Repost-Revisting Larry Summers: What Did He Say Again?

With Larry Summers being pushed out by members of the Democratic party for his nomination as chairman of the Federal Reserve, it reminds of when he was pushed out of the role of President at Harvard.  For the many reasons that may be involved, I suspect the notion of a faint, scarlet ‘S’ for ‘sexist’ marked on his chest is one.  You don’t need much logic or reason to make that charge.

I keep putting this post up, because, one hopes we’ll arrive at a little sanity in pursuit of truth.


He may have been fired for many reasons, but Summers off-the-cuff Remarks at NBER Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce had a lot to do with it:

1.  The first is what I call the high-powered job hypothesis-Summers notes that high positions demand high commitment.  Science could be analogous to other professions like law.   He appeals to a longitudinal study that suggests that fewer women may agree to, or be willing to, devote such time and energy to their jobs over their careers as do men.  Changing the nature of these professions to higher female ratios may change some of the fundamental ways we arrange our society:

“…is our society right to expect that level of effort from people who hold the most prominent jobs?”

Perhaps…though the subtext might be:  are some members of our society right to expect that the guiding ideas of diversity and equality won’t come with a host of other problems…?

What about biology?

***Charles Murray takes it a few steps further, asserting that our social sciences are leading us to become more like Europe (less dynamic and less idealistic in our pursuit of Aristotelian happiness)  He also argues that there is a sea-change going on in the social science that will come to support his thinking. This last part could be a few steps too far…but it’d be nice.

2.  The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end-The bell curve argument that there are more genius and idiot men.  When you get to MIT, 3 and more standard deviations above the mean…means a lot.

3.  The third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search-If discrimination is such an important factor in there being a lack of women scientists, then economic theory holds that there are going to be:

“…very substantial opportunities for a limited number of people who were not prepared to discriminate to assemble remarkable departments of high quality people at relatively limited cost simply by the act of their not discriminating.”

So if the theory holds…where are the science departments scooping up all women scientists at low cost…who’ve been rejected elsewhere due to discrimination?


I believe there is quite arguably discrimination against women in the sciences, and they have a harder road to reach success.  But there is also substance here…and clearly politics was a factor in Summers’ firing as well;  the women’s groups who viewed his ideas as an attack on their belief appealed to public sentiment in the worst kind of way.

Will social science ever be enough to address such an issue…or is it possibly changing to adapt to the demands people require of it?

On This Site:  Charles Murray Lecture At AEI: The Happiness Of People

Addition:  I always get an email or two that suggests I’ve joined the ranks of those who don’t fully understand the problem and seek to oppress women.  I don’t think I’ve done such a thing, and if women are going broaden and deepen feminism, they may well have to answer to arguments like these.

It’s not like there aren’t women in the sciences either, Vera RubinLisa Randall and Lise Meitner come to mind, but this debate is clearly not just about science.  It’s also about feminism, the social sciences, money, politics, public opinion etc…

Larry Summers - World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2007 by World Economic Forum


3 thoughts on “Repost-Revisting Larry Summers: What Did He Say Again?

  1. I have two friends who joined top law firms immediately after law school. Within a few years they both got married to start a family and left their employers. Consequently, it makes sense that women should be paid less to reflect the higher cost imposed on the firm by hiring women. Is ignorance of economics the only reason that these issues cannot be discussed rationally without stirring up a hornet’s nest?

  2. Malcolm,

    Law firms must be taking this into account. If there’s an unmarried woman in front of you, or a married woman without children, do you invest in her knowing these issues might arise in a few years?

    More broadly, will we just end up having a small group of men and women meeting at good law schools, marrying and keeping and passing on their social capital amongst themselves a la Charles Murray or a la the upper echelons of the European regulatory State, that is, still getting married and remaining traditional while most people don’t have the same opportunities, and all of us drifting into a kind of more fixed class structure?

    Like many movements, this started out primarily as an intellectual one, then filtered into the journalist and chattering classes, then became something like received truth in much of the public at large.

    I suspect some of the reason it can’t be talked about are both anger and injustice. The ideological edge of the women’s movement had a lot of both to draw upon and the movement rippled outwards to most women and most institutions. Many at least wanted the freedom to choose what kind of lives they would lead professionally and intellectually and have a greater sphere of freedom, even if nature reasserts itself eventually.

    I think, obviously, biology, economic scarcity, basic economics, and the fundamental differences between the sexes haven’t changed all that much. We’re just ending up with different social and economic incentives and a changed institutional landscape.

    A lot of costs have come with the change.

    I’d argue one key is to push back against the true believers and the use of the bad statistics, the sloppy reasoning and the ideologues who don’t really go anywhere either, but thrive on public institutions and universities where they pursue their rather narrow, private aims.

    This seems to be one true legacy of the 60’s in America.

  3. And by nature reasserting itself eventually, I simply mean the kinds of costs like you mentioned. There are many reasons why men earn more, including longer hours, no gaps in employment, confidence and overconfidence in their abilities etc.

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