Speaking of the U.S. elections

I’m happy about the outcome, but not necessarily ecstatic. In case you’re interested, here’s a couple of reasons: the first one very obvious, the other two chosen at random and in no particular order.

1. I live in Canada, and I’m not an American citizen, either. That does not mean that this election does not matter to me or to my fellow Canadians. It certainly does, as anyone who has checked their pension plan statement recently should understand. Besides, having grown up in the then-socialist Poland in the 1970s and 80s, I was not looking forward to living next door to a large totalitarian state once again, and that’s what I expect the McCain-Palin Unites States would have been. For these and many more reasons, I’m glad that Obama won. But I do not share the intense sense of national pride that I see many Americans experiencing right now. Because, well, it’s not my nation. For the record, Canadian politics is much less exciting. Our national election came and went mostly unnoticed several weeks ago.

2. Larry Summers. He is one of Obama’s top economic advisers and possibly a candidate for the Secretary of Treasury. His name is also well known, and not in a good way, to pretty much every female mathematician. Several years ago, his comments about women being genetically less predisposed to do higher mathematics cost him his job as the president of Harvard.

Now, presumably, Summers will be advising Obama on the economy, not on women in science. (The two topics are not always unrelated, but never mind.) There’s more to the story, though. According to the reports published at the time, Summers’s comments about women were the last straw breaking the camel’s back, but that could have only happened because said camel was already struggling under the weight of many other things. Specifically, Summers did not get along with the faculty.

I absolutely believe that these reports are correct. I wasn’t at Harvard at the time and have no first-hand knowledge of the situation, but this is what I do know: academic administrators support each other. There’s no way that an administrator would lose his job just for dissing a minority group with no significant political standing on campus. (The mathematics department at Harvard has no tenured female professors, according to its web page, and had none at the time of the incident if I remember correctly.) Instead, the administrator might be asked to apologize for his comments; if his apology goes along the lines of “I’m sorry, I didn’t know that you were so sensitive”, then that will have to do. The aggrieved group might then be instructed that we all have to work together and we will all get there faster if we forget our grievances and unite for the common purpose. And, if some of us “get there” long before others, well, that’s life. But I digress.

What I’m getting at is that for this to have happened, Summers must have been a complete disaster as the Harvard president. If he’s getting a senior position in the Obama government, in a capacity where he will be managing the people in charge of the U.S. economy, then that doesn’t look good for those pension plans I mentioned earlier.

3. The web page that used to be here. To Obama’s credit, it has now been taken down, but here’s Google’s Nov. 1 snapshot.

For those who have not followed this part of the campaign very closely, here’s the story. Several weeks ago, John McCain took serious flak for this incident.

The point of contention was that the expression “a decent family man” is not exactly the opposite of “Muslim”.

I’m guessing that McCain was just trying to tame supporters who were getting out of control; he may have been somewhat clumsy in doing so, but so are we all from time to time. All the same, given the many ways that emotions can run (and have run) in crowds hostile to visible minorities, I’m glad that several people came out to say on TV networks that it’s quite possible for a Muslim to be a decent person. Or, as Colin Powell pointed out so memorably, that it’s quite possible for a Muslim to become a U.S. soldier and die in the service of his country.

But what was less publicized is that much earlier, back when the Democratic primaries were in full swing, Obama had an official campaign web page set up (the one I linked to above) that listed “Obama is a Muslim” as a “smear” and then explained that he’s Christian. “Debunking Muslim smear” is the exact language it used. That page was up there right until Election Day.

Well, I’m happy to see it gone.

That’s about all I wanted to say about politics for the time being.

5 Comments

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5 responses to “Speaking of the U.S. elections

  1. Lior

    It is worthwhile to note that Larry Summers’s main qualification is not his Harvard presidency, but rather that he has already served as Secretary of the Treasury, under President Clinton. I think it’s better to judge Obama’s choice based on Summers’s performance under Clinton (1999-2001, the tail-end and bursting of the tech bubble). Do we think his policies ameliorated or exacerbated the conditions during that crash?

  2. Anonymous

    What I’m getting at is that for this to have happened, Summers must have been a complete disaster as the Harvard president.

    His presidency had a lot of problems, but from my perspective they were more due to Harvard than to Summers. Harvard is actually incredibly decentralized, with a weak president and very powerful deans. (Deans have their own budgets and endowments, which they control without oversight from the president. I know of no other university like it.) Summers tried to exercise power, and this upset the faculty. Here are some examples:

    (1) Summers pushed for expansion into Allston. This is something everybody agreed was necessary (due to severe space constraints), but nobody wanted to go, so they kept delaying in the hope that someone else would volunteer. Summers wanted to make it happen, which left everybody terrified that he would somehow force them to go. This made lots of administrators dislike him.

    (2) Summers tried to strengthen Harvard’s position in science and engineering. Since everyone is convinced this is a zero-sum game, pretty much all the faculty outside science and engineering hated Summers and felt he was unfairly biased against them.

    (3) Summers upset the law faculty by pointing out (correctly) that their tenure standards were way too low and that the Harvard law faculty was not nearly as academically distinguished as Yale’s. Instead of trying to fix the problems, they became furious at the idea that the president would criticize them.

    And there were lots of other examples. I agree that Summers messed up, and should have moved much more slowly, but I think most or all of his plans for Harvard were a good idea (and some, like making Harvard more affordable to the poor, were fantastic).

    By contrast, Faust is a fine president, but she’s hardly even trying to do a thing besides fund raising, which is exactly what most Harvard faculty want her to focus on (despite Harvard’s amazing wealth). It’s too bad – I’d love to see what Faust could accomplish with some actual power.

    Incidentally, Summers was already Treasury Secretary under Clinton and seems to have done a fine job. This is what convinced Harvard he would make a good president. However, the jobs are very different. (In the government, you can tell people what they have to do. At Harvard, you can only encourage them and offer small incentives.)

  3. Lior:

    This article (found via 3QD; scroll almost to the end of the first page) mentions Summers’s support, in his capacity as the Secretary of the Treasury, of the deregulation of the derivatives and CDS market.

    Anonymous:

    Thanks for the information.

  4. Harald

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Summers_memo

    Since Summers insists the text was taken out of context, it would be good to know exactly what that context was.

  5. Yes, that too.

    I suppose that the “context” was that the memo was not expected to leak out.