In Which I Say Something Nice about Lawrence Summers

Ken Houghton

Via Brad DeLong, we find Sheryl Sandberg trying to rehabilitate Lawrence Summers’s professional reputation with respect to women. She opens with:

Larry has been a true advocate for women throughout his career. In 1992, as Chief Economist of the World Bank, Larry argued in front of the world’s Finance Ministers that the highest return investment they could make in their economies was to educate their girls. Through his work, girls’ education became a focus for development experts and a topic not just in education ministries, but in financial ministries worldwide. [emphasis mine]

Ignoring what might be the superficial immediate reaction,* it is difficult now realize how out-of-mainstream Summers’s declaraction was in 1992. So let’s look at Robert Barro’s lecture on “Economic Growth and Convergence” from 1995 (included in this book):

Most surprisingly, female education at variouos levels is not significantly related to subsequent growth….Thus, these findings do not support the hypothesis that education of women is a key to economic growth. [Data regression analysis discussion omitted]

The “most surprisingly” might lead you to believe that Summers in 1992 was expressing the mainstream opinion. But there is a footnote to the quoted text:

In earlier results, Barro and Lee (1994) found that the estimated coefficient of female secondary and higher schooling was significantly negative. With the revised data on education, the estimated female coefficients are essentially zero. [emphasis mine; link to article added]

So, while the person most associated with growth theory was finding negative or nonpositive results in educating women as an engine for growth, Summers was busy advocating for it knowing that, eventually, the data would catch up.

This doesn’t affect any of Dean Baker’s objections to Summers, but it does tend to corroborate the description rendered by DeLong (who has worked both with and for Summers):

Very good people want to work for Larry because he will, if he thinks you can handle it, push you forward into the limelight and give you more responsibility than you thought you could handle.

This seems preferrable to selecting a man who hired the fox to guard the henhouse after the fox’s theories had already been shown to fail.

*The snarky version of which would be “So what went wrong between 1992 and 2005-2006?”