Lawrence Summers—formerly, among other things, the Secretary of the United States Treasury, president of Harvard University, and chief economist of the World Bank—went for a drive with his wife over the summer, a drive
for two weeks on two-lane roads from Chicago to Portland across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. The larger cities we passed through included Dubuque, Iowa, Cody, Wyoming and Bozeman, Montana.
It’s easy make fun of Summers’ account of the experience. The plodding banality of the writing (“Driving across America, as opposed to looking down from a plane, makes clear how much of this vast country is uninhabited”) gives a cruel glimpse into the mind of a man who considered himself too smart to listen to the Harvard faculty; he genuinely ends the piece by telling the reader, as writer Michael Caley flagged on Twitter, that in conclusion, America is a land of contrasts.
But it’s hard to enjoy the gag. Yes, Larry Summers is surprised by how big the middle of the country is, and how empty, and how uninterested people in the big empty middle are in uprooting themselves or their children in the hopes of becoming members of the meritocratic ruling class. He notices how they aren’t interested in the TV news cycle.
What distinguishes these observations isn’t that they betray Summers’ lack of firsthand experience with this part of America. It’s that they reveal his lack of even second- or thirdhand experience. I’ve never set foot on the ground anywhere between Dallas and Los Angeles, myself, but I know what people say about what’s there, and what they say about what people don’t know about what’s there.
Summers’ ignorance is such that he can’t even tell the difference, in Rumsfeldian terms, between known unknowns and unknown unknowns. How could anyone—let alone a high government official—not understand that people in the sparsely populated part of the country believe that city folk don’t understand how much their way of life matters to them?
“The phrase ‘way of life’ is, I have come to think, an idea that those concerned with political economy could usefully ponder,” Summers writes. He has come to think! More than a quarter-century after he gained power over the terms on which literally billions of people would have to live their lives, it has occurred to him, at last, that people may have their own opinions on the subject.