Frank Rich on Larry Summers

by Chris Sturr | April 14, 2009

A follow-up on the last post (about Harvard money managers lost $11bn): Frank Rich’s column in Sunday’s New York Times made a nice connection between recent revelations of Larry Summers’ $5.2 million hedge fund earnings in 2008 and the fact that Summers, while president of Harvard, chided Cornel West for making a hip-hop album and supposedly thereby neglecting his professorly duties. It turns out that Summers did some real moonlighting while president of Harvard, consulting for the hedge fund Taconic Capital Advisors:

On the same Friday that the Labor Department reported the latest jobless numbers, the White House released (in the evening, after the network news) some other telling figures on the financial disclosure forms of its top officials. From those we learned more about how much the bubble’s culture permeated this administration.

We discovered, for instance, that Lawrence Summers, the president’s chief economic adviser, made $5.2 million in 2008 from a hedge fund, D. E. Shaw, for a one-day-a-week job. He also earned $2.7 million in speaking fees from the likes of Citigroup and Goldman Sachs. Those institutions are not merely the beneficiaries of taxpayers’ bailouts since the crash. They also benefited during the boom from government favors: the Wall Street deregulation that both Summers and Robert Rubin, his mentor and predecessor as Treasury secretary, championed in the Clinton administration. This dynamic duo’s innovative gift to their country was banks “too big to fail.”

Some spoilsports raise the conflict-of-interest question about Summers: Can he be a fair broker of the bailout when he so recently received lavish compensation from some of its present and, no doubt, future players? This question can be answered only when every transaction in the new “public-private investment plan” to buy the banks’ toxic assets is made transparent. We need verification that this deal is not, as the economist Joseph Stiglitz has warned, a Rube Goldberg contraption contrived to facilitate “huge transfers of wealth to the financial markets” from taxpayers.

But perhaps I’ve become numb to the perennial and bipartisan revolving-door incestuousness of Washington and Wall Street. I was less shocked by the White House’s disclosure of Summers’s recent paydays than by a bit of reporting that appeared deep down in the Times follow-up article on that initial news. The reporter Louise Story wrote that Summers had done consulting work for another hedge fund, Taconic Capital Advisors, from 2004 to 2006, while still president of Harvard.

That the highly paid leader of arguably America’s most esteemed educational institution (disclosure: I went there) would simultaneously freelance as a hedge-fund guy might stand as a symbol for the values of our time. At the start of his stormy and short-lived presidency, Summers picked a fight with Cornel West for allegedly neglecting his professorial duties by taking on such extracurricular tasks as cutting a spoken-word CD. Yet Summers saw no conflict with moonlighting in the money racket while running the entire university. The students didn’t even get a CD for his efforts—and Harvard’s deflated endowment, now in a daunting liquidity crisis, didn’t exactly benefit either.

Summers’s dual portfolio in Cambridge has already led to one potential intermingling of private business and public policy in his new White House post. He tried—and, mercifully, failed—to install the co-founder of Taconic in the job of running the TARP bailouts. But again, Summers’s potential conflicts of interest seem less telling than the conflict of values that his Harvard double-résumé exemplifies.

In the bubble decade, making money as an end in itself boomed as a calling among students at elite universities like Harvard, siphoning off gifted undergraduates who might otherwise have been scientists, teachers, doctors, entrepreneurs, artists or inventors. The Harvard Crimson reported that in the class of 2007, 58 percent of the men and 43 percent of the women entering the work force took jobs in the finance and consulting industries. The figures were similar everywhere, from Duke to the University of Pennsylvania. Dan Rather, on his HDNet television program in December, reported that at Penn this was even true of “over half the students who graduated with engineering degrees—not a field commonly associated with Wall Street.”

Clearly the last person to serve as an inspiring role model for alternative values would have been Summers. But in her first baccalaureate address last June, his successor as Harvard president, Drew Gilpin Faust, stepped into that moral vacuum, zeroing in on the huge number of students heading into finance, consulting and investment banking. “Find work you love,” she implored the class of 2008. The “most remunerative” job choice “may not be the most meaningful and the most satisfying.”

Read the whole column; hat-tip to TM.

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