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All posts by Dan Whalen,
Providence, RI (resume)

Monday, June 2, 2014

Contemporary economists you should know: Larry Summers

Contemporary economists you should know

They direct powerful institutions.  They have the ear of national leaders.  Their ideas influence world events on the daily, in very tangible ways.  And still, many economists are just not major public figures - at least not in the way that the journalists, politicians, activists and pundits who depend on them are.

In the next few posts, I want to introduce you to some of the most important people in economics today.  

By seeing there are actually faces behind these ideas, I think economic debates become a bit more fun to follow.  

I think it also will illustrate to you one of economics dirty little secrets - economists' personal world views can shape their policy views just as much as their technical insight, research, and calculation!


Larry Summers

Ok, so I admit he's not as personable or accessible as Goolsbee, but I'd certainly argue Larry Summers has been the more influential economic policy maker in our lifetimes.  

In fact, I'd be hard pressed to name a greater mover and shaker than Summers - the man has serious pull in the world you inhabit.


The Bio

I don't know what to lead with here.  It's like a multi-way tie for most impressive credential.

Full professor of economics at Harvard by age 29.  

Former Chief Economist at the World Bank.  

Former Secretary of the US Treasury.  

Former President of Harvard University.  

Hugely successful career in finance and banking (particularly with a hedge fund called D. E. Shaw & Co.).

A top adviser to President Obama, and one of the head architects of the Great Recession response.  And columnist for Bloomberg, the NYT, the Financial Times, and I'm sure oodles of other's I don't know about.

As an academic, he's studied, researched, and published in just about every field relevant to public policy/economics - from labor economics, economic development, macroeconomics, and monetary policy.

If you're more a fan of the quantitative, consider this:  I found his CV on his webpage.  It's 9 pages long


Controversies

There are plenty.  A guy who has led so many of the world's institutions is not going to manage to keep his hands clean.  

Anything even a little bit sketchy happening in one of his organizations, of course, will tie back to him, and reflect on him personally.  When you want to be the boss, sure you get all the credit - but you get all the mess too.

That's not to say he hasn't invited some of the trouble he's been in.  His departure from the Presidency of Harvard was not entirely his idea.

During his time at the World Bank, he was a big proponent of the kind of deregulation that created the environment necessary for the Financial Crisis to occur (though to be fair, so was pretty much everyone else back then - this is when all the cool kids were "Neoliberals").

BUT...whether you love him or hate him is irrelevant.  The man is a giant.  He's probably the biggest economic mind alive.  His opinion is greatly valued by the people you vote for, bank with, and buy from.  

He is, after all...just the man behind much of today's private and public economic policy...


In his own words...

Summers is a technocrat.  He's not the public-facing, fun fella Goolsbee is.  Summer's is more of a behind the scenes, backroom, in the shadows type guy.  Basically, he's a nerd.

I think that's why it was so hard for me to find a really compelling interview with the guy.  But here's what I got:


"The Worldview of Lawrence Summers"

A digestible chat with Summers, centering about his life, personal attitude, and experiences.  Here's where you can get to know him as a person.




"Davos 2013 - An Insight, An Idea with Lawrence Summers"

A technical, dry, and kinda-weird interview, despite the interviewer trying desperately to steer the conversation back to something human.  

However, the talk is excellent.  It gives Summers the venue to really wax poetic about his field, and really get into the nitty-gritty of how he sees the world.  If you can sweat through it, it's worth it.

(Also, for some weird reasons, he's wearing a suit and Timberlands).

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