A chat with Larry Summers (from 2000)

This is from Left Business Observer #94, May 2000.

chatting with Larry

LBO’s editor was lucky enough to run into Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers at a party in Washington on April 15, and got to overhear some of his thoughts on the weekend’s events and even ask a few questions.

Early in the evening, surrounded by what appeared to be some loyal scribes, Summers enthused about how “proactive” the DC cops were, having arrested some 600 demonstrators, “including many of the leaders.” Summers is evidently unaware that the Direct Action Network types who constituted the hardcore of the demonstrators are resolutely anti-hierchical and don’t have leaders in the sense that he understands them. Later, as Summers was leaving, I got to ask him a few questions. Asked what he made of the crowds filling the streets, Summers, evidently forgetting his earlier enthusiasm for mass preemptive arrests, said he “admired their moral energy,” but thought their prescriptions would only make the poor poorer. When it was pointed out to him that the gap between the world’s rich and poor had been widening under the policies he and his like-minded predecessors have pursued, he claimed that this has been a great time of progress for the world’s poor. Finally, when asked if Africa was still vastly underpolluted — a reference to his infamous 1991 memo, written when he was chief economist of the World Bank, suggesting that it was — he seemed a bit startled, conceded that it was a “fair if unfriendly question,” and said that it’s been well established that he (or rather Lant Pritchett, the author of the words that went out under Summers’ name) was merely being sarcastic and not serious.

Looking at the state of the world’s poorest continent, it seems that truths are told in moments of “sarcasm” that elude the powerful in their more serious capacities.

PS: As this issue goes to press, we just learned that on Summers’ orders, former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz (LBO #93) had his consulting contract cancelled. A critical article in The New Republic, in which, among other things, Stiglitz dis’d the quality of the IMF’s staff economists, was apparently the last straw.

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