Real Questions for Summers

Posted Nov. 12, 2008, at 7:12 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 3:28 a.m.

Some ardent feminists have launched a campaign to block Lawrence H. Summers, former President Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary, from taking the same post in the Obama administration. In raking up old controversies, they threaten to deprive the new government, in the midst of a deepening financial crisis, of the services of a star economist who led the way to a budgetary surplus and a rare reduction in the national debt. Settling old scores is no way to face a dangerous and uncertain economic future.

Much of the criticism stems from Mr. Summers’ suggestion when he was president of Harvard University that some “innate” gender differences might help explain women’s failure to progress better in the sciences. His words created a furor and led to a faculty vote of nonconfidence and his resignation.

Some critics flatly accuse him of sexism and misogyny, although Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, questions whether that dispute is relevant to the immediate crisis in financial markets.

Mr. Summers has apologized repeatedly, perhaps too much. He was taking part in a discussion of a real problem in the failure of women to go farther in the scientific professions. He was simply raising the question of whether discrimination against women was entirely to blame. If such questions can’t be asked, for fear of retribution far out of scale to the query, such longstanding problems won’t be resolved. This shortchanges everyone, not just the group that appears to be getting left behind.

Aside from the substance of that old dispute over some unfortunate language, the fact is that the feminists won. They got Mr. Summers kicked out of the Harvard presidency. What’s more, they are far along toward winning the fight against discrimination against women, although with some distance yet to go. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s showing in her presidential campaign seems to have proved that a woman now can aspire to the presidency. Correcting the remaining shortcomings is better than raking over that old Harvard dispute.

More serious is a nagging question as to whether Mr. Summers helped create the present financial mess by joining in disregarding a warning 10 years ago that the unregulated trading in complex investments could lead to trouble.

A woman lawyer, Brooksley E. Born, then chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, began exploring the regulation of those “derivatives.” She warned that unregulated and unsupervised trading could “threaten our regulated markets or, indeed, our economy without any federal agency knowing about it.” Mr. Summers, then deputy treasury secretary, is said to have chastised her for leading to a financial crisis.

He was one of many who then neglected the need for greater regulation and transparency, despite warnings from men as well as women. If Mr. Summers is nominated for the top Treasury post, the Senate should explore his past and present views on this crucial issue, not whether he is a sexist.

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