summers would fare as Treasury Secretary is to look at his body of work in the time he’s already spent doing the job, and reading his writing on the issues facing us now. And on that front, I think it’s somewhat hard to really build a hard case against him.

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