It would be an exaggerated piece of name-dropping to say that I know Larry Summers. I'm one of thousands of people who've had contact with him over the years. For me, that contact consists of two hour-long conversations with him that just included the two of us, a half-dozen more that included another half-dozen people each, plus a steady diet of the speeches that one sees university presidents give. More than all that, I watched him govern a mostly ungovernable university. Think running the Treasury Department during a world-wide recession is a tough job? Come to Cambridge and try running Harvard: not administering it while raising gobs of money and telling all your faculty bosses (that's how the real lines of authority work here) how wonderful we are, but actually running the place, bending it to your will as the best managers do. Treasury is a piece of cake by comparison.
The conventional wisdom is that Summers' presidency of Harvard was a failure. It isn't so. Undergraduate education is better than it was when he took office, because he made it important--which it wasn't before, and isn't at most research universities. Some of the weaker units at the university--the Law School was one of them--are also better than when he took office, because he refused to settle for mediocrity and pushed them to do better. (And, in the Law School, because he hired a great Dean, Elena Kagan, who understood his agenda and had the judgment and political skills to make it her own.) Best of all by my lights, he pushed against the Ivy League admissions culture that has made America's best private universities what they were generations ago: finishing schools for the children of America's upper class. Talented kids from the bottom half of the income spectrum have a shot at going to school here because Larry Summers believed in giving them that shot. Good for him.
For all those reasons and several more besides, I loved working for Summers; it made me proud to be an academic, and proud to teach at Harvard. And the guy did a terrific job at Treasury in the waning days of the Clinton Administration. But those aren't the reasons I'm hoping to see him in soon-to-be President Obama's cabinet. Two other reasons matter vastly more.
The first is familiar: Summers is tough-minded. There is a great temptation in government to support policy moves because you WANT them to succeed--because they satisfy some key interest group, because they're symbolically appealing, because they screw the other side, and so on. Like the rest of us, Summers has his ideological preferences (and they are definitely not those of your typical Republican: most of my conservative friends who are hoping for Summers' appointment don't understand him). But he's incapable of doing government-as-wish-fulfillment. He thinks better about the consequences of policy alternatives than anyone in American public life, bar none. At this historical moment, with an economic crisis and a new President lacking high-level policymaking experience, that is an enormous advantage.
The second reason goes to the nature of those ideological preferences, and to those poorer-than-average kids whose educational opportunities Larry Summers supported. Summers is interested in everything, but passionate about one thing: helping the poorest among us, both here and abroad. If he weren't so tough-minded, that would be a dangerous passion--lots of things the government does to help poor people either harm their intended beneficiaries, help inept government bureaucracies, or both. But together with his other qualities, it makes him perfectly suited for Treasury's top job today. We need economic policies that will help those at the bottom of the pecking order, the poor who are striving to climb the economic ladder in impossible circumstances and the portions of the middle class who are losing their grip on that ladder. Such policies must do more than put money in empty pockets; they must make it possible for the owners of those pockets to earn that money themselves, in a growing economy that helps all its members. Larry Summers will do a better job of finding those policies, shaping them, and implementing them than anyone else. If that's spreading the wealth, then this registered Republican is all for it. Here's hoping his next boss appreciates his enormous gifts more than his last set of bosses did.