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University President Lawrence H. Summers brought the laws of supply and demand to the Memorial Church yesterday at the term’s first Morning Prayers.
Summers’ remarks came one year after his speech on anti-Semitism in the same forum made headlines across the country.
“I think it is fair to say it did not go unnoticed,” Summers quipped yesterday.
In that speech, Summers told the Morning Prayers audience that “profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities,” citing demands for the University to divest from Israel as one example.
This year, on the other hand, the former treasury secretary donned his professorial cap, urging the audience of roughly 100 to use economic analysis when examining the problems of the world.
Though yesterday’s topic of choice was more academic, it was not entirely uncontroversial.
Faculty have questioned whether Summers has the ability to put his economic methods aside in addressing University issues.
“By training and temperament, economists are intellectual imperialists,” Bass Professor of Government Michael J. Sandel told The New York Times Magazine this summer. “The question is whether Larry can rise above this prejudice and develop the broader intellectual sympathies he needs to be a great Harvard president.”
In yesterday’s remarks, Summers incorporated specific examples to illustrate the relevance of economic reasoning.
He noted that many people would argue that it is immoral to buy or import goods from people being paid less than a certain amount of money.
But Summers said that people must also question whether “narrowing the choices” of employment by not buying goods from the workers would truly be “an act of charity.”
He emphasized the need to remember the role of individual choice before voicing opposition to an action.
For example, he said, some people complain about the detrimental effects of Westernization of cultures.
“It disturbs us to imagine ‘Survivor’ being beamed to rural villages,” Summers said. “But if that is what people want, we need to be cautious about the ways in which we oppose.”
Summers said that altruistic desires should be saved for problems that economic methods fail to resolve.
“Economists think of altruism as a valuable and rare good that should be conserved and saved for family, friends and social problems that markets cannot solve,” he said.
—Staff writer Jenifer L. Steinhardt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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