Some have claimed that Larry Summers is a bit of a philistine where the arts are concerned.
He is an economist by training, his focus is on science and he is far more likely to quote Rawls than Shakespeare.
But if the muse doesn’t sing within him, at least it sings about him.
A controversial memo on toxic industries that Summers signed over a decade ago has now been immortalized into song by a Yale music professor. The piece, a chamber work written to accompany the text of the memo, premieres in the Boston area this Saturday.
In the memo, Summers—then chief economist at the World Bank—outlined three reasons why it might be economically logical for the World Bank to encourage more polluting industries in the third world.
During the 10 minute piece, called “Mortaging the Earth,” two sopranos sing the parts of Summers and former Brazilian Secretary of the Environment Jose Lutzenberger, who criticized the memo in a letter to Summers.
The composer, John Halle, is also a New Haven alderman representing the Green Party. He is no fan of Summers the economist, Summers the president, or Summers the man.
Halle said he intended the piece to debunk the “belief among those of Summers’ ilk that markets are the cure-all for everything.”
Summers has repeatedly apologized for the memo, saying that it was taken out of context. It is unclear whether he even wrote it—reports have surfaced that he in fact simply signed a memo written by a subordinate.
But it has tailed him ever since it was leaked to the Economist in 1992.
Harvard student activists attacked him for it when he was named president in 2001, and he was most recently questioned about it at a Harvard Law School conference on race three weeks ago.
“That was a memo that was leaked in a rather out of context way at the time, which I subsequently very vigorously repudiated,” Summers said then. “Obviously no sane or moral person is in favor of more pollution.”
But Halle, who will give a speech this Saturday before the concert, said he doesn’t consider Summers’ “subsequent interpretations” an apology.
“His apologies are sort of similar to the apologies of Jerry Falwell for the statement that the attacks of Sept. 11 were caused by the rampant immorality of the American population,” Halle said. “What Summers says quite literally in his response to Lutzenberger is that we don’t understand the context properly, so therefore we don’t understand what he is saying.”
After the memo was leaked to the Economist, Lutzenberger wrote Summers, “Your reasoning is perfectly logical but totally insane...Your thoughts [provide] a concrete example of the unbelievable alienation, reductionist thinking, social ruthlessness and the arrogant ignorance of many conventional ‘economists’ concerning the nature of the world we live in.”
Halle said “Mortgaging the Earth” has played to audiences of between 150 and 200 people in New Haven and New York. It will premiere in San Francisco in December.
But Summers, who from time to time takes in student plays and concerts, said this musical engagement won’t make his busy Saturday night schedule.
“I’ll probably give it a miss,” Summers said.
If he changes his mind, however, he can always pick up the CD, which Halle said he hopes will be commercially available later this year.
Like Summers, Harvard environmentalists have no plans to take in the concert.
Stephen J. Quinlan ’04, the co-chair of Harvard’s Environmental Action Committee, said no one from the group was going to the premiere and that he was unaware of the piece’s existence.
As for the memo itself, Quinlan took Summers’ side.
“It’s taken out of context—Summers is pointing towards dangerous policy that could be ‘reasonable’ under some World Bank policies,” he wrote in an e-mail. “He is not positing it as his own philosophy, but rather something to watch out for because somebody at the World Bank could.”
The concert—which sandwiches Summers between Brahms and Haydn— will be held at 8 p.m. at the Follen Community Church in Lexington. Tickets are available at the door and are $10 for students.
From Summers’ Memo:
“...The costs of pollution are likely to be non-linear as the initial increments of pollution probably have very low cost. I’ve always though that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted, their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City. Only the lamentable facts that so much pollution is generated by non-tradable industries (transport, electrical generation) and that the unit transport costs of solid waste are so high prevent world welfare enhancing trade in air pollution and waste....”
—Staff writer Elisabeth S. Theodore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.