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Karma bites Larry Summers–and opens door for Janet Yellen

Summers seemingly getting another shot over a better-qualified woman, despite his well-documented liabilities, said a lot about who gets a second (and third and fourth) chance. But not this time.
/ Source: MSNBC TV

Summers seemingly getting another shot over a better-qualified woman, despite his well-documented liabilities, said a lot about who gets a second (and third and fourth) chance. But not this time.

Then-US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Larry Summers talk before President Barack Obama signs the middle-class tax cut bill in the South Court Auditorium December 17, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Olivier Douliery/Pool/Getty Images)

Larry Summers’ days of failing upward in public life are over. That, at least, is the working conclusion from the Obama economic adviser’s withdrawal Sunday from the bizarrely public race for chair of the Federal Reserve. Now there’s one fewer impediment for Obama to nominate the highly qualified, economically prescient and well-liked Janet Yellen—who would be the first female Fed chair.

There is a karmic justice to this. The word “mansplaining” has been overused lately. But there is no other word for what Larry Summers did in 2005, when he went before a group of scientists—many who conduct research on the under-representation of women and minorities in science—and arrogantly held forth about how genes and divided commitments, rather than discrimination or socialization, were most likely to blame for gender disparity in the field. (The full remarks are worse in their presumptuous disdain than you’ve heard).

That day, Summers did not offer a hypothetical of a qualified woman being passed over for a promotion—but he could well have talked about a female vice-chair of an institution with a vacancy at the top, one who was called by the Washington Post “a careful and deliberate thinker who has been mostly right in her assessments over the tumultuous past six years,” and “a strong intellectual force within the Fed,” who was overlooked in favor of a guy trusted by the boss. What Summers did say was, “I think there’s a strong case for monitoring and making sure that searches are done very carefully and that there are enough people looking and watching that that pattern of choosing people like yourself is not allowed to take insidious effect.”

There were enough women’s and progressive groups looking and watching the Summers campaign for Fed chair, and they had the right Senators and several other members of Congress on their side, which clinched it. Some critics were suspicious of Summers’ legacy in blocking the regulation of derivatives, of his subsequent, lucrative coziness with banks and hedge funds. Others were furious that President Obama would favor a man with so many liabilities over a woman with so many measurable and vouched-for credentials.  “This is something that women have observed and experienced over and over again in our lives and in our work and it makes us cross-eyed with frustration,” NOW president Terry O’Neill told Buzzfeed. “You don’t slam the glass ceiling down on the head of a better qualified woman so that you can appoint some man who’s less qualified.”

Summers’ gender problem wasn’t just that he wasn’t a woman or that he had offended many women, but also that his more alienating qualities were so closely associated with male socialization: His lack of interest or awareness in others’ responses to him, his cold-eyed, hyper-empirical approach, his unflinching belief in his own rightness. (There are women who fit this description. But women are more often expected and taught to put others’ feelings before their own, to be collaborative, and to be likable.) That hurt his ability to do his job well. As Michael Hirsch put it in the National Journal,  “Summers has rarely shown enough humility to wonder whether his answer may not be the best one—an attitude that has led him to sideline opponents no matter the merit of their arguments.” As MSNBC’s Tim Noah pointed out, many of those opponents, and many of the seers of the financial crisis, happened to be women.

In other words, Summers was blatantly ill-suited to the delicate and collaborative role of Fed chair, for some of the same reasons he was forced out as president of Harvard. All of this made Obama’s testy defense of Summers, and his apparent willingness to spend scant political capital on his confirmation, even more perplexing. Not only did Yellen seemingly getting passed over strengthen suspicions that women have to be twice as good and work twice as hard, but Summers getting another shot despite his well-documented foibles said a lot about who gets a second (and third and fourth) chance.  It all added up: the New York Times recently reported that Obama, a man who was reelected in part on the strength of a gender gap, has failed to improve on Bill Clinton’s record of women in high-level positions despite twenty years of more women filling the pipeline.

Back in 2005, Summers declared, “I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong, because I would like nothing better than for these problems of [diversity] to be addressable simply by everybody understanding what they are, and working very hard to address them.” It looks like he got his wish in more ways than one.