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President-Elect Obama has started naming members of his economic team, including New York Fed President Timothy Geithner as Secretary of the Treasury. Among his appointments were Lawrence Summers, a former Clinton Administration Treasury Secretary and Harvard University president, as his chair of the White House National Economic Council. The appointment of Summers presents a serious problem: namely that in a speech as Harvard President, he made comments disparaging the ability of women to handle careers in mathematics, engineering, and the sciences. His remarks struck me at the time as being remarkably similar to the pseudo-scientific nonsense spouted in the book The Bell Curve about the "inherent lower intelligence" of racial minorities.

The Boston Globe article on Summers' remarks noted that Summers was invited to the conference of the National Bureau of Economic Research as a prominent economist and not as the president of Harvard. In that case, it's interesting that one can find a copy of the full speech posted on the web site of the Office of the President at Harvard. I also find it interesting that in his role as a mere "top economist", the problem of discrimination against women in academia and the sciences is considerably outside his area of expertise. According to Wikipedia:

As a researcher, Summers has made important contributions in many areas of economics, primarily public finance, labor economics, financial economics, and macroeconomics. To a lesser extent, Summers has also worked in international economics, economic demography, economic history, and development economics. His work generally emphasizes the analysis of empirical economic data in order to answer well-defined questions (for example: Does saving respond to after-tax interest rates? Are the returns from stocks and stock portfolios predictable?, Are most of those who receive unemployment benefits only transitorily unemployed?, etc.) For his work he received the John Bates Clark Medal in 1993 from the American Economic Association.

But regardless of the context in which Summers made his comments, it seems problematic to appoint someone who has made such remarks to a high level post in the Obama White House. The Obama Administration, in my understanding, is supposed to be one of diversity and inclusion and his election is supposed to represent the ascent of an ideal that America is a country for everyone. The appointment of someone to a high-level post who would air such sexist viewpoints at a high-profile economic conference while the President of a major university (which has had considerable problems as far as equal opportunity for women) seems to undermine that message.

The media seems to pay little attention to Summers' blatantly misogynist views. Imagine if Hillary Clinton had been elected president and appointed someone to a high-level post who had such attitudes about African-Americans, such as one of the authors of The Bell Curve. My guess is that there would be an outrage from African-Americans and other activists who had supported her--and rightly so. There should be no less outrage about this appointment to the Obama Administration.

While I have been an enthusiastic supporter of President-Elect Obama and celebrated his election as much as anyone, I have also offered the word of caution that those of us who supported him must hold him accountable for staying true to the ideals that we elected him for. Now, in my view, is one of those times. The activist community should make it very clear to the President-Elect that there is no room for someone like Larry Summers in the Obama White House.

(cross-posted to ljdemocrats, theleftunited, obama_2008, happy_feminists)