Who is Larry Summers?

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  • Last Modified Date: 12 August 2019
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Larry Summers is an American economist who also served as President of Harvard University’s School of Government. He was the Secretary of the Treasury during the second Clinton Administration, and has been tapped by Barack Obama to be the head of the National Economic Council. Although widely respected as an economist, Larry Summers has come under fire for various comments he has made during his career.

Coming from a distinguished family of economists, both of Summers' parents taught economics at the University of Pennsylvania, and both his father and mother had brothers who won Nobel prizes in economics. From an early age Larry Summers excelled in academics, and showed an unsurprising interest in economics. At sixteen he enrolled in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), originally pursuing physics before switching to economics and graduating with his BS in 1975. He went on to earn a PhD from Harvard University in 1982, and in 1983 he became a tenured professor at Harvard at the age of 28, one of the youngest in the University’s history.


For much of his career, Summers has been involved in the political side of economics. During the Reagan Administration he staffed the Council of Economic Advisors, and in 1988, he joined the Dukakis campaign as a leading economic advisor. In 1991, Larry Summers joined the World Bank as Chief Economist, helping to shape development policy throughout the world. Later that year, he signed off on what would become one of the most infamous letters in economics, the so-called Larry Summers Memo.

In 1993, Larry Summers left the World Bank to join the Clinton Administration as Undersecretary for International Affairs, moving to the Department of the Treasury soon after, and in 1995 becoming Deputy Secretary of the Treasury. When Robert Rubin, one of his main mentors, stepped down, Larry Summers took over as Secretary of the Treasury, a position he filled until the end of the Clinton Administration.

Two of the things for which Larry Summers is most famous are controversies. The first is the Larry Summers Memo, a memo penned by a staff economist at the World Bank at the time, Lant Pritchett. In it, the argument is laid out that free trade would likely not help the environments of developing nations; an aside to the memo actually made an economic argument for dumping toxic waste in countries with the lowest possible wages. The Larry Summers Memo generated a firestorm of controversy, particularly in the developing nations most impacted by the logic of the memo.

The other major controversy of Larry Summers’ career occurred during his tenure as President of Harvard University. In 2005, during a Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce, Summers laid out what he saw as the three main hypotheses for why more men than women joined higher-level engineering and general science disciplines. From what he saw as most to least important, he listed these as: men were more willing to commit the time to high-level careers, men and women were intrinsically different in their levels of aptitude for the skills required by these careers, and discrimination. He came under intense criticism for this view and perceived sexism, and although he survived the ensuing controversy, he ultimately stepped down in 2006.


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