Sunday, November 16, 2008

In Defense of Lawrence Summers

Recently, NOW has made some noises about not wanting Larry Summers as a candidate for Secretary of Treasury. I feel that he is being unfairly maligned for being a misogynist for some comments he made, while as President of Harvard University. Just as the rightwing idiots who took a comment that Gore made, out of context and ran with it, saying "Gore invented the internet" is false; so is the story about Larry Summers being against women or saying women are not as intelligent in Math and Science.

In 2005, Larry Summers was asked to speak and address the question about how they can diversify the workforce in Science and Engineering, and more specifically about increasing the number of women. You can read his entire speech here, and judge for yourself. However, this is what really was said, and how what Summers said was taken out of context.
There are many aspects of the problems you're discussing and it seems to me they're all very important from a national point of view. I'm going to confine myself to addressing one portion of the problem, or of the challenge we're discussing, which is the issue of women's representation in tenured positions in science and engineering at top universities and research institutions, not because that's necessarily the most important problem or the most interesting problem, but because it's the only one of these problems that I've made an effort to think in a very serious way about.
Essentially he was saying that there are three main proposals for why we don't have many women in the upper echelons:
...The first is what I call the high-powered job hypothesis. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end, and the third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search.
Summer's first reason, the high powered job hypothesis, speaks to a very real problem that we face in our society today. We all know it, not just women, but men. How do we push forward with having a successful career and having a family? It takes A LOT of work and focus to move up, whether in industry or in academia. Quite frankly, I know many people where their career couldn't have succeeded without the support of their spouse. Moreover, for women the burden becomes especially harder, because we need to make choices. If we have a family, then the father has to take just as a great a role in the share of raising the family, or in some cases, be the stay at home dad.

As a single 38 year old female, I'm single for a reason - my career. I put in long hours, and I made that choice a long time ago. In my profession, women in senior leadership positions either do not have children or if they do, their husbands are the ones who have flexible careers and follow their wives from location to location. While the cultural views of stay at home dads, and gender roles in marriages are changing, historically, we have been a society that expected the men to be the providers.

Summers recognized this social environment. He wasn't supporting it, nor was he saying that it was right, but that it was the current reality.

I think it is hard-and again, I am speaking completely descriptively and non-normatively-to say that there are many professions and many activities, and the most prestigious activities in our society expect of people who are going to rise to leadership positions in their forties near total commitments to their work. They expect a large number of hours in the office, they expect a flexibility of schedules to respond to contingency, they expect a continuity of effort through the life cycle, and they expect-and this is harder to measure-but they expect that the mind is always working on the problems that are in the job, even when the job is not taking place. And it is a fact about our society that that is a level of commitment that a much higher fraction of married men have been historically prepared to make than of married women. That's not a judgment about how it should be, not a judgment about what they should expect. But it seems to me that it is very hard to look at the data and escape the conclusion that that expectation is meeting with the choices that people make and is contributing substantially to the outcomes that we observe.
His second remark regarding the difference in aptitude on the high end, was what put him in hot water, and quite frankly was misunderstood. His remarks were looking at the variability (standard deviation) between Men and Women. He was NOT making an inference between the average intelligence of men and women. He was stating that the intelligence of men was probably MORE variable than women.

Here is what he said:
If one supposes, as I think is reasonable, that if one is talking about physicists at a top twenty-five research university, one is not talking about people who are two standard deviations above the mean. And perhaps it's not even talking about somebody who is three standard deviations above the mean. But it's talking about people who are three and a half, four standard deviations above the mean in the one in 5,000, one in 10,000 class. Even small differences in the standard deviation will translate into very large differences in the available pool substantially out. I did a very crude calculation, which I'm sure was wrong and certainly was unsubtle, twenty different ways. I looked at the Xie and Shauman paper-looked at the book, rather-looked at the evidence on the sex ratios in the top 5% of twelfth graders. If you look at those-they're all over the map, depends on which test, whether it's math, or science, and so forth-but 50% women, one woman for every two men, would be a high-end estimate from their estimates. From that, you can back out a difference in the implied standard deviations that works out to be about 20%.
Essentially from his methodology, he is ASSUMING that there is no IMPLIED difference in average intelligence between men and women. Summers made a deduction on the standard deviation of the upper tail to figure out what the variation would be to account for this difference between the number of men and women.

His ONLY POINT that he was trying to make is that men have a 20% greater variability than women. Actually if you think about it, what Summers is saying is that women could be more consistently smart, because their standard deviation is less. While with men, they can either be really smart, or really stupid.

Finally with regards to his third reason, on discrimination:
The most controversial in a way, question, and the most difficult question to judge, is what is the role of discrimination? To what extent is there overt discrimination? Surely there is some. Much more tellingly, to what extent are there pervasive patterns of passive discrimination and stereotyping in which people like to choose people like themselves, and the people in the previous group are disproportionately white male, and so they choose people who are like themselves, who are disproportionately white male. No one who's been in a university department or who has been involved in personnel processes can deny that this kind of taste does go on, and it is something that happens, and it is something that absolutely, vigorously needs to be combated.
He wraps up with this:
So my best guess, to provoke you, of what's behind all of this is that the largest phenomenon, by far, is the general clash between people's legitimate family desires and employers' current desire for high power and high intensity, that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination. I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong, because I would like nothing better than for these problems to be addressable simply by everybody understanding what they are, and working very hard to address them.
So that's how Larry Summers finally got pushed out of Harvard, because his comment about the "variability of aptitude" was misinterpreted and misunderstood by a math illiterates. Granted, his abrasive personality, and other management controversies as a University President also contributed to his resignation, but surprisingly when polled, a majority of Harvard Students did not see the need for his resignation.

Larry Summers is quite frankly the most brilliant mind that we have in our country today, and sometimes with geniuses, their social IQ isn't what it should be. He is known to be abrasive, and yes he can make occasional gaffes. How many of us haven't made a dumb comment in the past?

Quite frankly, we are in the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression, and we need to have the best mind on the job. Moreover, it is women who are hit the hardest during economic downturns, so I find it slightly ironic that feminists feel the need to go against the best interests of women, simply because of a remark that was taken out of context.

Now for those who have a beef with Larry, because he was for de-regulation. That's a different issue, and something that is more substantive and worthy to beat him over the head with.

However, one least defense on his part, he has seen the error of his ways, and in fact he is a big proponent of what's fundamentally wrong with this economy - which is Income Inequality.
According to former Clinton Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, the shift of income inequality over the last quarter century simply dwarfs the amount of money being discussed in partisan debates over wealth redistribution -- and represents a serious crisis of legitimacy for society.

In the last 29 years, Summers said, "you'll find that the share of income going from 80 to 99th percentiles has stayed the same. And those in top one percent have gained about $600 billion. Those in bottom 80 percent have lost about $600 billion."

Summers then calculated that this overall transfer of wealth averaged out to an additional $500,000 per year in earnings for those in the top one percent, and an $8,000 loss every year for those in the bottom 80 percent.

"If the bottom 80 percent had kept pace and earned that $8,000 ... their income growth would have been twice as high over the last generation as what we in fact observed. Think about this number: $600 billion a year. It is immense compared to any discussion of changing the tax system here or there," Summers added.
Some final thoughts, gave their two cents on Obama surrounding himself by nerds:
Here's a radical suggestion: Barack Obama should pick the smartest people he can find for his Cabinet...But it makes sense for Obama to give greater weight to intellectual acumen and subject-specific knowledge than his recent predecessors have, both because of the depth of the problems he faces and because of his own style as a thinker and a decision-maker. Bush, whose ego was threatened by any outburst of excellence in his vicinity, politicized all policymaking and centralized it in the White House. Obama, happily, has the opposite tendencies. He is intellectually confident, enjoys engaging with ideas, and inclines to pragmatism rather than partisanship.

Another interesting article from SLATE.COM about Larry Summers:
Summers rose despite himself. He had energy and brains (and humor) but also a nasty arrogance. He was impatient with those less intelligent than himself (that is, everyone), lecturing members of Congress who asked stupid questions, berating foreign finance ministers for their foolishness, sneering at colleagues, undermining rivals, and generally abusing his staff. Summers had a poisonous reputation on Capitol Hill and an unsteady status in the White House—protected by his brilliance and by Rubin, but distrusted.

Summers—too smart and ambitious not to recognize his problem—approached it with the same exacting logic he brings to everything. He realized that he was in danger of being permanently tattooed as a jerk and perhaps blackballed from higher office. So, as Clinton's second term began, he set about domesticating himself. Says one longtime Summers staffer: "He had a huge incentive, because he could see that he couldn't get far in Washington rubbing people the wrong way. He realized this was a chunk of stuff he needed to learn. So he did it. It was like learning French for him."

Summers tried to imitate some of Rubin's gentility. He began repeating self-deprecating Rubinisms: "It's just one man's opinion, but …," and "I may be wrong but …" He taught himself to endure congressional idiocy and journalistic doltism with a smile. He remained as intense and hard-working as ever but eased up on berating his staff...He is zealous about global inequality. As a political economist, he lobbied incessantly for small steps that could have outsize benefits: educating girls, developing vaccines against diseases of poor countries, and forgiving Third World debt.
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