Lawrence Summers is on a very short list of possible nominees for Secretary of Treasury. His selection has been complicated, however, by his destructive performance as president of Harvard University, a rocky term he finally sabotaged by revealing his opinion that women lack the mental aptitude to succeed in science.
But there is a lesser known episode in Summers’ past that further highlights his reckless tendencies, and foreshadows a politically nettlesome nomination process.
On December 12, 1991, while serving as chief economist for the World Bank, Summers authored a private memo arguing that the bank should actively encourage the dumping of toxic waste in developing countries, particularly “under populated countries in Africa,” which Summers described as “UNDER-polluted.” Summers added that public outrage over the heightened rates of prostate cancer caused by his proposed dumping would be mitigated by the fact that poor people in developing countries rarely live long enough to develop prostate cancer.
Read the full Summers memo here.
When the Summers memo leaked to the public in February 1992, Brazil’s Secretary of the Environment, Jose Lutzenburger, responded with an indignant missive. “Your reasoning is perfectly logical but totally insane,” Lutzenburger told Summers. “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… If the World Bank keeps you as vice president it will lose all credibility.”
If Obama nominates Summers, he will send a dispiriting message to governments of developing countries — especially in Africa — just as they have begun to look at the United States as a beacon of hope.
Back in the U.S., Summers’ nomination would prompt a reexamination by the media of the countless controversies he has fomented. Even an episode as tangential as Summers’ romantic fling with right-wing hatemonger Laura Ingraham could become a source of political embarrassment for the White House. Summers should be left to write his memoirs, not memos.