Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Summers dilemma

Word is that Barack Obama is considering Lawrence Summers for the position of Secretary of the Treasury. This has presented me with my first Obama Presidency related dilemma.

I found Obama’s misogyny during the campaign disgraceful; Summers is probably most famous for supposedly saying “girls can’t do math.” I find it very difficult to resist the temptation to fan the flames of this fire by blogging about how even considering Summers proves that Obama doesn’t respect women and by emailing my woman friends who voted for Obama and saying, “See? I told you so.”

Furthermore the left-leaning media is giving Obama grief about this possibility. What could be sweeter than seeing Obama attacked by the same media that gave him such an easy ride during the campaign? I would be less than human if I did not experience a great urge to encourage such media outlets to keep up their attacks by joining the ranks of commenters who are criticizing Obama for considering Summers. (via neo-neocon)

Unfortunately I have taken a look at the “girls can’t do math” story and I simply can’t find much to it. The story is based on remarks Summers made at a 2005 National Bureau of Economic Research Conference on “Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce.” Summers prefaces his remarks by saying that he is speaking only because he wants to get “some questions asked and some attempts at provocation.” and he restricts his remarks to “the issue of women's representation in tenured positions in science and engineering at top universities and research institutions.”

I’ve tried a couple of times to summarize his remarks but cannot do so without doing violence to his meaning. In fact, I believe attempts to summarize them are what have led to the perception that he is sexist. To judge fairly you simply have to read his remarks for yourself. My conclusion is that Summers was advancing hypotheses for which he had some backup while conceding that not enough is known to be sure about what is really going on.

So I can’t really convict Larry Summers of sexism and, sadly, am going to have pass up this opportunity to club friends over the head with Obama’s sexism and to foment dissension in the Obama-supporting media. Even worse, the other controversies surrounding Summers don’t seem all that damning either. Wikipedia currently has a good summary of those incidents: follow the footnote links to the source documents and most of the controversies appear misrepresented or trivial. In fact, from reading the Wikipedia entry it looks like the charge with the most validity is that he wanted tenured professors to teach more of their own classes.

On the other hand, he does seem to have a talent for rubbing people the wrong way and that may be a bad thing under the current circumstances. Given the state of the economy and the incredible power vested in the Treasury by the bailout bill, it might be advisable to have a Treasury Secretary who plays well with others, thinks before he speaks, and can sound reassuring. Obama will simply have to balance Summers’ negatives - an (apparently unwarranted) reputation as sexist and otherwise politically incorrect plus a reportedly blunt managerial style - against a possibly overwhelming positive - many people consider him both brilliant and competent.


It caused me terrible psychic pain to entitle this post “The Summers dilemma” rather than “The Summers dilemna”. As far as I can remember, I have always used the “mn” spelling rather than the “mm” spelling but my spellchecker and my dictionary both insist “mm” is and always has been correct. In response to which, I can only agree with baysailor’s comment:

*I* think that "dilemna' simply looks better on the page. I think "dilemma" is awkward and clunky.


Hattie said...

I just found your blog and very much enjoy your reasoned and lucid approach.

Elise said...

Thanks, Hattie. That's always nice to hear.