Larry Summers Talked Himself Out of a Job

The top economist, who withdrew his name to lead the Fed, is still haunted by comments on Africa and women.

Larry Summers (Jim Davis/Getty Images)
Larry Summers (Jim Davis/Getty Images)

It’s also critically important to understand some of the global ramifications of Summers’ leadership, since, by all accounts, the economist has continued to have the president’s ear. In 1991 Summers signed a memo drafted by a colleague at the World Bank. It stated that African nations were underpolluted, then called for dumping toxic wastes in the continent and capped it all by saying that since Africans were more likely to die young than Westerners, well, who cares about the mortality issues? It might be equivalent to my saying that because young black men in inner cities are more likely to die from gun violence, why not just dump confiscated guns into the hood and let social Darwinism have its day? Summers later said he was being sarcastic.

Summers’ peers were not amused. José Lutzenberger, who was then Brazil’s secretary of the environment, wrote Summers: “Your reasoning is perfectly logical but totally insane … Your thoughts [provide] a concrete example of the unbelievable alienation, reductionist thinking, social ruthlessness and the arrogant ignorance of many conventional ‘economists’ concerning the nature of the world we live in … If the World Bank keeps you as vice president it will lose all credibility. To me it would confirm what I often said … the best thing that could happen would be for the Bank to disappear.”

Lutzenberger lost his job. Summers, as he often seems to have done, just went upward and onward — even when his policy pronouncements didn’t protect us.

Let’s take Summers at his word on Africa, that he was kidding, that it was all just a joke. Well, Africa is not a joke. Seeing African lives as a trifle is, as a tween might put it, so not cool. The possibility that Summers was, under the guise of humor, speaking his mind is even more disturbing. The possibility that the head of America’s banking system could see global lives as trivial is deeply disturbing.

Recent economic analyses show that 93 percent of Americans are losing financial ground in our current economy. It’s not a question of blaming rich people for being rich. Most of us want to be better off. (I’m certainly no exception.) And our government, as part of the public trust, should make sure that more of us have a chance to realize the value of our hard work.

Again: it’s not about handouts or even hand-ups, but about fairness. Actions speak louder than words. But words, in the right mouths, also spur actions. For that reason, and many others, Larry Summers has found himself held accountable to his own tongue.

Farai Chideya is a distinguished writer in residence at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Institute for Journalism. A contributing editor at The Root, she is  the author of four books and blogs at farai.com.

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