Sunday, November 23, 2008

LAWRENCE SUMMERS

NY Times - President-elect Barack Obama is expected to name Lawrence H. Summers as his pick to head the National Economic Council, an aide to Mr. Obama said.

Mark Ames, Nation - From the start, [Lawrence] Summers has been on the wrong side of Obama's supporters. In 1982, while still a graduate student at Harvard, Summers was brought to Washington by his dissertation advisor Martin Feldstein, the supply-side economist, to serve on Ronald Reagan's Council of Economic Advisors. Those first years in the Reagan administration were crucial in the right-wing war against New Deal regulation of the banking system and financial markets -- a war that Reagan's team won, and that we're all paying for today. Although Summers eventually identified himself with the Democratic Party -- albeit the right wing of that party -- nevertheless, as the New York Times's Peter T. Kilborn wrote in 1988:

He worked for 10 months as a top analyst in President Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers when his mentor, Martin S. Feldstein, was running it, and his colleagues don't recall him venting anti-Reagan heresies then. "One of the ironies of this business is that Summers's economics are quite close to Feldstein's," said William A. Niskanen, who was a member of the Feldstein council. . .

Some fifteen years after Summers's stint in the Reaganomics war room, he reappears as one of the key villains fighting to suppress the regulatory efforts of a top official, Brooksley Born, who was trying to call attention to the dangers of the unregulated derivatives, such as credit swap defaults, which today are considered the key to the current economic crisis. . .

Progressive Review - In 1991, Larry Summers signed a memo when he was vice president and chief economist of the World Bank concerning the handling of pollution in less wealthy lands. When an excerpt of the memo was leaked, more than a few people became upset. Summers initially took responsibility for the memo but claimed it was satirical. Later, blame for writing the memo was taken by aide Lant Pritchett. Pritichett went on to lecture at the Harvard Kennedy School and Summers went on to be president of Harvard.

If the memo was in fact intended to be humorous, whoever wrote it didn't understand that humor used again the poor and defenseless is not satire but ridicule and bigotry. The fact that Summers thought it funny should disqualify him from any government position.

The excerpt:

|||| 'Dirty' Industries: Just between you and me, shouldn't the World Bank be encouraging MORE migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs [Less Developed Countries]? I can think of three reasons:

1) The measurements of the costs of health impairing pollution depends on the foregone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality. From this point of view a given amount of health impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.

2) The costs of pollution are likely to be non-linear as the initial increments of pollution probably have very low cost. I've always though that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted, their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City. Only the lamentable facts that so much pollution is generated by non-tradable industries (transport, electrical generation) and that the unit transport costs of solid waste are so high prevent world welfare enhancing trade in air pollution and waste.

3) The demand for a clean environment for aesthetic and health reasons is likely to have very high income elasticity. The concern over an agent that causes a one in a million change in the odds of prostrate cancer is obviously going to be much higher in a country where people survive to get prostrate cancer than in a country where under 5 mortality is is 200 per thousand. Also, much of the concern over industrial atmosphere discharge is about visibility impairing particulates. These discharges may have very little direct health impact. Clearly trade in goods that embody aesthetic pollution concerns could be welfare enhancing. While production is mobile the consumption of pretty air is a non-tradable.

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. ||||

While Summers and Pritchett survived the memo incident, the Brazilian secretary of the environment was not as fortunate. He was fired after writing to 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."

Composer John Halle has memorialized this seedy memo and the Brazilian official's reply with a musical number performed by the Sequitur Ensemble, Kristin Nordeval and Dora Ohrenstein, sopranos.

Heidi Przybyla, Bloomberg - Summers, a Harvard economist who worked under Rubin in the Treasury before replacing him as secretary, joined his boss in defeating an effort to rein in over- the-counter derivatives in 1998.

Brooksley Born, then commissioner of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, wanted to examine regulating the derivatives, including credit-default swaps, saying they posed "grave dangers'' to the economy. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and Rubin issued a rebuke, saying in a statement that they seriously questioned the scope of the CFTC's jurisdiction in this area.

Summers called Born and said he was with bank representatives in his office and they believed that the regulation would lead to an economic crisis, according to a person familiar with the situation who asked to remain anonymous. Summers declined to be interviewed for this article.

Summers and Rubin also helped secure passage of the 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, aimed at spurring competition in banking. The law repealed the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act, which had prohibited commercial banks from offering investment and insurance services. Summers, 54, helped craft the legislation, and Rubin urged Congress to pass it and Clinton to sign it. . .

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