Larry Summers for Treasury Secretary


There is a lot of speculation about whether President-elect Barack Obama will choose Larry Summers to be his Treasury Secretary. But some people are openly opposing Summers’s appointment, in part because of controversial comments he made about women in science.

It’s a close question, but I’m hoping that Obama appoints Summers. I have three reasons:

First, Summers is really a cut above the next-best appointment. Larry Summers is incredibly smart. It’s not just that he is a wickedly insightful academic (who may still win a Nobel Prize); he is also a very quick study.

I trust his economic judgment and ability to make good decisions under pressure. He has an ability in these difficult times to do the right thing. This is especially true if the alternative is Jon Corzine, and even true in the case of Timothy Geithner (who are both rumored to be on Obama’s shortlist). This is no knock on Corzine or Geithner. Summers, to my mind, is just that much better.

Second, if Obama appoints a person like Summers, I still will have faith that, overall, his administration is likely to be very good on issues of gender equality. One of the wonderful things about the Obama victory is that the new administration has a bit more flexibility on questions of civil rights. Indeed, we might even defend Summers’s appointment as a form of what Heather Gerken calls “second-order diversity.”

Third and finally, I find that his comments about women in science are less objectionable than the way they have been characterized by many others. Stanley Fish has argued: “It is not the content of the remarks that is at issue; what matters is that if, in making them, the administrator generates a form of publicity that detracts from the university’s public image.”

I agree with Fish that Summers’s remarks (even if couched as informal and off-the-record) were ill-considered coming as they were from Harvard’s head. But I do think the substance of the remarks is important — in part because not all negative publicity is equally justified. In chapter seven of my book Super Crunchers, I had the following take on the controversy:

On January 14, 2005, the president of Harvard University, Lawrence Summers, touched off a firestorm of criticism when he spoke at a conference on the scarcity of women professors in science and math. A slew of newspaper articles characterized his remarks as suggesting that women are “somehow innately deficient in mathematics.” The New York Times in 2007 characterized Summers’s remarks as claiming that “a lack of intrinsic aptitude could help explain why fewer women than men reach the top ranks of science and math in universities.” The article (like many others) suggested that the subsequent furor over Summers’s speech contributed to his resignation in 2006 (and the decision to replace him with the first female president in the university’s 371 year history).

Summers’s speech did in fact suggest that there might be innate differences in the intelligence of men and women. But he didn’t argue that the average intelligence of women was any less than that of men. He focused instead on the possibility that the intelligence of men is more variable than that of women. He explicitly worked backwards from observed proportions to implicit standard deviations. Here’s what Summers said:

“I did a very crude calculation, which I’m sure was wrong and certainly was unsubtle, 20 different ways. I looked … at the evidence on the sex ratios in the top 5 percent of 12th graders [in science and math]. If you look at those, they’re all over the map … but 50 percent women, one woman for every two men, would be a high-end estimate [for the relative prevalence of women]. From that, you can back out a difference in the implied standard deviations that works out to be about 20 percent.”

Summers doesn’t say it, but there is no pronounced difference in the average math or science scores for male and female 12th graders. But in a variety of different studies, there is a difference in the tails of the distribution. In particular, Summers focused in on the tendency for there to be two men for every one woman when you look at the top 5 percent of math and science achievement among 12th graders. Summers worked backwards to figure out what kind of a difference in standard deviations would give rise to this sex difference in the tails. His core claim, indeed his only claim, of innate difference was that the standard deviation of men’s intelligence might be 20 percent greater than that of women.

Summers, in the speech, was careful to point out that his calculation was “crude” and “unsubtle.” … Summers’s back-of-the-envelope empiricism doesn’t definitively resolve the question of whether women have less variable intelligence. For example, lots of other factors could have influenced the math and science scores of 12th graders besides innate ability. …

Summers, in suggesting a gendered difference in standard deviations, is suggesting that men are more likely to be really smart, but he’s also implying that men are innately more likely to be really dumb. It’s a tricky question to know whether it is desirable to be associated with a group that has a higher IQ standard deviation. Imagine that you are expecting your first child. You are told that you can choose the range of possible IQs that your child will have, but this range must be centered on an IQ of 100. Any IQ within the range that you choose is equally likely to occur. What range would you choose — 95 to 105, or would you roll the dice on a wider range of, say, 60 to 140? When I asked this question of a group of fourth and sixth graders, they invariably chose ranges that were incredibly small (nothing wider than 95 to 105). None of them wanted to roll the dice on the chance that their kid would be a genius if it meant that their kid might alternatively end up as developmentally disabled. So from the kids’ perspective, Summers was suggesting that men have a less desirable IQ distribution.

What really got Summers in trouble was taking his estimated 20 percent difference and using it to figure out other probabilities. Instead of looking at the ratio of males to females in the top 5 percent of the most intelligent people, he wanted to speculate about the ratio of men to women in the top one-hundredth of 1 percent of the most scientifically intelligent people. Summers claimed that research scientists at top universities come from this more rarefied strata:

“If … one is talking about physicists at a top-25 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, [or] four standard deviations above the mean in the 1 in 5,000, [or] 1 in 10,000 class.”

To infer what he called the “available pool” of women and men this far out in the distribution, Summers took his estimates of the implicit standard deviations and worked forward:

“Even small differences in the standard deviation will translate into very large differences in the available pool substantially out [in the tail of the distribution] … [Y]ou can work out the difference out several standard deviations. If you do that calculation — and I have no reason to think that it couldn’t be refined in 100 ways — you get five to one, at the high end.”

Summers was claiming that women may be underrepresented in science because for the kinds of smarts you need at a top research department, there might be five men for every one woman.

Now you can start to understand why he got into so much trouble. I’ve recalculated Summers’s estimates using his same methodology, and his bottom-line characterization of the results, if anything, was understated. At 3.5 or 4 standard deviations above the mean, a 20 percent difference in standard deviations can easily translate into there being 10 or 20 times as many men as women. However these results are far from definitive. I agree with him that his method might be flawed in “20 different ways.”

Along the way to making his standard deviation argument, Summers also inappropriately analogized the shortfall of women in science to a rather bizarre set of comparisons:

It is after all not the case that the role of women in science is the only example of a group that is significantly underrepresented in an important activity and whose underrepresentation contributes to a shortage of role models for others who are considering being in that group. To take a set of diverse examples, the data will, I am confident, reveal that Catholics are substantially underrepresented in investment banking, which is an enormously high-paying profession in our society; that white men are very substantially underrepresented in the National Basketball Association; and that Jews are very substantially underrepresented in farming and in agriculture.

So in the end, there are truly troubling aspects about his speech. But its core claim is more nuanced than often reported.

The larger question for Obama to consider is whether Summers has the political skills to succeed as Treasury Secretary. His failure in this regard as Harvard president — where he was the top muckety-muck — is not necessarily indicative of how he will behave as cabinet head.

Summers knows that the Treasury Secretary is answerable to the president and he knows that the Treasury Secretary needs Congressional cooperation to help the economy recover. Summers also knows that returning to the Treasury is in no small part a way to redeem is legacy. A Summers appointment is not without real risks of an embarrassing gaffe, but the risks of not appointing him are even larger.

erik de koster, brussels

well OK, this is going to be very un-PC, but the question Summers raised at harvard is a perfectly honorable question. The debate nature vs nurture isn't over. I think the reaction was way over the top, and I got the impression they were looking for a stick to hit this dog with.


I know this is slightly off topic, but when I caught this headline in my RSS feed, all I could think of was this quote from the Big Lebowski: "The Dude: Your money is being held by a kid named Larry Sellers. Real f**king brat, but I'm sure your goons can get it off him. I mean, he's fifteen.
The Dude: Flunking social studies. "

And I got really scared that you meant the 15 year old kid. Not the wonderfully misogynist Larry SUMMERS, former Presidente of Havahd.



What was troubling about Summers' remarks in your selected paragraph regarding investment banking, the NBA and agriculture? Isn't he correct that there are many other fields where the pool of participants is not as diverse as the population?



I wonder whether he'd be in the running for this position if he'd made similar claims about African Americans as he made about women...


What about Summers' shielding of his protege Andrei Shleifer in the Russian privatization scandal that cost Harvard a $26.5 million fine and cost the USA much of its credibility (in Russia) as a free-market exemplar?

copy of Institutional Investor article, "How Harvard Lost Russia."


We, in fact the wider population, needs to be able to ask difficult, sometimes potentially offensive questions, or to propose similar hypotheses.

This is the way academia moves forward: asking questions, testing hypotheses and measuring results. Summers has an analytical mind: he's always thinking about something. This is the way new discoveries are made: new ideas put forth.

In my mind it is "how" the question is being asked and by whom, not so much what is being asked. For example, if Adolf Hitler were to wonder aloud whether Jews were intellectually inferior this would be one matter.

However, if a social (or other scientist) were to publicly postulate something, or ask something potentially controversial (without a misogynistic track record,) this is a different matter.

As a nation of "free speakers" it seems we're only able to speak freely about something that doesn't piss someone else off.



Summers was crucified for being RIGHT! Why is speaking the truth "ill-considered?"

Dan K

There are also the issues of Larry's handwritten love note to Ken Lay, saying that he would specifically keep an eye on energy and deregulation issues.

Also, the shameless blank check cover up strategy for his buddy Andrei Schleifer at Harvard (whose wife was buying stocks in Russia while he was setting up so-called "market mechanisms") would certainly come under closer scrutiny during any Senate confirmation.

Larry is a smart guy, but not smart enough to know when to stop. And that just won't cut it this time.


All the research is on Summers's side, and all the criticism was political, not scientific, in content. It is his feminist critics who should be ashamed and defensive.

Martin Saavedra

Given that you wrote Super Crunchers, wouldn't it be better for Obama to take data from all the Treasury Secretary from the past 50 years, use economic data to evaluate their performances, and use variables like "years in academia," "number of academic publications," "years in the private sector," and even age to explain performance. Then use the regression equation to predict who would be the better Secretary of the Treasury.

I know you're an expert Mr. Ayres, but you yourself said that a regression equation can beat you.


You are certainly right when you write that Summers's speech's "core claim is more nuanced than often reported". However, people in the public eye should know that their nuanced arguments are sometimes reported misleadingly in the press, especially when they talk about a controversial subject. Summers was very unprofessional not to think about this.


Wasn't Larry Summers big on de-regulation? Isn't too much de-regulation one of the principle causes of our current mess?

There's no math involved, so, not so super-crunchy, but it's a fairly straightforward question "of judgment" as Obama puts it.

Mark B

Sorry folks, but this is starting to sound like a debate on PBS


A fascinating (I thought, at least) examination of the comments and the women/men intelligence "gap."


This is exactly why I find Econ to be rubbish at times. It proposes to be a science and hence ignores context to favour models that can be universally applied.

Consider Summer's question: Why are Jews underrepresented in agriculture?

It ignores an entire history of European laws that forbid the Jews from farming. Professions like money lending, forbidden to the Catholic, were the only ones open to them, producing the archetype of Shylock.

I am all for academia asking questions - but not dumb ones
based on false assumptions.

Jonathan Katz

Real world distributions aren't usually Gaussian, and there is no reason to expect them to be. They aren't sums of independent random variables.

The recent behavior of the markets shows how wrong Black & Scholes were about the behavior of economic variables. No scientist would have made such a mistake. Their equation is essentially identical to the Fokker-Planck equation of physics, known since about 1900---it works for molecules and atoms---and one wonders why economists thought it a great insight.

It is my experience (as a professor of physics and father of five) that girls are less good at mathematics and mathematical sciences than boys, but better at verbal and artistic things. That is apart from any difference in the standard deviations of IQ. That conclusion may be ideologically unacceptable to some, but prejudice doesn't make it untrue.

E. Barnhart

Actually, Larry's speech was bad politics AND bad science. He laid out three hypothesis for why there are fewer female faculty in math and hard sciences at competitive institutions: women are less willing to devote 80 hours a week to high-powered jobs; there are fewer women with the aptitude for math and science required for these high-powered jobs; and/or social considerations and discriminatory hiring practices prevent more women from obtaining faculty positions. Obviously, the first two hypotheses are politically charged. The real problem from a scientific perspective, though, is that Larry failed to provide any real evidence for these politically charged hypotheses, but he nonetheless concluded that they are more relevant than social norms and discrimination.

For example, in addressing the second hypothesis - that fewer women have the required aptitude for math and science - Summers suggested that there are 5 men for every woman who have the intrinsic mathematical aptitude required to be a physicist at a high-powered university. His estimate was based on the variance in test scores for male and female high school seniors. Even if you agree that Summers' method was valid - that you can estimate the gender ratio in the top 0.001% of the super smart based on high school test scores - this estimate alone doesn't provide sufficient support for the hypothesis. In order to say that there are fewer women with the intrinsic ability to do math at high levels based on variances in test scores, you'd have to be able to show that the variances are due to biological differences (nature) rather than socialization (nurture). Summers claimed that socialization was unlikely to be the full story, and he told some anecdotes to support his claim. For instance, his daughter, when given trucks to play with, called one the baby truck and one the daddy truck, and Summers used this to suggest that little girls and little boys have different tastes. And again, even if we believe that an anecdote about Summers' daughter is good evidence that little boys and little girls are different, it certainly doesn't tell us anything about the extent to which these differences are due to socialization versus biology. So not only was Summers' claim offensive (bad politics), it was unsubstantiated (bad science).



Several Harvard Faculty Members have suggested that Larry Summers suffers from Aspberger's syndrome, due to his observed awkwardness in social situations. Obviously Summers has been able to attain professional success, and is a man of great intelligence. I just question whether he has the personal skills to be able to grapple with the economic problems he'd face as treasury secretary.

Ellene Cain

In my opinion, the answer to the question by the President of Harvard required more than a "crude calulation". His answer showed he didn't take the question seriously. His answer reminds me of the "reasoning" used by the biased guys who wrote "The Bell Curve".


As a feminist, Summers may not be my cup of tea. But a willingness to voice unpopular conjectures -- in pursuit of understanding -- might not be the worst job qualification.

He's obviously a guy who doesn't worry too much about what people think of him. He sounds tone-deaf and could use some pragmatic social skills to deal with neurotypicals. His statements, considering the political environment of Harvard, were undiplomatic. His unpopularity with faculty probably ignited a bit of an over-reaction, in fact.

But IF he's the smartest guy in the room when it comes to looking at a puzzle from all angles, even unpopular ones, he may be the right guy to do the job.

Someone who cares about popularity, who caves in to pressure, might do something like handing out wads of cash to banks without demanding that they loan some of it out.