Richard Smith on Larry Summers: an economist with glamour

Richard SmithI was once in a restaurant in London when Nicole Kidman brushed past my table. Six feet of silver glamour. The effect was very much more intense than shaking hands with Prince Charles, meeting Tom Jones in a Paris hotel, or even watching Princess Diana at a garden party. Oddly I was reminded of Nicole Kidman when I watched Larry Summers, once Secretary to the Treasury in the Clinton administration and president of Harvard University, at a Lancet meeting last week.

Summers is far from beautiful. As he was introduced, he sat unsmiling at the front like some old bird. I wondered whether he reminded me of a hawk or an owl, but finally decided on a vulture. He looked at us in the audience as if we were so many pieces of meat. Then I thought headmaster. He seemed to be the world’s most terrifying headmaster: suddenly he might point a finger and beckon one of us down, to be examined and perhaps eaten.

Once introduced he rose slowly, walked to the podium, paused, and eventually spoke. There was no rush. When I speak I tend to scuttle to the podium and start at once to gabble. Summers understands the power of silence.
He then spoke for about 30 minutes without any notes, calmly and clearly outlining the central argument of the Lancet Commission on Investing in Health. There was no PowerPoint, no distraction. He held our attention with his clarity. There was the odd joke and one homily that struck a mildly discordant note: “You have not said something meaningful unless a reasonable person could disagree with it.” (Think about the phrase, it requires thought.) He was referring to the controversial World Development Report 1993. He was one of the authors and is the co-chair of the Lancet’s new report, which marks the 20th anniversary of the initial report.

Inevitably, however, his homily reminded us of the reason he is best known. In 2005 when president at Harvard he discussed why women are under-represented in science and engineering and suggested that it might be “different availability of aptitude at the high end.” Women are too stupid to fill the upper echelons of science.  It’s not wholly inconceivable that he could be right, but it was a sadly miscalculated statement for the president of the world’s most prestigious university filled with bright women. His statement reverberated round the world and contributed to him being ejected from Harvard and denied the chance to become chairman of the Federal Reserve.

But back in London he answered questions accurately, and later when he chaired a session he conducted it like a tutorial at Harvard, putting his panel on edge, ignoring the audience, asking all the questions, and paying no attention to the clock. His questions were brought out slowly as if he weighed every word precisely before speaking it. “I have bought and sold several houses in my time. The real estate agent makes his money by taking 3% from the seller and 3% from the buyer. He hopes that the buyer and seller can agree. But sometimes we can’t. We are very close but can’t agree. If there is no deal the real estate agent gets nothing, so he must consider taking a smaller commission from each side to close the gap.” This was directed to a woman from the Gates Foundation, suggesting that the foundation might be filling gaps, paying for activities that the recipients should be paying for themselves. She probably imagined herself back at college.

Summers seemed to be having great time. He enjoyed exercising his fine mind. He didn’t need to flaunt the fact that he was much smarter than the rest of us. It was obvious.

The glamour lay not just in his brilliance, face, and delivery, but also in the ease with which we could imagine him deliberating in the highest quarters over countries going broke, banks failing, and war being declared. He’d be wholly comfortable.

My biggest shock came when I discovered from Wikipedia that he is more than two years younger than me, born three days after my comedian brother. I thought that he must be at least 10 years older than me, not because he looked it but because he seemed so grown up.

Richard Smith was the editor of the BMJ until 2004 and is director of the United Health Group’s chronic disease initiative.