Macro Thinker

An Interview with Lawrence Summers

OR: Why do you think there is no longer confidence in experts? Does our educational system deserve blame? Technology?

Summers: Look, we had a massive financial and economic crisis. That undermines faith in experts and the system. And I think there is a widespread fear that technology will take jobs. I don’t think it is a matter for the educational system.

OR: Many people are concerned about the intolerance of speech on campuses. How should universities handle this problem?

Summers: There is a great deal of absurd political correctness. I’m somebody who believes very strongly in diversity, who resists racism in all of its many incarnations, who thinks that there is a great deal that’s unjust in American society that needs to be combatted. But there is a kind of creeping totalitarianism in terms of what ideas are acceptable and are debatable on college campuses. And I think that’s hugely unfortunate.

I think the answer to bad speech is different speech. The answer to bad speech is not shutting down speech. I yield to no one in my confidence that the scientific evidence points overwhelmingly to a serious global climate change problem. But atmospheric scientists who disagree with that conclusion should be able to have their say.

The idea that microaggressions in the form of a racist statement contained in a novel should be treated on parallel with actual violence or sexual assault seems to me to be crazy. And I worry very much that if our leading academic institutions become places that prize comfort over truth, that prize the pursuit of mutual understanding over the pursuit of better and more accurate understanding, then a great deal will be lost. Lost, in terms of the education of students. Lost, in terms of a model for society based on the authority of ideas rather than the idea of authority. We all lose if what’s comfortable is prized over what’s uncomfortable. What history teaches is that the greatest progress almost always involves ideas that are initially hugely uncomfortable for the existing order.