Social & Domestic Issues

It’s Not Surprising that Harvard’s Summers Says Something Foolish

Years back, I could have told the Board of Overseers at Harvard that Lawrence Summers was a big mouth. I noticed it, and wrote about it, back in 1997 when Summers was Deputy Treasury Secretary in the Clinton administration.

The issue at the time was the “death tax,† the 55 percent federal estate tax that represented a major obstacle to the survival of small businesses and family farms when they were being passed from one generation to the next. It’s hard to keep the plows going when the government shows up at the funeral and wants half the farm.

Throwing his two cents into the debate, Summers, formerly a Harvard economics professor, declared, “When it comes to cutting the estate tax, there is no case other than selfishness.†

The response was immediate and furious. “It’s pure ignorance,† said Dan Danner, vice president of the National Federation of Independent Business, the nation’s largest organization of small business owners. “It’s pretty horrible to imply that small business people who just want to pass their businesses to their children are greedy.†

Asked Pat Buchanan: “Who the devil is being greedy here? Who is being selfish? The couple that worked and saved a lifetime, or the politicians who did nothing to create the estate but seize half of it at death? The estate tax is the product of men with the mindset of grave robbers.†

And from Rep. John Boehner, chairman of the House Republican Conference at the time: “Summers’ comment captures perfectly the arrogance of the liberal elite who believe that government has some right to redistribute the fruits of a life’s work.†

More than arrogant and elitist, Summers’ statement was dumb, economically, especially coming from someone who taught economics at Harvard. Small businesses create the bulk of the new jobs in the American economy. That was true in 1997 and it’s true today, and it shouldn’t take a PhD in economics to understand that you don’t help workers by cutting businesses in half just because someone dies.

This time around, Summers, now the president of Harvard, got in hot water at a National Bureau of Economic Research conference. Asked to speak about the “under-representation† of women in science, Summers’ tossed around several hypotheses, including one about the possibility of intrinsic differentials in aptitude between men and women in various fields and endeavors.

Now maybe I haven’t been sufficiently indoctrinated into political correctness, but in this instance I couldn’t see much in Summers’ remarks that would cause someone to end up on a fainting couch. In a Steeler football game, for example, I’d say it looks like something intrinsic is going on with all those men on the field and no women, and an “under-representation† of Orientals. And on the other end, I’d say there’s something intrinsic about the fact that the overwhelming percentage of murderers and rapists on this planet are men.

Nonetheless, here’s how Ruth R. Wisse, the Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard, described the scene in a recent Wall Street Journal article: “At this point in his (Summers) remarks, an MIT female professor of science quit the room, declaring to the press that she couldn’t breathe because ‘this kind of bias makes me physically ill.’†

Now I don’t want to add to the breathlessness, but I was never in a meeting where a guy stopped breathing because he didn’t like a hypothesis.

The MIT professor who “quit the room† was biologist Nancy Hopkins. She defended her exit in The Harvard Crimson. “When he (Summers) came into this conference, we thought he was coming to tell us what Harvard was doing about this issue,† she explained, referring to the “under-representation† issue. “But he chose instead to give his personal views, and it’s not really his field. He wasn’t presenting ideas that were up for discussion.†

What’s not “up for discussion,† in short, is what’s politically incorrect.

In “The Shame of America’s One-Party Campuses,† Karl Zinsmeister, the editor of The American Enterprise, reported on faculty political affiliations via voter registration records. At Harvard, only 4 percent of the professors were registered as Republicans or Libertarians. That’s “under-representation,† more off the mark than the number of women teaching biology — and more likely based on bias than any innate differentials in aptitude. And that’s something else that’s not “up for discussion.†

Sign Up