For My Mother: Don’t Let Larry Summers Lead the World Bank

Life has a way sometimes of throwing two superficially unrelated things across your path simultaneously in a way that forces you to contemplate their underlying connections.

Even at this late date, press reports suggest that President Obama is still considering nominating Larry Summers to be the next President of the World Bank.

Yesterday morning, my mother passed away.

So, as I’m contemplating the sweep of my mother’s educational, professional, and personal accomplishments across the course of her life, I’m also contemplating reports that President Obama is still thinking about nominating the guy who suggested that women innately can’t compete at the top of math and science to be the next President of the World Bank.

I can’t offer my mother as a direct counterexample to Larry Summers’ infamous suggestion that you can explain the relative absence of women in the top reaches of math and science on the basis of innate differences between men and women, at least in a narrow sense. As it happens, my mother did not especially excel in math and science.

But the arc of my mother’s professional and intellectual life is evidence of a broader and more fundamental counterclaim, one that should by rights stand in the ranks of “obvious insights,” but which political experience shows must be continuously nailed to the wall of public consciousness: the life choices that people make and the aptitude that they display in different arenas are massively and continuously shaped by their perceptions of social expectations.

My mother told me that when she was a young adult – in the early 1950s – a guidance counselor asked her want she wanted to do with her life. Without hesitation, my mother – who had been co-editor of the school newspaper – answered that she wanted to be a journalist. Well, the guidance counselor responded, do you want to have a family? Yes, of course, absolutely, my mother said. Well then, the counselor responded, you can’t be a journalist. You should go into teaching: then you can combine having a professional career with having a family.

And that is what my mother did. Instead of becoming a journalist herself, among other things, she taught other people how to be journalists.

I don’t see this story in terms of individual prejudice of a guidance counselor blocking my mother from pursuing her aspirations, and I don’t think my mother saw it that way either. I think she saw the counselor’s comments as indicative of a broader social reality that she faced at the time, in which she had to make a judgment about choosing her path. Of course, even before 1950, other women in similar circumstances made different choices; even before 1950, some women became accomplished and even famous journalists. My mother made a choice, but it was a constrained choice; indeed, it was an unnecessarily and unjustly constrained choice.

I didn’t sense that my mother had any regrets about the constrained choice that she had made. She had a comfortable and fulfilling life, especially in comparison to growing up during the Depression, when her father worked two jobs to make ends meet, a farmer by day and a cab driver by night. She graduated college with highly marketable professional skills: a fast typist, good at shorthand, a quick and efficient writer. When she met my brilliant but troubled father, she pushed him to finish his math degree and supported them both financially with her marketable skills while he did so. He was then able to get a well-paying and intellectually rewarding job as an engineer with Western Electric, then Bell Labs. So while she loved my father, she also saw him as a wise investment that she’d made: a company she’d purchased, if you will, when it was undervalued by the market, and that she’d nursed back to financial health and profitability.

My mother said to me once: “Your father thinks we’re poor. When I remember growing up during the Depression, I just have to laugh. I’m going to the opera, I’m traveling around the world, and I’m poor? Give me a break.”

So I don’t think she regretted the overall outcome at all. But I think she did regret that she’d been compelled to make an unnecessarily and unjustly constrained choice.

And this is why (among other reasons) I consider the idea of Larry Summers leading the World Bank in 2012 to be totally unacceptable. I think a basic job requirement of leading a major international development institution is that you have an expansive view of human potential. And I think an essential component of having an expansive view of human potential is having a strong sensitivity to the degree to which people are making choices that are unnecessarily and unjustly constrained. And I think the record clearly shows that Larry Summers does not meet this standard, and therefore he is not qualified to lead the World Bank.

I think it’s a fair characterization overall to say that academic economics, especially in the United States, strongly conditions those trained by it to focus on the degree to which economic outcomes are determined by the individual choices that people make. And there’s no doubt that those are important considerations that deserve focus. But I think it’s also a fair characterization overall to say that academic economics, especially in the United States, tends to desensitize those trained by it to the degree to which the individual choices that people make are unnecessarily and unjustly constrained.

That doesn’t mean that someone trained as an economist can’t lead a development institution, any more than it means that a general can’t be Secretary of State, or that a doctor trained in Western medicine can’t direct hospice care. It means that there’s an extra set of questions that you have to ask when someone is presented to you who is coming with that training: is this a person that sees a bigger picture that’s not confined by the biases of their training, a person who can incorporate the insights of people who have different training and life experience?

It is apparent that Larry Summers fails this test.

If you agree, sign Public Citizen’s petition against the nomination of Larry Summers to be the next President of the World Bank.

Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy.