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Remarks of Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers

Nieman Narrative Journalism Conference, Cambridge, Mass.

Introduction by Bob Giles, Curator of the Nieman Foundation

I’m pleased to introduce you to Lawrence Summers, the President of Harvard University. President Summers has been a good friend to the Nieman Fellows since his return to Harvard in July of 2001. He does a seminar for us each year and invites the class to his office at Massachusetts Hall for the presentation of the certificates marking the completion of the Nieman year. President Summers is an economist whose teaching and scholarship at Harvard won him tenure at a very young age. He has served as chief economist for the World Bank and secretary of the Treasury under President Clinton. He leads and manages a university that is a worldwide enterprise with 19,000 full-time students, 94 libraries, six museums, and research centers in other countries. President Summers, we’re delighted that you could be here to meet this group of writers and learners about narrative and we welcome you. Please join me in welcoming President Larry Summers.

Presentation by Lawrence H. Summers

Thanks very much, Bob. It’s great to be here and great to be with you at this Nieman Foundation event. The kindness of your introduction reminded me of an experience I had when I was in Washington. I introduced President Clinton to a financial group. As seemed appropriate, I extolled President Clinton’s virtues in the financial area. The President stood up and said, “Larry, you’ve just demonstrated one of my first laws of political life: whenever possible, be introduced by someone who is within an organization that you lead.”

It is very good, after having had a fair amount of experience in which journalists talked about me, I take some satisfaction in being able to talk about you. Seriously, I’m not going to say I’ve always enjoyed my interaction with journalists — that wouldn’t be true. But I’ve always thought that journalists have made an enormous contribution to understanding and beyond promoting understanding, to serving as a very important discipline and force for the best in every institution that I’ve been associated with, whether it was the World Bank or whether it was the U.S. government or more recently at Harvard. I do have to say, as I’ve said to them, that there are some days when The Harvard Crimson makes me wish for the good old days with the investigative reporters at The Washington Post and The New York Times.

I’ve thought a little bit about what I could say to you that might be helpful as you think about issues of narrative journalism and as you think about your fundamentally important tasks. I thought I would talk for just a couple of minutes about one central economic issue: trade, where I feel that the understanding of people who think in careful ways about that subject is largely lost on the public, and where I would have to say that journalism, because of some of the things that are integral to what you do, I think makes the problem worse rather than better. Let me tell you what I mean.

If you think about it, there’s a tendency for unaided human intuition in certain important spheres to go badly wrong. If you ask people who haven’t been trained with respect to the subject whether if you drop two things, one heavier and the other lighter, which will fall faster, most of them will agree that the heavier one will fall faster. And indeed Aristotle famously propounded that doctrine. In fact as everyone who’s taken a high school physics course knows, that doctrine is wrong. Objects fall independent of their mass. Similarly, if you ask people what an object in motion will do, they will tend to say that it will stop unless it continues to be pushed. That too is one of Aristotle’s laws and Newton famously realized that that was the wrong physical law. For reasons that biologists actually study, with respect to a set of questions, our unaided human intuitions tend to lead us astray. So it is with respect to international trade.

The judgment of economists — and here I’m not talking about my judgment that Republican economists would disagree with or the judgment of the Harvard School, which the Chicago School would disagree with — the judgment of almost all of those who have thought carefully about the question is that increased openness to trade makes a country significantly richer than it would otherwise be and makes its workers better off than they would otherwise be. And the primary reason why that is true is that they are able to import goods at lower cost and therefore their paychecks go further and their income, after correcting for the prices of things they buy, is substantially greater. That is the basic economics of international trade.

The basic economics of international trade, as a reader of the nation’s press would understand it, would go something like this: there is a scoreboard in the sky. If you export a lot from your country, you create a lot of jobs. If you import a lot, you destroy jobs. The job destruction does enormous damage. There has been a large number of episodes in the United States over the last decade in which jobs have been destroyed, jobs have been destroyed as a consequence of corporations deciding to relocate their production overseas to the detriment of the American worker whose job was destroyed. But that is offset, perhaps substantially offset, by a sense that exports are good.

I have not done the relevant content survey. But I would bet with a high degree of confidence that reading the press generally, one would find that there was almost no discussion of the benefits in terms of international trade of making goods cheaper for people to buy and therefore making people richer. And that there was relatively little discussion of the experiences of individuals who have better jobs than they otherwise would have because of the opportunities to export created in the American economy by trade agreements, in contrast to an enormous volume of writing about jobs lost. There are almost certainly tens of thousands of jobs that have been lost because of the increases in the price of steel that were imposed by trade policies in the United States nine months ago. I would be surprised if the up-close-and-personal story of a single one of those job losses has been told. In contrast, the story of pain in Steeltown has been told again and again and again.

And so the educated public, the public that depends on journalism for its information, has an image of international trade that is mostly about the import-destruction of jobs, secondarily about the export-creation of jobs, and a distant tertiary story about what most experts in the field would think is most important, the expansion of purchasing power caused by the availability of cheaper goods and greater productivity, spurred by international trade. And on a very important economic issue facing our country, most people think in ways that would be viewed by experts in the field as paralleling those who think about biology in creationist terms or those who think about chemistry in terms of alchemy, or think about astronomy in terms of astrology. Now why is that?

It’s not because you all are part of, or journalism is part of, any kind of conspiracy to mislead the public. It’s not even, I don’t think, primarily because the average journalist who thinks about these questions would have a substantially different view about where expert opinion is, than the view that I’ve expressed. I probably have a higher regard for economists as experts on these subjects, being one, than some other people would. But I think if most people thought honestly about authorities on these subjects, they would come to views relatively close to mine.

No, the reason why this misconception exists and is perpetuated is that it’s really a much better story. It is a more gripping story. It is a story that is more interesting to read — “Sam lost his job because the factory moved to Thailand and this is what happens to Sam and his family,” that is a more gripping, more interesting story than the story that says “Goods for 30 million people are 5 percent cheaper because of the availability of imports.” I know which story I would read first. You all have a very hard challenge here. Whenever people say to me, as they do with great frequency, “The press is terrible. It always goes for sensationalism. It never goes for the really fundamental, important underlying trends that are really much more important.” Well, I always say to them, sure — it’s a couple years out of date — I always say to them, “Just tell me, your hometown paper has three stories on the front page: ‘New Revelation on Lewinsky Matter,’ ‘Holbrook and Berger Battle over Bosnia Policy,’ ‘Trend toward Economic Reform Continues in Slovenia.'” You tell me which story you’ll read first. And everyone who says they’ll read three, then two, then one, has standing to say that the press isn’t doing what it should be doing.

So I don’t actually have an answer to this problem to share with you because it does seem to me to be a reasonable notion that newspapers and magazines should write stories that people want to read and find gripping and interesting. And the stories that I think mislead are more gripping and interesting. But it seems to me it should be a function of sessions like this to help develop ways of putting into equally gripping and narrative forms ideas that while complex, and perhaps less immediately adaptable to the narrative of form, nonetheless are true and important for people to understand.

And I would even dare to suggest — I recognize that an economist talking about prose and what would be interesting is taking a certain risk — there’s a reason they call it a dismal science and so forth — I would dare to suggest that the story can be told of a person who was previously unemployed or previously in a low-wage job, who then got a much better job, who found his family able to live much better, whose children looked at him or her with newfound respect, and the link behind the creation of that job can be constructed. The New York Times, in the midst of the greatest boom our country has had in 70 years, managed to devote 150,000 words to the ethnography of layoffs, to detailed, textured descriptions of the experience of being laid off for some number of individuals. It would seem possible to tell the story of somebody being hired, in an interesting way. And when that was done, it would be something that would, I think, contribute to understanding.

Similarly, why couldn’t somebody tell the story of Christmas without imports? Well, what if we would have to have all the toys produced in the United States at the prices that they would cost if they couldn’t be produced by any of that low-cost labor? Barbie dolls at four times the price they are now? G.I. Joe three times as expensive, and so forth? It’s not that these ideas can’t be reduced or can’t be brought into things that people understand. As an economist who’s worked in the international area, I’ve used trade as an example of where natural human intuition drives the stories people want to read, drives the stories people choose to write, which embeds the intuition more deeply like a river that makes its own bed, and perpetuates misconception. But I could think of other areas in economics and I have no doubt that there are a whole range of other areas where something very similar happens. So my plea to you would be to think very hard about how you can identify the trends, the developments, the ways of thinking that are ultimately more accurate and more important. And then use those as a basis for your narrative journalism.

Thank you very much for the chance to be with you.