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Revisiting One Lawrence Summers Controversy

Opponents of Lawrence Summers for a second turn as Treasury secretary have, of course, brought up his 1991 memo as chief economist of the World Bank, in which he wrote that poor countries need more pollution, not less. The memo was obviously meant to stimulate thinking and not to be implemented as policy. But it also was undeniably correct. Summers's main point was that life and health are worth less in poor countries than in rich ones. He measured that worth by the earnings lost when a person is sick or dies prematurely. But another good measure, maybe clearer, would be the amount a society will spend to save a life. Treatments that are routine in the United States, although they cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, are simply not available to citizens of poor countries. You get cancer and you die. Of course this shouldn't be true, but it undeniably is true, and rejecting the idea of poor countries earning a little cash by "buying" pollution from rich ones will do nothing to make it less true.

If an industrial plant that causes pollution is going to be built somewhere, it ought to be built where life is worth less. This sounds brutal, but it isn't. Or rather, it is less brutal than reality. Turn it around: If a life is worth less, it is also cheaper to save. For what we spend in the United States to save a single life, you could save dozens or hundreds of lives in poor countries. So if the plant is going to be built somewhere, building it in a poor country will enable more lives to be saved than building it in a rich one.

Summers also pointed out that the harm from pollution tends to be "non-linear," meaning that the harm goes up more than proportionately as pollution increases. A little bit of pollution may be virtually harmless, but double it or quadruple it and you more than double or quadruple the negative effects. If a city in a rich country is very polluted and a city the same size in a poor country is not, you will save lives -- in the rich country this time -- if some of that pollution can be moved from the rich country to the poor one. And the money the rich country pays the poor one can save even more lives in the poor country.

The general point is that clean air and other environmental goods are luxuries. The richer a country is, the more of them it can afford. And if rich countries like the United States had had to meet some of the standards being wished upon poor countries today, we would still be poor ourselves.

Every economic transaction has two sides. When you deny a rich country the opportunity to unload some toxic waste on a poor one, you are also denying that poor country the opportunity to get paid for taking the toxic waste. And by forbidding this deal, you are putting off the day when the poor country will no longer need to make deals like this.

In his notorious memo, Summers was doing his job and doing it well: thinking outside the box about how to help the poor countries that are supposed to be the World Bank's constituency. Plenty of outside-the-box thinking will be required from our next Treasury secretary too. Summers is famous for this, and for the abrasiveness that goes along with it. But the Obama administration won't have time, and shouldn't have the patience, for the umbrage game that dominated the recent political campaign. There is no point in making Larry Summers promise to behave himself. That just isn't his style, and if President-elect Obama can't face it, he should choose someone less likely to stir up fusses at regular intervals. That would be a pity.

By Michael Kinsley  | November 8, 2008; 10:25 AM ET
Categories:  Kinsley  | Tags:  Michael Kinsley  
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"If an industrial plant that causes pollution is going to be built somewhere, it ought to be built where life is worth less. "

This is insane. If you are a Republican, please move to another country. Maybe an African one.

I worry that Obama is the racist, sexist elitist that he appears.

You I have no doubt about.

Posted by: wpfree | November 8, 2008 11:11 AM | Report abuse

I'd like to report offensive comments by Kinsley. This argument is too bizarre to be believed. Denying the poor country the "opportunity" to destroy itself because its people are worth less than we are? This is so awful it is just about psychotic.

What about the rich country spending the resources and effort to cut back on the pollution you want to dump on the poor?
Wouldn't that be a better way to save rich lives? Or are you saying, if the poor don't live with our waste, they will stay poor? No wonder people want to terrorize America, it is people like you Mr Kinsley.

Posted by: shrink2 | November 8, 2008 11:16 AM | Report abuse

Two comments on this post:

(1) The fact that even a level headed and admirable Michael 'slate' Kingsley is loosing his head and supporting nonsenses like poor people worth less, is probably a bad omen. Is Obama win causing leftists drop all guards? Look, the battle to modernize American psyche has just began and it is not helped by remarks like 'seances' and 'those poor people'.

(2) Bringing Summers back will 'seal the deal' about American power being solidly in the hand of boys and other types of boys. Obama will continue in the same path he traveled during primaries.

Posted by: ssensharma | November 8, 2008 11:28 AM | Report abuse

Please tell us, you're kidding!

Posted by: shakeelm | November 8, 2008 11:29 AM | Report abuse

Industrial plants should be built where there are strict environmental laws and in localities that encourage facilities to go go beyond compliance and prevent pollution before it ever created. A facility that does not use toxics in its production process will have little impact on the surrounding community.

Posted by: graciejane4 | November 8, 2008 11:41 AM | Report abuse

A) Summers didn't write the memo.
B) The memo wasn't a serious proposal. It was meant to stimulate internal debate - has any of you ever read Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal?
C) A lot of things economists talk about are pretty unsettling. Only they (and lawyers) ever try to place a dollar value on a human life. There's a reason it's called the dismal science.

Posted by: Peejay | November 8, 2008 12:12 PM | Report abuse

I'm also wondering if any of the posters who are so upset by this think it's a bad idea to truck garbage out of Washington DC instead of turning the national mall into a landfill....

Posted by: Peejay | November 8, 2008 12:15 PM | Report abuse

Summers was called "abrasive" by colleagues in 3 agencies, has a narrow view of Economics (cf colleague Sacks' disatrous advice to the Soviet Union in 1990 !), is a hard core Social Darwinist(as distinct from a meritorious chooser), and too quickly decides who should be taken seriously and who not. He and Rubin continued the limiting of regulation of financial agencies, notably in 1999 to win the next election. Better read his columns in the "Financial Times" than wait and see how he would manage the interests he failed to watch over and prevent from excesses earlier, at home and abroad. Whether he is a misogynist, I leave to more knowledgable persons. It is not his intellect but his oversized ego and crushing personality that we should limit to openly observable pages, not behind-the-scenes bulldozing.

Posted by: JohnNyrenBuchanan | November 8, 2008 12:21 PM | Report abuse

I don't have a word to describe the content of this opinion piece: crass is too soft, but barbaric is probably too strong. It reminds me of the time in the mid-1970's at Queen's university in Canada when, comenting on recent research work on human capital, the Economst Harry G. Johnson put forward the opinion that African-Americans were actualy better of having been enslaved to be brought to America relative to what would have ben their fate had they stayed back in Africa. The famous economist Richard Lipsey who was in the graduate seminar could not contain his anger and asked his friend Harry: " I wonder what would be your reaction if, to ease your hernia, the doctor told you that you would be better off having your jewels removed".

But leaving aside hypotheticals about the value of life: hardly a few weeks after Maggie Thatcher allowed IRA activist Bobby Sands to die of hunger in his prison when she could easily have stopped his hunger-strike, her son Mark was lost in the desert in Libya while participating in the Paris-Dakar rally. Gaddafi (no less a 'radical') spent at least US$ 1 million, if not 2 of Libyan taxpayer money, dispatching helicopters to search for Mark. The same one who has been cited as part of a conspiracy to overthrow the legitimate rulers of Equatorial Guinea with the aim of seizing control of that country's oil resources.

Ah well! As Oscar Wilde said: 'The sceptic knows the price of everything, the value of nothing'. As for Larry Summers whom I like very much, I was embarrassed when, having moved from the World Bank to the US Treasury, he changed his opinion about 'dollarisation' from anti- to pro-, and to switch back again to pro- when he moved from Treasury to Harvard.

Posted by: FUZZYTRUTHSEEKER | November 8, 2008 12:21 PM | Report abuse

Peejay is an idiot.

Kinsley is talking about waste so toxic that if we paid someone else to live with it, it would save rich peoples' lives.

This is not air pollution, which can not be exported (the world is round you know), nor is it about garbage. He is talking about waste that is so harmful that if the rich people can not get rid of it some of them will die.

Further, while it matters how much money a society has to spend on saving lives, it has nothing to do with any science, dismal or otherwise, to represent the life of a rich person as being worth more than that of a poor person. One controls more money than the other, but their lives better have the same value. Why?

The "stimulate internal debate" defense is BS. Why don't we debate genocide? Think of all the valueless lives we could end so we would have more space to dump our waste. We would be richer for it and so then our lives would be even more valuable.

Posted by: shrink2 | November 8, 2008 12:44 PM | Report abuse

Isn't Lawrence Summers the same guy who was driven out of the presidency of Harvard University after he said that women were inherently less intelligent than men in math and science?

"Just Say "NO" to Larry Summers!"

So if Lawrence Summers is too sexist to be president of Harvard University, why would we want to nominate him for Secretary of the US Treasury.

It seems to me that his attitude toward women makes that nomination a non-starter, if only because he will be asked to explain (confirm or deny) those sexist opinions during the confirmation hearings. If he confirms them he's out. And if he denies them, then he's a confirmed liar who will say anything to win Senate confirmation.

Better to choose someone else who doesn't have a well-known history of sexist commentary about women's intelligence. (I think he also said Blacks were inherently less intelligent.) Let's not choose to be embarrassed at such a high-level confirmation hearing.

Posted by: francislholland | November 8, 2008 1:37 PM | Report abuse

"If a life is worth less, it is also cheaper to save." NON-SEQUITUR!

Posted by: YoutheMan | November 8, 2008 1:37 PM | Report abuse

The WP and other media organizations are missing one of the major controversies surrounding Summers when he was Harvard president and a major reason for his downfall at Harvard. (His remarks on women's ability at science actually wasn't the singular reason for his dismissal - contrary to the simplified version of the story that is repeatedly reported.) Reporters should look into Summers' dishonesty regarding the investigation into Harvard's actions in Russia in the 1990s and his defense of his friend Andrei Shleifer in that mess. The Institutional Investor Feb 2006 edition has a detailed investigation into this, and the NYT wrote about it as a reason for his Harvard dismissal. Never mind the women in science comments and this pollution comment, the Russia affair is interesting and seemingly much more relevant to a Treasury position than his other gaffes. I don't know whether it disqualifies him for Treasury or not, but it's much more on point than these other stories have been.

Posted by: Arlington7 | November 8, 2008 1:47 PM | Report abuse

Those of us immigrants from those 'poor countries' have seen it played over and over again. It is nothing new. The big oil companies like Exxon Mobil, BP, Texaco etc have destroyed the riverine areas of my native country - Nigeria that the subsistence life of the people (fishing) is now basterdized. Several appeals to the authorities over the years failed because what big oil companies do is to bribe the powers that be in millions of dollars and build of exotic mansions for them. But for the past few years, the people have said Enough! and they are fighting back (legally and illegally). "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." (John F. Kennedy)

Posted by: midas20874 | November 8, 2008 1:52 PM | Report abuse

Nice tight reasoning as usual by Kinsley, but utterly beside the point. The urgency of climate change and global warming has transformed environmental issues from "economic side effects" to central economic concerns. We are past the point of worrying about buying and selling dirty air. Except for very short-term needs and actions, our economy must be re-designed and tightly integrated with alternative energy and environmental improvement. The 3 E's, economy, energy and environment are all critical and must be considered as one. Whoever becomes Treasury Secretary better understand that!

Posted by: swift02 | November 8, 2008 1:59 PM | Report abuse

for all of you ridiculing Summers memo, look at China and India. They are cleaning our clock precisely because they agree with Summers, and are willing to suffer some short term pollution to catch up with the superpowers economically (if not pass them in the dust). That's why they insist on higher pollution allowances in the Kyoto negotiations. China and India read Summers memo and implemented it.

Posted by: JoeT1 | November 8, 2008 2:19 PM | Report abuse

Cruel and insensitive, yes, but there is a truth here. We are so convinced of the necessity of extremely expensive cures to us that we fail to recognize how little it takes to save life or health elsewhere. What would be the extreme luxury of increased years of life in many places we take as our right.

How many Wal-Mart shoppers think of the health of foreign workers as they buy another tee-shirt because it is a different color from the many ones they have?

Kinsley is just showing us the other side of this arrogant focus on our own health, to the extent that "comfort" from minor symptoms is often taken as "health".

Posted by: jackl31 | November 8, 2008 2:29 PM | Report abuse

I think this self-serving logical contortionism is an example of what Gandhi meant when he talked about the "Roots of violence: ...Commerce without morality, Science without humanity, Worship without sacrifice, Politics without principles".

Posted by: chase-truth | November 8, 2008 2:50 PM | Report abuse

China and India are not "cleaning our clock". As soon as we stop buying stuff for a few months, they bolt to our T bonds and dollars in greater numbers than when we were buying (borrowing)like drunken sailors.

Once rich people get what swift02 and midas20874 are talking about, all the economies of the world will have to get past growing consumption (there was a reason why Tuberculosis was called consumption) as the prime directive of economic growth.

There is such a thing as sustainable growth, but it requires a lot more imagination than Summers et al have in mind.

Posted by: shrink2 | November 8, 2008 2:51 PM | Report abuse

Good God Almighty, I've never read anything so morally bankrupt coming from Kinsley's pen.

Once you confuse market price with worth, you've revealed yourself to have a narrowly economistic mental framework for thinking about the world. You've rejected the beliefs that motivated our founders and were written into the Declaration that "all men are created equal". You've reduced the value of a life to the profits it generates for someone else.

Thinking 'outside the box' is good - but a leader also has to demonstate that they know when not to shoot off their mouth with any thought that comes to their head; that they understand audience and context. Summers demonstated a considerable deficit in this as president of Harvard, which casts some doubt on his ability to fill the leadership and communications functions at the treasury. Policy wonk, yes; Secretary, NO.

And Michael, find yourself a Trappist abbey and go on retreat for about a month while you consider what determines the value of a human life.

Posted by: j2hess | November 8, 2008 3:32 PM | Report abuse

I suspect that Summers won't be asked to serve as a result of this article. Well done.

Posted by: exco | November 8, 2008 3:34 PM | Report abuse

I did a double take on the article, wondering if it is written for Onion magazine.

Whether or not the point made by Summers is technically correct is arguable. That it can be easily misuderstood, and considered unconscionable is certain.

The fact that Kinsley is highlighting it now - makes me wonder if Kinsley is arguing for or against Summers!

Posted by: pKrishna43 | November 8, 2008 3:49 PM | Report abuse

Let's extrapolate this argument. Would Kinsley/Summers argue for poor people to be starved so that rich people could feed their extravagant appetites? Setup an embargo for oil tankers from coming to developing countries so that the developed countries can waste more gasoline on their highways?

This is bizarre.

Posted by: pKrishna43 | November 8, 2008 4:01 PM | Report abuse

I am appalled at the cruel and cynical logic of this twisted piece

Posted by: chriskullar | November 8, 2008 4:05 PM | Report abuse

Yikes! All this umbrage. Are we really so lacking in critical thinking skills we cannot understand Michael's point?

Moral sensitivity ain't necessarily pretty in a mind that doesn't know how to think.

Posted by: wdmccann1 | November 8, 2008 4:17 PM | Report abuse

Yonkers, New York
08 November 2008

It is as futile to expect a zebra or a tiger to change its stripes, as it is to make Larry Summers change his abrasive style.

Abrasiveness is his "style;" it is his "brand." He is defined by it.

Thus, Mr. Summers isn't a good bet for the critical position of Secretary of the Treasury in a Barack Obama administration.

Mr. Summers will be making his unorthodox and probably controversial proposals on how the United States should confront the mind-boggling financial and economic crisis how bedevilling tens upon tens of millions of Americans--in his abrasive style, mind you--and this will not be helpful in a time when coolness, sobriety, and calm-headedness are critically needed on the part of the President and his closest advisers.

It happens that there are other possible candidates for that post who are just as qualified, if not more so, than Larry Summers. One is Paul Volcker. The other is Warren Buffet. And there are one or two more good ones. They are not known to be abrasive.

Mariano Patalinjug

Posted by: MPatalinjug | November 8, 2008 4:48 PM | Report abuse

Summers’ conjecture would make sense if the assets of the poor and the rich individuals were neutral in economic and philosophical content. To say a person is worth less because he has a less “willingness to pay” for his life makes sense in studies over populations where differences in income are not a big deal. But in this case, it is better to use the “willingness to accept” principle: A man’s worth is determined by what he would accept to undertake a life threatening mission. A poor person could demand a million dollars; this would help to remove the repugnance most people attach to assuming that the lives of poor people aren’t worth as much. But Summers also has abstracted from reality to the point where he is just plain wrong. We know that poor countries often lack genuine representative democracy and that their leaders often siphon off monies intended for the populace. To be responsible, we would have to ask: Just who is it that is accepting the deal?

Posted by: sfolland | November 8, 2008 4:56 PM | Report abuse

Theeasypartsover, you are exactly right. It is no wonder most readers could not understand what the writer was saying. However, I hoped before I read this that Obama would not have Summers as Treas Sec.
Alot of people have bought this Presidency for him. I hope he is not the puppet he was purported to be. I want to give him a chance. I am praying for him very hard. And praying for all of us, too.

Posted by: annnort | November 8, 2008 5:01 PM | Report abuse

I've decided that the Yucca mountain nuclear waste material should be buried on Mr. Kingsley's property. I come to this conclusion as a result of my proprietary Moral Calculation Process (tm) in which the relative values of various human beings' lives are assigned in proportion to their demonstrated humanity. Mr. Kingsley's humanity quotient being quite low (as demonstrated by this column), he is worth less as a human being than most of the rest of us.

I am SO glad we have come up with these snappy and elegant algorithms for calculating the relative worths of human beings' lives. Thank you, Messers Kingsley and Summers, for filling us in.

Posted by: B2O2 | November 8, 2008 5:04 PM | Report abuse

The value of human life is finite, and can be estimated by the risks individuals take. If the value were infinite, we would all be wrapped up in protective cocoons. That said, I think the way Kinsely writes about this is ridiculous. I, for one, hope Summers is not the next SecTreas.

Posted by: smc91 | November 8, 2008 5:46 PM | Report abuse

annort is "praying for all of us" and at the same time smugly asserts, "most readers could not understand."

Really? Are you praying for the poor people in other countries so they might see the value in our lethal waste...or just for us rich people.

Thought so.

You are like the people who pray at football games, so their team gets the field goal before half time (graciously including the poor players on the team, their lives have value you know),

like Palin, who prayed for her God to move the poll numbers in her favor.

Posted by: shrink2 | November 8, 2008 5:54 PM | Report abuse

If you disagree with Kinsley, then surely you can agree that rich countries shouldn't be spending more per capita on health care than poor countries, since that represents an identical disparity in valuation of a human life.

Posted by: davestickler | November 8, 2008 6:11 PM | Report abuse

"So if the plant is going to be built somewhere, building it in a poor country will enable more lives to be saved than building it in a rich one."

Haw haw haw. That's a nice piece of sophistry you've got there. What you mean is, building it in a poor country allows it to be built with cut-rate or no environmental controls. Which puts more lives at danger than if it were built in a rich country.

You deserve to be fired for trotting out such simplistic nonsense.

Posted by: fzdybel | November 8, 2008 6:37 PM | Report abuse

I have watched US and other "multinational" corporations export asbestos to countries in Latin America, for roofing and other uses, with the predictable dramatic increase in cancer. I watched as the newly installed Chamorro government in Nicaragua accepted nuclear pollutants from the US in 1990, and only changed its position after a public outcry. Mr. Kinsley might argue that Nicaragua's government was so desperate for funds that it had no choice. The US authorities, of course, had spent years and great sums of money destroying the economy of Nicaragua in order to bring down its democratically elected government (the Sandinistas, elected overwhelmingly in 1984). Elsewhere, we have seen the destruction of the Niger Delta in Nigeria by US-based oil companies, and the same in Ecuador (and the murder of those who protested, with the oil company's direct collusion, most notoriously in the Niger Delta). Needless to say, the affected populations received nothing from the exploitation of the oil, except an environmental catastrophe. They would have been better off if the oil had stayed in the ground. The same for gold and silver mining companies which have polluted the drinking water and the soil and left nothing, not even a paved road, for all the millions they sucked out. Mr. Kinsley, these companies and the government that represents them are not interested in the improvement of the living conditions of the people of these countries. They are interested in extracting the greatest possible profit. They do, after all, have a "fiduciary responsibility" to their owners -- and nobody else.

Posted by: landsend | November 8, 2008 6:42 PM | Report abuse

Lawrence Summers may be an outside-the-box thinker, but he's been wrong about a lot of things. Setting aside whatever validity there might be in any of Summers' arguments, there would be so much political resistance that his ideas would be unpalatable just because they came from him.

My uncle worked for NASA and helped put together the mission schedule for Apollo XI. He wasn't the smartest one in the family. My aunt, who was older, wasn't allowed to study science or engineering, so she became a high school science teacher, and ended up working for the state board of regents to develop the earth science curriculum. My mom, who was younger, found a school that would teach her. In 1955, her acceptance letter said "We had a girl here a couple years ago, and she worked out okay." Mom had to travel over a thousand miles to find a university where she could study chemistry and physics. She later became a professor of physics and environmental sciences, helping inspire a generation of young women to go further in the sciences. As a professor, she took students on field trips to the blighted Love Canal area, to show them the consequences of ignoring environmental problems.

Men and women may have different preferences and aptitudes on average, but socialization is surely a massive influence, and the fact that the hump of a bell curve may be a little to the right or left of another is no reason to restrict opportunities for groups of people. From my personal observation, I see no reason to think that women have less aptitude in the sciences. My mother and aunt accomplished a lot, but it may be only a fraction of what they might have done if they'd been allowed the same opportunities as contemporary males.

Lives may be worth less in countries where people earn less. But that would be no excuse for encouraging developing countries to repeat our mistakes after we've learned better.

Based on past experience, it's clear that Summers is better suited to academic or bureaucratic roles that don't involve administrative or political responsibilities.

Posted by: lartfromabove | November 8, 2008 6:43 PM | Report abuse

Typical "free market" crap. This is exactly why we have regulation because such "free market" solutions are not just, and there is more to consider in any policy decision than economic efficiency (which is the basic argument and at the root of the problem with classical economics).
I am an ardent Obama supporter. I hope that he gives careful consideration to this position. Would be dissapointed if he hired Summers!

Posted by: Annab1 | November 8, 2008 7:07 PM | Report abuse

This reminds us that the economic meltdown is the result of extreme laissez-faire and neo-liberal economic recipes that did not begin with the outgoing administration. The recipes (especially the "Washington Consensus") were pushed especially by George Bush père and then by Clinton and his economic advisors, particularly the bunch that Obama is now using for his backdrop at press events. Larry Summers is not the only one of those, merely one of the worst (along with Citibank's Rubin, his predecessor as Treasury Secretary). The complete discrediting of their economic notions, much commented on in the press only weeks ago, has now been upstaged by Obama-election euphoria and self-back-patting. We had better remember quickly.

Posted by: landsend | November 8, 2008 7:13 PM | Report abuse

The only thing that I'm concerned about is that Summers NOT be nominated as the Treasury Secretary for the Obama Administration. President-Elect Obama should instead hand that job to former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volker. Volker is already on record as criticizing the direction of Federal Reserve policy under Ben Bernanke. That alone is promising. Besides, Volker has been there and done that, and he will know who's genuine and who's full of it.

Summers brings too much baggage from both the Clinton Administration and Harvard University to keep on the straight and narrow. Obama does not need the drama that Summers might bring with him.

Also, if not Paul Volker as head of Treasury, no investment bank alums (Goldman Sachs especially) need not apply to this important job. We need someone who is knowledgeable, but more detached from the industry to avoid the appearance impropriety of appearance of taking the side of the investment and banking industry. The people are demanding a moderate, give and take position that requires both sides to give and take.

Oh...another thing. The transition team for President-Elect Obama should also make an effort to keep Sheila Bair and move her to Treasury in a high level position, if not as the head of the FDIC. She's doing wonders that the current Treasury Secretary Paulson can only salivate over.

Posted by: ldsw | November 8, 2008 7:31 PM | Report abuse

Short and sweet. You should be fired.

Posted by: Dougie3 | November 8, 2008 7:44 PM | Report abuse

The solution is to stop polluting in the first place!

Any industrial process can be cleaned to reduce pollution to levels so low they will cause no harm. Most have already been cleaned up. Decades ago there were factories that produced tons toxic waste water per day now produce a bucketful.

In the 1960s, Yokkaichi was one of Japan's most notoriously polluted cities. Hundreds of people were killed or disabled by the air pollution from petrochemical plants. Today, the pollution has been cleaned up so much, Yokkaichi was cited by the U.N. as one of the cleanest industrial cities. See chapter 16 of my e-book:

Naturally this costs money, but techniques have improved and it costs much less than it used to. Furthermore, it save money too, by reducing waste. Pollution is misplaced resources.

Posted by: jedrothwell1 | November 8, 2008 9:14 PM | Report abuse

Dammit, if we wanted a bunch of Clinton retreads, we'd have chosen Hilary. Time for new blood.

Posted by: troutcor | November 8, 2008 9:19 PM | Report abuse

I am trying to maintain the belief that Obama's "change" is not merely symbolic imagery. But it's tough keep up one's hopes for this presidency with, first, the appointment of Rahm Emanuel, and now, Lawrence Summers on the short list at Treasury. Why don't we just bring back Bill Clinton and have him run the presidency?

Posted by: lind2008 | November 8, 2008 9:54 PM | Report abuse

Argh! I can't believe this is beginning already. The minute a democratic president is elected, the neo-liberal DLC types go straight from decrying the callous policies of Republicans to advocating perverse "economic efficiency" arguments that favor business in exactly the same way (though for supposedly more "rational" reasons) as the administration that we just kicked to the curb. Please! Don't go back there Michael Kinsley! Why do you think liberals didn't sufficiently support Gore, leading the way to Bush? Nader was able to persuasively make the argument that there was no difference between the parties. It's all going to happen again, endlessly churning through the same ridiculous cycle.

Posted by: Jenny6 | November 8, 2008 10:07 PM | Report abuse

It reminds me of the Phi Beta Kappa lecture given by a friend of mine, a distinguished professor of Anthropology, in the late 1960s on why the Vietnam War was not entirely a bad thing. From an anthropologist's point of view, it gave them lots of healty young male corpses to study!

Also reminds me of Swift's "Modest Proposal."

Posted by: thrh | November 8, 2008 10:08 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: RudeIsraeli | November 8, 2008 10:49 PM | Report abuse

Personally I would nominate most of the commenters on this opinion piece for Secretary of the Treasury before Larry Summers - they seem a good bit more thoughtful than he has proven to be. And I agree with those who are afraid that the politician in Obama will bow down to established power and obey.

Posted by: americanagain | November 8, 2008 10:53 PM | Report abuse

Do Obama's people call, and ask if a favorable article can be placed for candidates who are less than attractive?

Summers is a skunk, for many reasons, I hardly see him as the man to restore economic confidence in America, and the markets.

Patronage didn't work for Bush, it won't work for Obama, no matter the donation, what was feasible a year ago, say, is not feasible, today.

Posted by: thegreatpotatospamof2003 | November 8, 2008 11:04 PM | Report abuse

Brooksley E. Born for Secretary of the Treasurey

According to this article, Brooksley E. Born, head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, recognized the danger to the economy posed by derivatives. She recognized it early on and she fought Greenspan, Rubin, and Levitt. She was right. They were wrong. She put her government career on the line and ultimately lost. This is a tough and highly intelligent woman. We should consider HER for Secretary of Treasury.

"Rarely does one Washington regulator engage in such a public, pitched battle with other agencies. Born's failed effort is part of the larger story of what led to today's financial chaos....Derivatives did not trigger what has erupted into the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression. But their proliferation, and the uncertainty about their real values, accelerated the recent collapses of the nation's venerable investment houses and magnified the panic that has since crippled the global financial system."

Posted by: LiberalbelieverinrealAmericanvalues | November 9, 2008 7:42 AM | Report abuse

Years ago as a young graduate student I serendipitously encountered an article by Larry Summers while taking a break in my studies one evening. Attracted by a family name, I was curious that he may be a long lost relative. I don’t recall the specifics of that particular article, but I do recall recognizing the brilliant mind this man has developed. I have followed Larry’s career off and on through the years and have come to the conclusion that he is one of the most innovative and intellectually honest minds of our generation. I say this, not because I agree with all of his ideas. Realistically, no two human beings are going to agree 100% of the time. But he seems to have one of the best grasps on the thinking process as anyone I have seen.

Larry is one of the few people that understand the following intellectual processes:

• Problem Definition: If the best and brightest minds cannot crack a problem within a reasonable amount of time, chances are, we have defined the problem wrong. Dr. Summers is a master of redefining problems, as illustrated by the Kinsley article.

• Solution Assumptions: If the underlying assumptions are not correct, the solution will be less than optimal. Summers has a history of challenging underlying assumptions. Sometimes the challenge leads to changes in the conventional wisdom. Other times it leads to a re-evaluation and confirmation of valid assumptions. In both cases, our generally understanding is improved.

• Primacy of Empirical Data: We need to make our empirical observations first then construct or modify our theories and beliefs. When we concentrate on our theories and then cherry pick our empirical observations we limit ourselves to the conventional wisdom, which slows potential paradigm shifts. Summers always argues from his data. Whether or not the rest of us understand what he is saying, we can rest assured that is based in his empirically derived.

• Conviction of Truth: Dr. Summers has a history of expressing his out of the box thinking regardless of the popularity of the conventional wisdom. This is a quality found historically in the heroes of science and letters as we view them today.

The United States is in a unique position because of the recent election. We now have a president elect that has the intellection capacity to comprehend higher level thinking necessary to effect paradigm shifts. In effect, we have set ourselves up for the potential for a new American Renaissance. In a time when our conventional political and economic paradigms have shown to be inadequate, we need thinkers like Dr. Summers to lead us into the future. I certainly hope that the new administration has the good sense to place Dr. Summers where he can do the most good; either as the Secretary of Treasury or another highly visible position within the administration.

Posted by: DrS1 | November 9, 2008 10:38 AM | Report abuse

"If an industrial plant that causes pollution is going to be built somewhere, it ought to be built where life is worth less."

You and Summers have it exactly bassackwards, as my Dad used to say. Your disregard for human beings' actual lives disgusts me. From now on, I'm only listening to people who get the basic things right. Like Digby:

Posted by: SusanMc | November 9, 2008 5:03 PM | Report abuse

to me this is kind of like having surgery:

I don't care if the surgeon has a bedside manner or not as long as I get the best surgeon with the highest level of expertise and the highest success rate.

After the surgery is a complete success, then we can talk about bedside manner or move on to another doctor who can take over the maintenance and follow up.

i.e. it goes in stages. give me the best and brightest to get the patient healed, physical therapy and occupational therapy and pleasantness can come in the second and third phases of the healing process.

Posted by: flacan | November 9, 2008 6:31 PM | Report abuse

Based on a lot of the comments it becomes clear why we are in such financial straights. What Summers (via Kinsley) is doing is offering an economic example of reality. Too many people completely missed that point and looked at the harshness of it's basis. It is one of Summer's biggest problems. He has to find a way to dumb down his comments so people can understand them and try not to use examples that get people focused on the people involved in the issue/example INSTEAD OF the economics. In this PC world that will be unbelievably difficult

Posted by: flyguy49kc | November 10, 2008 8:32 AM | Report abuse

If LS is one of the great minds of the age, it's a sad age.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the single most important empirical fact attesting to the paucity of the North American economic mind is the state of the US political economy--How do those pension funds look? How's the infrastructure? How's the health care system? How about Math and Science education?

Please, It's not that LS needs to "dumb down" his approach, it's that those arrogant--and desperately leveraged--Americans need to smarten up and listen to what they are actually saying.

Lets give LS the benefit of the doubt and assume that when the staff met to discuss the memo, someone had the courage to say: "Larry you're nuts!" What then? Does he scoff and insult? LS isn't well known for his math skills, I believe he's famous for his arrogance and lack of humility?

The attraction of Obama is that he is intelligent as well as humble. LS would be fine as long as there are people around to remind him that individuals have intrinsic value: you don't dump toxic waste on anyone and you don't torture.... Yes, no matter what advantage one see in it, Larry, one avoids it because it is wrong.

Posted by: protagoras | November 10, 2008 9:25 AM | Report abuse

All well and good, but it presumes that saving an Indonesian life is as important as saving an American one.

I don't think that Sarah Palin would agree--especially if it were balanced against the life of a True American.

Get real.

Posted by: wgmadden | November 10, 2008 1:45 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Kinsley,
Your position is both reprehensible and an excellent example of what is wrong with economics and human society in general today. Nearly all human problems today stem from the willingness of a self-righteous few imposing their cold and calculating view on others, whether human, animal, or the environment, in manner that prefers their own limited assumptions, whether right wing or religious, or atheistic “science”, over the value of their victims.
It is not naïve or superstitious to say that some values, and especially our core values of compassion, can and must be placed beyond calculation and mathematics. To believe that assessments can be made of the relative value of lives, as though 2 rich people might outweigh the value of 4 poor people, is to fundamentally misunderstand and devalue all life. I guarantee you that that kind of thinking would have ultimately been at the root of whatever conditions caused those people to be poor to begin with. Some wealthy landowner, feudal lord, robber baron capitalist, communist dictator, right wing ideologue, or irresponsible left wing technocrat, or some combination of all of these over many centuries, failed to value those people living in that poor place.
In the long run, it is impossible to achieve results worthy of our best values if the actions we take undermine those values; the ends never justify the means.

Posted by: rsarsa7 | November 10, 2008 5:07 PM | Report abuse

Needless to say, in the real world manufacturing profits end up overwhelmingly in the hands of absentee ownership while the pollution is socialized among the masses forced to live with it. Cancer rates skyrocket, children die, social life is destroyed, natural resources are degraded. Or, to put in terms that psychopathic materialists such as Kinsley can understand, real economic costs are incurred, outweighing the benefits.

But it won't do to call Kinsley a monster--at least, if by that you mean to say he's unique. Psychopathology is sort of the default condition of the elite mind, and Kinsley's only a product of that. It's interesting though to note just how strong a hold this way of thinking has on a person: Kinsley is suffering from Parkinson's--an awful disorder. And yet he still effectively wishes a similar kind of suffering on others. In other words, even personal catastrophe couldn't humanize Kinsley but a little.

Interesting I think--a topic for the next WaPo chat perhaps?

Posted by: delucasm | November 10, 2008 9:10 PM | Report abuse

This is just silly. Summers was in charge of destroying the Russian economy and health system. TIME in 1999 put him on the cover with Greenspan and Rubin as one of the three marketeers who were most fervently in favor of de-regulation.

And now this evening AP reports that he adopted an investment policy at Harvard that has caused such a severe financial crisis with its endowment that Harvard will not say what the endowment is worth.

Now there is the kind of change we can believe in and that Kinsley wants to save the American economy.

Posted by: jhough1 | November 10, 2008 11:23 PM | Report abuse

It's astonishing how many of these posts represent visceral (i.e., irrational) responses by people who haven't even TRIED to understand what Kinsley is saying.

Hey, guys, lighten up! This makes sense if you think about it. It isn't conservative claptrap dished up by the AEI or free-market libertarians. Even if you're liberals, it's OK to agree with it. Kinsley is a liberal too!

Now, drink a glass of white wine or have a toke or take your prozac or whatever and read it again, carefully.

Posted by: donnolo | November 11, 2008 12:27 AM | Report abuse

You say "life and health are worth less in poor countries than in rich ones"?
I am teaching a class on human rights this semester, and I thank you so much for giving me this quote for tomorrow's class. We will have a field day analyzing how fascist, racist ideologies justifies its brutality, barbarity, and more than anything, idiocy, by pretending to be rational. Even in these dangerous days, it is not easy to find someone this shameless and clueless.
Look, Kinsley, the whole world is in a mess because people like you thought you could put price tags on things like air to breathe in, water to drink, and even human life itself, and ran the world like a market for much too long. I hoped this election would teach some lessons to you, but I guess some people are just beyond redemption. Now just go calculate the worth of your own life and see if you deserve to live, AND LEAVE THE REST OF THE HUMANKIND ALONE! No one asked you to put price tags on anybody else.

Posted by: motherforobama | November 11, 2008 12:48 AM | Report abuse

I absolutely agree with "shrink2" by the way: "No wonder people want to terrorize America, it is people like you Mr Kinsley."

Posted by: motherforobama | November 11, 2008 12:49 AM | Report abuse

Let's take Kinsley and Summers a few steps along their road:

"If average citizens need to die in random drive-by shootings, it might as well be the poorer citizens whose lives are worth less."

"If American soldiers need to die in a war, it might as well be Americans whose lives are worth less."

"If Americans need to get sick and die, it might as well be the poor people who couldn't afford health insurance anyways."

"If people need to die, it might as well be people less well off than me."

Posted by: stickerboy1870 | November 11, 2008 1:00 AM | Report abuse

How smart an article!!! Just let other people curb after your dog. Would you (Mr. Kinsley) like coming to Brooklyn and clean up after my dog? I'm not expecting any dividend; I'll, actually, pay you for it.


Posted by: amndoye | November 11, 2008 1:17 AM | Report abuse

Kinsley has always been goofy and this is another example. These column guys are giving Obama advice that no one has ever asked for, including O, and no one needs. Boy they are living way back there in the past. Let us go for change not turning the clock the way Summers is best known for his dumb sayings...that is why Harvard fired him. He is a bitter old man out of date. Let us believe in Change for it is coming not going back.

Posted by: rj22030 | November 11, 2008 1:58 AM | Report abuse

This ivory-tower thinking may be suitable for an economics lecture, but I would hope for a more realistic and nuanced treatment of this subject from a Post columnist. Surely you don't think the real world works quite like this?

Posted by: PaulG2 | November 11, 2008 2:08 AM | Report abuse

"Turn it around: If a life is worth less, it is also cheaper to save."

Besides being incorrect, this analysis ignores the central question. Will the economic benefits of receiving pollution/processing dangerous waste outweight the inevitable health costs that will arise. It has nothing to do with how much it costs to save a life. If a poor person in a developping country gets cancer, they will die for lack of treatment. If they are merely harmed by for instance developing a chronic disease, they will be trapped in abject poverty or worse. The only way that such a move would make sense is if the income generated and hopefully re-disributed allowed more people to be healthier (better diets, sanitation, etc.) and avoid disability/death.

Kinsley's piece is completely convoluted. The quote I cite only makes sense in the context of the calculation I described. It has only a little to do with health care costs and littler to do with the amount of money a society is willing to spend to save a life.

Posted by: burnimms | November 11, 2008 3:24 AM | Report abuse


"He measured that worth by the earnings lost when a person is sick or dies prematurely."

If this is truly the simple reasoning behing the memo, then people are right to be shocked. What it effectively says is that if pollution is going to disable/kill some people, its better for that to happen in the developping world since the economic loss (i.e. the wealth these people can no longer generate) would be less than that of their richer counterparts. (And this assumes that the same amount of people would be effected whether the waste is put in a rich or poor country. Yet, often the world's poor are more vulnerable, meaning more will become disabled/dead, because they don't have clean water, good nutrition, etc.)

Posted by: burnimms | November 11, 2008 3:32 AM | Report abuse

If the goal of this article was to turn as many people as possible against Summers nomination, then congratulations - mission accomplished!

It's true that from purely economic point of view, human life - just like everything else in economics - has monetary value. But taking this premise and using it to justify practical steps that have real impact on people's health and lives is not just immoral, it's absurd. From purely economic point of view it might be cheaper to euthanize all people with Down syndrome, or people who cannot work due to a disability, serious illness or old age, but it doesn't mean we as a society should go that route. Not just because our moral conditioning tells us not to, but also because all societies who did - to one extent or another - failed miserably in the end.

Posted by: pryrodny | November 11, 2008 3:48 AM | Report abuse

This article by Kinsley must be some cruel joke. Say he didn't mean it.

Summers has had the stage and we do not need any curtain calls.

There have been too many speeches in which Summers blithely reveals his prejudices and lack of character such that the adminstration should not give him a venue again.

Nothing about his character recommends him for any post of public trust and besides he contributed to the cause of our economic meltdown.

He had contempt for the middle and lower middle class people in this coutry and he willingly sold the good people of the US down the river. Don't lobby for Summers.

At the end of the day Larry Summers is a common hater.

Posted by: JohnAdams1 | November 11, 2008 6:11 AM | Report abuse

Remarks at NBER Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce
Lawrence H. Summers
Cambridge, Mass. January 14, 2005

"It is after all not the case that the role of women in science is the only example of a group that is significantly underrepresented in an important activity and whose underrepresentation contributes to a shortage of role models for others who are considering being in that group. To take a set of diverse examples, the data will, I am confident, reveal that Catholics are substantially underrepresented in investment banking, which is an enormously high-paying profession in our society; that white men are very substantially underrepresented in the National Basketball Association; and that Jews are very substantially underrepresented in farming and in agriculture. These are all phenomena in which one observes underrepresentation, and I think it's important to try to think systematically and clinically about the reasons for underrepresentation.”

Quote L Summers, at time President of Harvard University.


inquiring minds want to know why Catholics are underrepresented in investment Banking. Tell us, Larry

Given the outrageous destruction of the livlihoods, homes and savings of hundreds of millions of people here and abroad, I would like to know why Catholics are underrepresented in Investment banking.

Does it have anything to do with morality?

The Catholic Bishops I am sure would be interested in Summers research as to why.


I think Larry Summers thinks that people who do not worship money as he does, are just not smart. Catholics are just not smeart enough to engage in investment banking.

Larry, let me give you a tip: If you in a country don't insult the natives.

No one of common sese and good manners would go to Massachusetts and insult Catholics and Irish participation in basketball in the same paragraph.

For that matter, Larry, don't insult anyone in any country you are in, at last not while you are in it.

It is basic manners, shared by most, that one never insult the host.

Larry Summers, as he will tell you, grew up in an upper middle class family of exceptionally gifted economists, some nobel winners. Many in his family are college professors. He was gifted with a high iq.

But like most who think of themselves as exceptional, eventually they end up isolated for their distain for all people not his 'equal'.

I could go on about the causes of Summers' distorted and dangerous thinking.

He needs to stay away; he and his investment bankers have done enough damage to human beings and the country.

But hey Larry , I will say a prayer to St Jude for ya.

NB that speech was given in January 2005 before the meltdown of wall street and the economy.

Posted by: JohnAdams1 | November 11, 2008 6:41 AM | Report abuse

Summers didn't step down from his job at Harvard because he's an abrasive jerk. Sure that helped. But what was quickly sent to the back burner and did not get the attention was his protection and advice to a Harvard protegee who took the University on a wild ride in Russia. Yes, the protegee and his cohorts (including, if I remember correctly, the guy's wife...) engaged in some downright illegal stealing and plundering. For which they were judged, found culpable and fined a few paltry millions. In different times and in a different country, the government they offended would have been much more severe. If I'm not mistaken, they all are living comfortable lives and Summers' protegee is teaching in the United States. You will never appreciate how bad Summers' judgement is unless you dig a little deeper than what was allowed in the press (a free ride is what was allowed, as far as scandal goes).
Harvard had to cough up some hefty bucks because of this corrupt bunch. Summers knew exactly why it was a good idea to step down. A few sexist remarks? Nah.

Posted by: KathyWi | November 11, 2008 8:18 AM | Report abuse

"poor countries need more pollution, not less." Oh... he was only trying to stimulate thinking.

I don't buy it. If I want to stimulate thinking I read Fast Comapny magazine or Popular Science. If I'm really looking to stretch out I read Lester Brown; I believe this type of stimulation takes us down the wrong path.

Posted by: watersandwind | November 11, 2008 8:39 AM | Report abuse

I hate to seem dense, but what is the fuss about the comment "poor countries need more pollution." To me, it clearly means more economic activity, which would include the whole shebang of factories, cars, and all the rest. Isn't this one of the main reasons why India & China are reluctant to join fully in Kyoto?

Why get so worked up about reality?

Posted by: AConcernedCitizen1 | November 11, 2008 10:54 AM | Report abuse

Summers' appointment will ensure the final destruction of the U.S. economy. He ruined Lithuania and Russia. He is a criminal and a fool. If Obama appoints him the U.S. is finished.

Posted by: Awake | November 11, 2008 11:34 AM | Report abuse

So many people have missed the point of this memo, Kinsley included. Here's the last line of the Summer memo, following three reasons that support sending pollution to developing countries:

"The problem with the arguments against all of these proposals for more pollution in LDCs (intrinsic rights to certain goods, moral reasons, social concerns, lack of adequate markets, etc.) could be turned around and used more or less effectively against every Bank proposal for liberalization."

He meant the memo as a thought experiment, not actual policy. It's ludicrous to believe that he would actually want more pollution in areas where "human life is worth less." Kinsley apparently is crazy enough to take the thought experiment and say, "Yes! It makes perfect sense!" But for the rest of us with a social conscience, it was meant to invoke deeper thinking about economic policy.

To hang him for this - an internal memo with no policy implications - is dumb. He's too smart, and doesn't deserve to be brought down by out of context remarks.

Posted by: ManUnitdFan | November 11, 2008 12:03 PM | Report abuse

The Terrorist They Call "president" Is The Enemy Of Humanity!!

This fellow, lawrence summers, isn't he the same ARROGANT BUFFOON who used to call women names at Havard university?

This is a controversial character who has contempt for women and who helped a bunch of criminals from havard to help the great robbery of Russia when the soviet union collapsed. If Obama chooses this character we know his presidency will be taken over by criminals such as this character!!

Posted by: Somali | November 11, 2008 12:03 PM | Report abuse

Summers intellectual arrogance and elitism would be very damaging to Obama, and those advancing Summers are minimizing important issues of symbolism. Summers doesn't recognize the importance of individuals and he doesn't learn. In raising issues such as "maybe we should pollute where life is cheaper" and "maybe women don't win Nobels in science because they're innately dumber", he intellectualizes with blinders on. Obama needs to surround himself with top aides who will themselves lead and inspire confidence, not show their tone-deafness.

If Obama thinks he needs Summers' intellect, hire it as a consultant or lower level employee. Especially for Treasury Secretary, Obama needs someone with unparalleled judgment. Summers lacks it.

Posted by: burnskevin | November 11, 2008 12:58 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Kinsley, would you like to discuss in the interest of stimulating debate the economics of "holocaust", "eugenics", "slavery" or any other thing hitherto swept under the rug by the very likes of you as unspeakable? Would you? I hadn't thought of you in this light before and so far all I had heard of Larry Summers was his despicable views on the capacity of women for science, his participation in Clinton-era free-capital-but-unfree-labor policies that visited cruel hardships on emerging economies and his role in hollowing out of Russia during the criminal Yeltsin years. But this takes the cake! From now on count me as one of the fiercest opponents of Obama allowing Summers anywhere near his administration. All of us who gave so much to the Obama effort are not going to let him and you and your cohorts hijack this presidency - let's start a movement now to oppose this and other similar oppointments from even coming to consideration.

Posted by: lichtzwang | November 11, 2008 1:03 PM | Report abuse

Separately from his insensitivity to individuals, Summers is also a clear sexist. His "provocative talk" that got him fired from Harvard's Presidency was clear proof. His hypothesis was that in explaining why girls score lower than boys on math and science in high school, we should look for innate genetic reasons, rather than socialization ones. He offered as one proof that his young daughter treated her toy trucks like dolls. This man is so smugly sexist he can't even understand his own daughter.

He goes on to say that the lesser prevalence of women in academic science and math can't be due to discrimination, or some schools would be able to win competitive advantage by offering friendlier atmospheres. (This simplification from an economist!) I think most women will remember having met someone like this, and recognized how that person was one of the barriers to their personal success.

Don't forget we just broke the important color barrier, but in the process chose not to break a different barrier. No problem; one barrier at a time (at least for now). But Obama's advisors need to make sure they are serving him well by not underestimating the extreme affront a Larry Summers appointment would be to intelligent women everywhere.

Posted by: burnskevin | November 11, 2008 1:19 PM | Report abuse

How this argument was ever allowed to be printed in the post is astounding.

There is debate over whether Summers allowed this memo as a 'thought experiment' or not. What is not at issue however, is Kinsley's remarkable capacity to write on eugenics as if it were an acceptable argument.

Posted by: oddlyamerican | November 11, 2008 1:23 PM | Report abuse

"The general point is that clean air and other environmental goods are luxuries. The richer a country is, the more of them it can afford."

This sort of nonsense could only come from someone living in a country where life-saving health care is a luxury good.

Posted by: rtc1 | November 11, 2008 1:42 PM | Report abuse

"B) The memo wasn't a serious proposal. It was meant to stimulate internal debate - has any of you ever read Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal?"

"A Modest Proposal" was satire. Are you suggesting that the memo was satire?

Posted by: rtc1 | November 11, 2008 1:44 PM | Report abuse

Obama wants his cabinet to reflect the demograhics of America - then 50% of his cabinet would be female.

However the only people being talked about seriously are male - wow - no surprise from a man who ran a prejudiced and bigoted campaign!

Posted by: mgd1 | November 11, 2008 2:00 PM | Report abuse

I think I know what Kinsley is trying to say here if I remember my advanced economics course from college correctly. The problem is, he didn't give himself nearly enough space to adequately explain the point.

That said, Summers should not be allowed anywhere near the U.S. Dept. of Treasury. Once was enough. We do not need to worship him and start thinking that he's the only person who can handle the job. Remember Alan Greenspan??????? He's not looking so good now but a year ago McCain wanted to clone him.

Posted by: wsblount | November 11, 2008 2:06 PM | Report abuse

Kinsley's disgusting valuation of human life aside, his economic analysis of the cost of saving a life is off. Yes, the marginal cost of saving an extra life might be inexpensive by western standards, for the same reason that the marginal cost of saving an extra life in an AIDS-ridden area of Africa is inexpensive by western standards: there is a very small quantity of lives currently being saved, so they're sitting very low on the marginal cost vs. quantity curve, which is upward sloping. The reason why they are sitting so low, of course, is because they have no money for health care - not necessarily because they value their lives any less. Put differently, the opportunity cost of health care to westerners in the west is lower than the opportunity cost of health care to the poor in developing countries: I might have to give up fancy dinners and vacations in order to buy my comprehensive health insurance, but they might have to give up meals for a week in order to be able to afford the most basic care. Because these people's incomes are extremely low, it is likely that lives won't be saved at all, should the pollution move to their area. If a plant were built right next to my house, I'd move. If a plant were built next to a slum, the people in that slum might not be able to move without giving up some other very basic need. If the firm building that plant were responsible for taking full care of the surrounding population's health needs in either case, it might very well be better for all if they built in a developing country. Unfortunately, the firm is generally not responsible for this burden, the individuals are; and individuals in a rich country are more able to take care of themselves than individuals in a poor country.

The second flaw in Kinsley's reasoning is that he treats the developing country as one entity without parsing out who gains the benefit of the plant and who pays the cost. The benefit would be gained by whomever was leasing the land and buying the electricity from the plant - probably those who were relatively wealthy in the first place. The cost would be paid by those with the least political say, since that would be where the plant was most likely to be built - probably the poor. And institutions in developing countries aren't nearly sophisticated enough to be able to redistribute that wealth.

Posted by: liberalnun | November 11, 2008 2:40 PM | Report abuse

Before you get too far carried away with your public lynching (obvious from many of the comments above that the noose is already hanging ...) you could take a step back and look up your facts and the context. From a simple visit to Wikipedia:

1) Summers did not write the internal circulation memo. It was written by Lant Pritchett who was at the time a young aide.

2) The controversy surrounds a small 'excerpt' from the memo that was intended to be an "ironic aside" by the memo's original author, Lant Pritchett, who was in fact trying to critique a draft World Bank document. As Pritchett himself describes it, he meant the ironic aside as a way to argue in fact that "free trade would NOT necessarily cause environmental benefits for developing nations."

3) Pritchett states that the version that circulated (upon which Kinsley's discussion is based) was a doctored version "shorn of [its] context and the intended irony" " was a deliberate fraud and forgery to discredit Larry and the World Bank.."

4) Pritchett offered to take all the blame but Summers put himself in front of the firing squad, not because he agreed with what was written, but to protect Pritchett's job. Pritchett has since described Summers as a guy "..stands up for junior colleague for 10 years for something he never did."

5) as some others here have pointed out, trained economists like Summers or Pritchett very often push standard economic frameworks and assumptions to analyze areas of human activity where others feel economic cost-benefit calculus is inappropriate. They do this often as a way to help shine a bright light on what is absent or missing in such conventional arguments, and as a way for themselves and others to deploy better sharpened counterarguments or new frameworks for analysis.

It's not all that different from the Socratic method, nor from the way that Chicago Professor Barack Obama most likely led his students to think through complicated issues on race and public policy.

So lighten up guys.. examine the context, read the facts, and think through the arguments before you tighten the noose.

Posted by: jhu2 | November 11, 2008 2:51 PM | Report abuse

I personally would go with Volcker, but Rubin, Summers, Bair and Paulson are contenders for Treasury. For banking I would go with Bill Bradley, Fed chairman Buffet, SEC Bloomberg, and other talented and experienced thinkers to make a hopefully effective cabinet. Colin Powell has NSA or SECY of State for the asking if he wishes to serve. A Lugar as Secy of State with Richardson as his assistant combined with Joe's know how would be very effective in regaining our standing in the world. Emanuel was brought in to keep the Pelosi's and Reid's in check not the Republican minority. The transition seems be going well and future cabinet choices will be telling as to the bipartisian nature of a new government.

Posted by: jameschirico | November 11, 2008 4:49 PM | Report abuse

Yonkers, New York
11 November 2008

There is no question about whether Lawrence Summers has the technical qualifications for the critical position of Secretary of the Treasury.

As a matter of fact, he held that position--but only briefly--under President Bill Clinton.

At Harvard, where he held the position of President for several years, finally he had to let go.


Mr. Lawrene Summers is known to be undiplomatic if not abrasive in his dealings with people. People easily get pissed off dealing with Mr. Summers. Thus, he suffers from a serious personality flaw which could seriously detract from his being an effective Secretary of the Treasury.

Mr. Obama will have to find somebody else among the few other highly qualified candidates who are available.

Mariano Patalinjug

Posted by: MPatalinjug | November 11, 2008 4:50 PM | Report abuse

If this is your example of the brilliance of one Lawrence Summers then don't add me as a member of his fan club. Jeez, what a stupid column. This guy also worked with Phil Gramm to get rid of Glass-Stiegel which helped bring on the current financial crack-up. He and his brilliant friends also helped impoverish Russia with their "shock therapy" economics - enriching the oligarchs and leading to the rise of Putin and return of state control of natural resources. He has a storied history of effing up.

Posted by: johnsonc2 | November 11, 2008 5:19 PM | Report abuse

Kinsley presents an excellent argument, and I don't think the people who are trashing him hear are really following what he said. The idea is NOT that LIFE is cheaper in poor countries, but that SAVING A LIFE is cheaper.

To use a simple example, let's say that the pollution damage would be the same if you built a factory in the U.S. as in Ghana, and the factory creates a profit of $10 million each year for the local government. In the U.S. you could spend that $10 million to save 100 cancer patients; in Ghana, you could spend that same $10 million to build a modern sewage system that saves 10,000 people every year. Which is more humane?

Posted by: squatty418 | November 11, 2008 5:22 PM | Report abuse

Larry Summers is brilliant (translation: frequently incomprehensible) but has a big mouth. That's why Obama should go with Tim Geithner of New York. Also brilliant, but less of an issue in his own right.

Larry is better as a trusted advisor than somebody whose job forces him to spend a lot of time curbing his tongue in front of cameras.

Posted by: Samson151 | November 11, 2008 6:39 PM | Report abuse

The irony of Kinsley's advancement of Summer's perhaps misunderstood memo (perhaps not), is that, considering current circumstances, the US might soon enough be an impoverished country to be
considered as a recipient of waste-dumping....not that we haven't already been our own dumping grounds for quite a

We could probably do better with someone other than Summers, but it doesn't seem
to make sense to select from amongst those who weren't subjected to ridicule
from their insistence that "the Emperor
had no clothes"....those are indeed few
and relatively unknown to most. Those
with minds embracing chaos and fractal
views offer little which people seek: soothing. There are brighter fresher global minds, such as Nouriel Roubini
or Nassim Taleb....not that we have
become any more daring in the face of
all the failed policies of the past 30+
years; we still have limited abilities
to genuinely embrace change....the nature
of excessive comfort.

The terrain we are now venturing upon being anything so familiar--or comfort-

Posted by: markemup | November 11, 2008 6:51 PM | Report abuse

Hurray for squatty418! At least someone has been able to grasp the logic.

Most people here have completely missed it. Mr. Kinsley does not address the issue of whether a polluting plant should be built, but rather assumes it WILL be built. Given the assumption that a polluting plant WILL be built, how can anyone deny that the BEST place to build the plant is the place where the "profit" from the plant will do the most good. If we assume for the sake of this argument that the "profit" will go to pay for health care, then guess what, the place where the profit will do the most good is the place where it costs the least to save a life. Guess where that place is. It is the place where the economic value of a life is the least.

Posted by: brosen67 | November 11, 2008 10:07 PM | Report abuse

The one Clinton Admin retread that Sen. Clinton herself would be obliged to oppose, given his demonstrated sexism. On the heels of a campaign in which Clinton loyalists (unfairly in my view) accused the press, the party, and even Obama himself of sexism towards their heroine.

Go sell stupid someplace else, Kinsley, we're all stocked up here.

Posted by: gbooksdc | November 11, 2008 10:20 PM | Report abuse

"...poor countries need more pollution, not less." In other words, third-world countries need to industrialize.

Posted by: johnkrogstad | November 11, 2008 10:27 PM | Report abuse


You are making it sound as if the entire point of the article was distribution of supposed benefits or profits. If that were the case, then why talk about building some environmentally hazardous plant in the first place? No, the point of the memo was basically to make the argument that "poor countries need more pollution, not less".

Posted by: pryrodny | November 12, 2008 12:08 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Kingsley, this is a lovely smokescreen for the Russian fiasco that showed how poor Mr. Summers' judgement is when it comes to matters of morals and money. The sexist comments, his blowhard manner and arrogance, stupid memos - they do take the attention away from what got him to step down from the Harvard presidency, don't they?
You can take someone's crass manner or ugly opinions and then make the argument center on those relatively unimportant things. Mr. Summers cost Harvard millions and the people he mentored and advised did go to court, were fined millions and Harvard was fined heavily. They could have gone to jail. What does it tell you about the justice system, national and international, that they didn't: protection hides a lot of ugliness and corruption.

Posted by: KathyWi | November 12, 2008 9:52 AM | Report abuse

All of you who are indignant about Michael Kinsley's argument apparently don't know how to read or at least you did poorly on reading comprehension tests as a kid. He wasn't literally saying the lives of the poor are worth less. He was actually saying that it costs the poor more than they can afford to get out of poverty without pollution. As such, enforcing our economic morality on the poor is something WE can afford. It's a luxury, however, that poor nations can't until they lift themselves out poverty through, unfortunately, dirty economic development. Just like we and most developed nations did I might add.

Posted by: goldbear85 | November 12, 2008 10:51 AM | Report abuse

There are at least two false assumptions here:
"So if the plant is going to be built somewhere, building it in a poor country will enable more lives to be saved than building it in a rich one."
Who is paying? This argument assumes there is some theoretical parcel of money designated for saving lives, and the same total amount of life-saving money will be spent in either a rich country or a poor country. That is clearly not the case.

The non-linearity argument also makes a false assumption. It confuses pollution level with exposure level. A rich country may have 5 times the level of air or water pollution than a poor country in some locations, but most of its citizens are protected from drinking the factory effluent water, or from living on top of a toxic waste dump. That is not the case in poor countries.

Posted by: dcnative10 | November 12, 2008 11:03 PM | Report abuse

You argument is fundamentally flawed in that it sees life as a mere commodity. But even if you make that assumption, then you don't have to move polluting plants to Africa. Hurricane Katrina showed that there are places in the US that would have benefited had Mr Summers program been implemented in your own country. But you see, those people live next door to you Mr Kinsley, and eventually you would have been affected. Forget about pollution effects being nonlinear.

I don't call this thinking outside the box. I call it being plain stupid and insensitive. Mr Kinsley, if one pushes your logic further, then one should allow people who live in poor countries to sell their organs to rich people who live in the West. You can't be any more miserable living on only one kidney, and who care about the next malaria infection that clogs it.

To you this is just abstract thinking and being intellectual but let me tell you, I read this Lawrence Summers story when I was in high school back in Africa. If this program had been implemented I probably wouldn't be hear replying to your stupid column.

Posted by: LanceD1 | November 13, 2008 2:35 AM | Report abuse

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