Lawrence H. Summers Remarks, March 30, 2011
I thought what I would do, actually, is something a little different than maybe some of your speakers have done. I’m going to be very brief, and I’m happy to talk about any economic or public policy question, or question about higher education that interests anybody here. But what I thought I would do is just offer a few observations on things I have learned since the time when I was a young global leader in this program about 20 years ago, things I’ve learned from things I’ve done right, and things I’ve learned from things I’ve done wrong.
Observation one. Only a very few things will matter. One of the features of aggressive, ambitious personalities – and that’s probably what makes most of you part of this group – is that you want to touch as many things as you can. You want to have as broad an influence as you can, and you want to stick your finger in many, many different pies. In fact, it ends up being that very few things matter importantly. I served as the international affairs person for the Treasury throughout President Clinton’s first term. The only thing that really, in the end, was hugely important was that we bailed out Mexico on a large scale, at a moment when that was a historically implausible thing to do, got the money back, and rescued Mexico, so it was a substantial success.1
But all of the important decisions were taken in a six-week period. But that six week period was defining of my multi-year experience. That doesn’t mean that I could have afforded to have done nothing during the other time, but it does mean that, at that moment, all my mental energy was usefully devoted to that problem, that that needed to be a priority, that completing that task successfully was one that is of enormous importance.
It’s an observation that scholars of marketing have made about people who shop, that people will work just as hard to save 10% when they’re purchasing a tennis racket as they will to save 5% when they’re purchasing a car, even though 5% of a car is infinitely more important than 10% of a tennis racket, in financial terms.2 Figuring out what is really important, and what is ephemeral, is one of the most important things that one can do to try to succeed.
And a very good test in life to use towards that objective is to project yourself forward into the future, and to ask, will I care about this a year from now? Will I care about this three years from now? Will I care about this five years from now? And it provides a very useful perspective. Most of the time, it causes you to think that whatever you’re aggravated about at the moment isn’t very important. Every once in a while, when there’s a once-in-a-lifetime position that’s come up, that you thought you had a chance of getting and you don’t get, this type of perspective can make you feel worse rather than better. But it’s a step towards thinking more clearly, and I think it’s something that is very, very important.
The second observation that I’d make is that a pretty substantial fraction of the time, the most important decisions that you make will be the negative decisions that you make. There were several moments during the Clinton administration, when I had been there for awhile in a sub-cabinet position, when I had been through the Mexican thing, which was enormously important and exciting, or it felt so to me, when nothing of comparable importance and excitement was under way, when I was offered very attractive positions, and was sorely tempted to take them. But on balance, I felt that while I couldn’t see exactly what was going to happen, the opportunities that were likely to come with senior government service that were not likely to come again – was, on balance, the better thing.
I would not have had the opportunities I’ve had to be Secretary of the Treasury, to serve as Harvard’s President, serve as the President’s Chief Economic Advisor, if I had accepted the positions for which I was sorely tempted to take at those points during the Clinton administration. Most of the people in this room will have a lot of opportunities to do a lot of different things. It is easy to have opportunities, be excited, and say yes. It is actually harder to say no to tempting opportunities, and it is a very important part of having succeeded.
One of the things you will be struck by, if you actually study the lifetime careers of successful people, is that while they are summarized in little descriptions, if you actually look hard at their careers, there are years and years when nothing actually hugely important and consequential, that somebody would mention in an introduction or an obituary, came up. And yet, those were part of the career, and those were part of preparing for the career. And so, particularly as you go from being a young global leader to being a global leader, you have to get used to the fact that not every year’s going to be the most exciting year of your career. It can’t be that way, and not every year is going to be more exciting than the last year. And sometimes what you have to do is ride along with where you are, and it’s something that people often have difficulty doing. But it is actually integral to success.
I would say a third thing that I think is enormously important is – and is also part of the transition from being a young global leader to being a global leader – is paying attention to those who are more junior to you. You are at the stage in your career where the most important relationships you have had have been with those who are either parallel to you or those who are senior to you. Over time, that situation will change and evolve. I think of all the influence that I’ve been able to have, not an insubstantial portion of it has been through people who I was able to work with and mentor who were younger than me, people like Tim Geithner, the current Treasury Secretary, people like Sheryl Sandberg, who I think is one of your number, who is running Facebook, and others.
You are missing a chance to have important influence on the world, and you are missing a chance to secure the kinds of legacy for yourself that you want, if you are not substantially investing in the careers of people who are following behind you, as well as trying to do a very good job for those who are older and more senior than yourself.
Fourth is the last one. Know what you think, and know what you want to do, but have a clear-eyed view of it. My observation in life is that people who maximize their potential, and maximize what they’re able to contribute, are able to have a clear idea of what they want to do. They know what they think about whatever issue they’re working on, they know what the vision is for whatever product they want to create, they know what policy they want to advocate. That’s one part of it. And the other part of it is if you ask them, what are the three biggest problems with the product they’re trying to create, or what are the three biggest problems with the policy that you’re trying to advocate, they’re able to give you a strong and persuasive answer to the question. And I have learned over time that whenever anybody advises me to do X, and I say, what are the best arguments against doing X? And they say, there aren’t any good ones, it’s obvious that you should do X, then that is advice I should entirely dismiss.
And I’ve also learned over time that I am unlikely to be well helped by those who, when I say, well, what should I do now? Say, well, if I were you, what you need to do is think about X. There are a lot of things I’ve got to think about. Well, I’d consider Y. Well, you really need to take account of Z. Yeah, I got all that. But could you please tell me – here’s my telephone, here’s my computer, here’s my network of people, here’s the position I hold. What would you advise me to do? The ability to answer that question in a concrete and direct way turns out to be enormously important. And so cultivating the skill of having a view, a clear answer to the question, what is to be done, but at the same time a recognition that you can’t be certain that your answer is right, that conditions may change and they may cause your answer to be wrong, and an awareness of the uncertainties, is a very crucial part of succeeding.
I think if you look at people who are able to know what they want to do, but able to see it in an objective fashion, who are able to develop and work with a network of people who they’re able to teach to share their vision, who are able to persevere in the face of temptation, and who are able to set and maintain a priority and a focus, rather than being tempted by all the important and exciting people, those are the people who ultimately have the largest and greatest influence on the world. And so those would be my bits of advice to you.
Just to be provocative, I will in conclusion share these views. The U.S. recovery is likely to persist, not at an especially rapid rate, but it is clearly likely to persist. The European financial situation is seen as bad, and is in fact worse that it is seen as being. The Japanese earthquake will be a substantial event, but will be a less substantial event when viewed historically 10 years from now than it is viewed today. The defining story, when the history of our time is written 150 years from now, will be the rise of Asia, and how that rise plays out with the prospects for very great opportunity or for very, very great risk. That the developments that will be enormously important also will be the changes in technology. That when it has not yet been the case, but that when somebody looks back 75 years from now, changes in life science technology, in medical, in health, in medical things, in the capacity to augment human capacities, will have been as significant or more significant than changes in information technology for the way in which society functions. And that the struggle is going to be to maintain the broad legitimacy of institutions in a world where there are so many forces pulling in so many directions. Let me stop there. I’m happy to respond to anybody on anything.
M: Dr. Summers, thank you for addressing us, and for your time.
My question is about mentorship. You mentioned –
SUMMERS: You were going to introduce yourself.
M: Oh, I’m the other Sanjay Gupta. (laughter) You talked about mentorship, and this is something important even my life, and I was wondering if you could expand more on your thoughts about it, thoughts on what the proper role of a mentor is, who are some of the key mentors you’ve had in your life and how they shaped your career?
SUMMERS: The two people who had the greatest influence on my career were Marty Feldstein, a professor here who was my thesis advisor and teacher in graduate school, and showed me the how, and sort of inspired me in the broad concept that one could apply the scientific method of mathematical and analytical techniques to economic questions and policy questions in a way that was relevant for policy debate, and who showed me how one could do that by carrying on research in a way that was rigorous, but at the same time was very relevant to policy concerns.
And Bob Rubin, who I was privileged to get to know relatively early in life, but to work with closely at the Treasury Department for a number of years, from whom I learned a great deal about leadership and management. Leadership and management came sort of naturally to Bob. It didn’t come equally naturally to me. More analytic things came more naturally to me. But I wanted to learn, and so by watching what he did, trying to understand consciously things he did unconsciously, I found I was able to learn a great deal about leadership. Both liked what they did, or cared about what they did, and were generous of spirit towards others. And so being probably the most important two attributes in a mentor are a willingness to be a little bit self-conscious about what you do and what you do well, and to think about why you do the things you did, how you do the things you did, and what the reasons are for the choices that you make. And I have found in life often the need to explain something to somebody else causes me to understand better why I’m making the decisions that I’m making. So a willingness to reflect on how you’re functioning, and being of generous spirit, and not feeling competitive with those that you work with are all important.
Bob always had the view, when he was Secretary of the Treasury, that anything he didn’t need to do, he needed not to do. And so if there was a speech that needed to be given, if there was a reporter that needed to be talked to, something that somebody else could do and it would be equally effective for the department, that was better, not worse. I think many of us have a more natural tendency to suppose that we really like doing what we do, and we’re good at what we do, so we’ll do as much as we possibly can. And that’s often good in the short run, but it’s usually less healthy for an organization.
M: I’ve been with the World Bank for the past 12 years. We met in Davos. I’m Originally from China. You mentioned in the last part of your opening speech, about the rise of Asia as one of the central themes, but I actually have a question about the U.S. I think the perception out there in the international stage about the U.S. is that, in addition to a lot of very specific problems, in terms of economic problems, political problems, I think the central problem is a lack of direction. I was talking to Chairman Lou Jiwei from CIC a few months ago. He said his largest
frustration is whenever he meets with policymakers in Washington, they gave him a different story about how this country’s going to go forward. And it’s very
different from China, right?
So look at the Chinese case, a lot of problems, but there is a general consensus about where the economy is moving, in terms of domestic consumption needs to go up, in terms of coastal area economy moving inland, in terms of urbanization. There is consensus about where the country is going. The difference is how do you get – the U.S. is like, there’s no agreement. That’s really an issue, is it not? Is there – I just don’t know what’s your view. Do you think that that sort of a status quo lack of direction is going to persist because of the nature of the political system, or do you think at some point, people will rally behind some general direction? Thank you.
SUMMERS: I think it’s a thoughtful and a very deep question. I’m not sure I fully accept its premise. Its premise is that having a direction is good, and I guess if you made a list of positive adjectives and negative adjectives, aimless isn’t usually an example of a positive adjective. And that sort of makes your point.
On the other hand, having a direction, having a clearly set direction and being relatively true to your direction, is really terrific if it’s the right direction. It’s really not actually terrific if it’s the wrong direction. There are probably people here who know more about the history of entrepreneurial successes, but what is striking about the history of entrepreneurial successes is how often the companies morphed in very large ways from what was their initial concept of their mission, and I think it is one of the great strengths of the United States that it has a kind of resilience. And that resilience is related to just what Lou Jiwei was condemning – the fact that it was less of a top-down society, the fact that there’s less coherence and cohesiveness on a single direction.
John Kennedy died believing that Russia would surpass the United States economically by 1985.3 And the reason he thought that was Russia had a higher investment rate, Russia had more engineers, Russia had fewer lawyers. Russia had more of a clear national purpose and a national strategy that was tied around technology. Russia was less focused on consumer frippery, automobile model changes and the like, and was a more disciplined society with a more disciplined educational system. For those reasons, it historically had faster growth. It had a clearer sense of national direction, and it would surpass the United States.4 That was widely believed in the United States in the early 1960s.
It was – if the young global leaders had come to the Kennedy School in 1990 and they had spent 10 days here, I promise you that at least eight people would have told them that the Cold War was over and Japan and Germany had won, and the United States had lost, because those were economies committed to investment, determined to succeed, with national strategies focused on developing the industries of the future.5 And yet, the more entrepreneurial United States, where guys with sweatshirts were starting companies and stuff like that, turned out to be more effective, and the United States boomed in the ’90s and actually pulled away from those countries.6
And I think something like that is probably relevant today. That doesn’t mean that the concerns are unwarranted. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t important respects in which the United States needs to pull up its socks. But I think the desire for national direction is a somewhat problematic concept in the modern world, because it raises questions about resilience, adaptiveness, and ability to do that. In the information technology space, the French had a terrific national direction in termsof Minitel.7 Didn’t actually work out that great relative to the Internet. There was a huge movement that felt that, 20 years ago, the United States needed to be in high- definition TV, that that was really the source of direction. Didn’t really work out that great for those who pursued those investments.8
So I would be very mindful of our flaws, but I wonder whether, when somebody looks back 25 years from now, is the problem going to be that the United States did not have enough direction in 2010, or is the problem going to be that China was insufficiently adaptive to the challenges created by its own growth and by a changing world.
DRUMMOND: Jamie Drummond of the advocacy group ONE. And from the point of view of being the seniormost policymaker in your field globally, what are the characteristics – what were characteristics of most good advocacy versus bad advocacy, and are there things that you wish there were people focusing on and advocating for that you do not see, and you wish there were people stepping up and focusing on, that you think groups like us should be focusing on that we may not be?
SUMMERS: I’ll give you my answer, but I may be an unusual customer for advocacy, so I wouldn’t necessarily, if I were you, give too much weight to my opinion– so the answer I’m going to give you is entirely faithful to what I think, but I’m not 100% certain I’d follow the advice if I were you.
It’s an observation in financial markets that anything that everybody knows is already reflected in the price.9 And the only thing that moves the financial market is something that’s unexpected. Well, and the same thing is, roughly speaking, true of the recipients of advocacy. So I’m the Secretary of the Treasury, I’m the President’s economic advisor, I’m sitting in my office, and somebody comes to see me. I’ve done this for a while, and most people who are doing it have done this for a while. So the steel industry comes and explains that the steel industry is important, and favors more support for the steel industry. This is really unlikely to change anybody’s mind. It was kind of expected. Anti-poverty group comes, says there’s a lot of poverty in the world, urges more efforts to combat global poverty, says that global poverty is a big problem, and even in difficult budget environments, is so big a problem that funds ought to be found for it, but doesn’t know how to find the funds. This is not news.
And so I would say the number one attribute of effective advocacy is something that is communicated to the person being advocated to that the person being advocated to would not have expected, would not have already known, and would not have expected to learn in the 20-minute meeting. And most of the time – I was always surprised by the fraction of the people who would come to my office and wouldn’t know this rule. And I would often try – mostly it served to irritate them – but I would often try to get there. I would say, let me stipulate that. And I would do, for whatever their sphere was, the equivalent of the thing they said. I would do it in three minutes. And then I would say, so let’s stipulate all those things, and I believe very much all those things. What else can you tell me? Or what do you think we should do? Or why do you think, given the force of your argument, this isn’t already happening? And I found most people would only go back to their thing. So with respect to advocacy, if you ever want to advocate something, tell the person you’re advocating to something they didn’t know before- this is the way to be effective.
I would say that the other part of being an effective advocate is it’s about them, not about you. Good advocates come and tell the President of Harvard why it would be good for Harvard to do X, not why X is good, and therefore Harvard should be part of it. And so advocacy that is attached to the person that is being advocated for is, I think, very important. If I look at the world, I think the things that are under- advocated are the things that don’t have natural constituencies. So producers have natural constituencies, consumers don’t have natural constituencies, so there’s too little advocacy for free trade, because the beneficiaries of protection know who they are, the beneficiaries of non-protection don’t know who they are. The beneficiaries of subsidies for a particular production know who they are.
The beneficiaries of more rapid progress in basic science don’t know who they are. So I would say the category of the unadvocated are those with desirable ideas but with a diffused constituency. Precisely because it’s difficult to mobilize funds for people who don’t know who they are, it’s difficult to mobilize excitement for people who don’t know who they are. So I would think of the task of finding subjects to advocate heavily around things that don’t have a natural constituency.
F: I see four more people, is that correct? These are going to have to be our four last questions. Thank you.
LISA: I’m curious about your thoughts about radical thinking. A lot of the approach to solving problems hinges on incremental change. Yet, do you think that the world is doing – and when I say radical, I don’t mean like violently radical, I just mean taking problems and flipping them upside down- is there enough radical thinking going on in government? Is there enough radical thinking going on in business and in nonprofits? Are we sort of sticking into the buckets that we know, and if we are, what are we missing?
SUMMERS: I’m not sure I know how to answer that question, but it’s a very good question, and I’m not sure I know, Lisa, how to answer it in the abstract. I think my basic view would be that the world probably does too few experiments, and probably – but probably doesn’t do too few lurches. So what I mean by that is this- take an idea that – I don’t know how it’s actually playing out, but there’s a professor here who is interested in the idea of basically, you’re a nine-year-old, you read a book, we’ll give you $2. So basically paying people to read. You know, the idea was, paying kids $100 a year to get them to read 50 books- it seems awfully economic in a world where school budgets are $17,000, and if you can make it work, it’s really a tremendous thing. There are a million other people who thought it was offensive, undermining values of loving to learn, and so forth.
My reaction to an idea like that was, you shouldn’t decide whether it’s a good idea or a bad idea. You should do an experiment somewhere, and see whether it works or not. I personally am no fan of school vouchers. I was appalled by the Clinton administration policy of violently opposing the experiment with school vouchers in Washington DC, not because I thought school vouchers were a good idea, but I thought one should see whether radical ideas were good ones. And that since there’s disposal of bad ideas, more ideas are good, and if you do a bunch of experiments that have a one in 60 chance of working, occasionally they’ll work, and the ones that work can be spread. So I think finding ways to do more experiments with apparently flaky ideas is something we as a society should work to encourage.
Conversely, I think that things have unintended consequences, and so radical policies that people propose to implement nationwide are almost certainly bad ideas. So whenever somebody comes and says, we did one pilot in one place with 62 people, and we should extrapolate the study to have a new national jobs program, my reaction is, well, let’s try it in more cities and see what happens. So more experimentation with radical ideas, but slowness in the world moving to adopt radical ideas on a large scale, would be the kind of vision that I would favor. So it’s a more mixed story.
JAY: Hi, my name’s Jay. I’m interested in your reflections on the financial crisis, and many people believe that the banks were good at privatizing their profits and socializing their losses. And obviously, you have to stop the economy from going over the edge, but looking back, is there any way that you think the U.S. administration could have privatized a bit more of the losses somehow?
SUMMERS: Battlefield medicine’s never perfect, and there’s unintended victims in war, and there are unintended beneficiaries in bailouts. I think, in the fullness of it all, the response to the crisis was pretty well managed, which doesn’t mean there aren’t some respects in which it could be improved.
One of the systematic errors that I believe people make, and that is very frequently made in looking at governments and in looking at other large organizations, is to confuse malevolence and incompetence. I know something about the management histories of a number of the major financial institutions. If you want to accuse some of the CEOs, some of those fairly senior positions, of fairly extreme stupidity, I would not attempt to make a defense. If you want to express surprise that they could have been as oblivious to risks that their organizations were running, I wouldn’t fight you. If you expressed puzzlement that they were as telescopic in their vision, without using a wide-angle lens in a complicated world, that would not be a proposition that I would fight.
But if you think that the guys who ran Lehman Brothers, who had 90% of their stock in Lehman Brothers, somehow were taking risk because they figured that the government would bail them out, and that it would sort of be OK if they failed, I don’t believe that for a minute.10 I don’t believe it for a minute. And yeah, you can say that, were they allowed to take more risk – a better argument would be that they were allowed to take more risk than they otherwise would have because the people who lent them money lent them money to a higher leverage rate, because they thought they would be bailed out. Maybe to some limited extent.
But do I believe that the guys who built the nuclear power plant in Japan were thinking, well, there is going to be government bailouts and the government’ll take care of it if the earthquake hits? That’s a way to understand that problem, that they were just – had their incentives to be cautious dulled by the fact that the government would help take care of it after the earthquake? Or is the right way to think about it that they sort of felt impervious, and there hadn’t been an earthquake for a long time, and there probably wouldn’t be an earthquake? I think it’s much more the second.
So I personally think that it is very easy to overdo the risks, overdo the moral hazard aspects in thinking about this relative to underrating the incompetence. If you own Citigroup stock today, you could make some set of arguments that it would have been better if Citigroup shareholders had lost 100% of their money, but they did lose 96% of their money, and maybe it was an important difference between 96 and 100, but I suspect that nobody’s thinking, well, it’ll be kind of OK to kind of have another financial disaster, because the government’ll come in and bail it out.11
So I don’t think that the failure to privatize losses sufficiently is an important part of the cause of excessive risk-taking. I think there’s been enough pain and suffering that nobody’s going to knowingly take big risks for the next 25 years, and I think whatever we do now, nobody’s going to remember it 40 years from now, so we don’t have a big opportunity to address that.
Would it have been better ex post to have inflicted some more pain around the financial sector? You can make that argument. It certainly would have been fairer. It certainly would have been more just. But I guess my reaction to that is, it’s a little bit like when my wife and I bought our house. We bought our house – my wife loved the house, just loved the house “we’ve got to buy this house, Larry, there’s no question, we’ve got to buy this house.” There’s a bidding process, we’re negotiating with the seller. We bid X, the seller says yes, we get the house, and we turned to each other and said, damn it, we probably could have gotten it 5% cheaper if we had just held on longer.
It is very easy to say right now that we could have inflicted more pain and still had a successful restoration of confidence and all of that, but you really wouldn’t have wanted to take the chance of being wrong. I would rather put more emphasis on raising capital and reducing leverage to reduce the brittleness of the financial system than to put the primary emphasis on a change in the terms of bailouts.
I think that the problem with the simple intuition versus the actual reality of financial crisis is, the story is always about an individual institution that takes risks, and gets itself in trouble, and the incentives for risk-taking by an individual institution. But in fact, if you look at all the failures, none of the failures take that form. None of the failures are ever because an institution is sitting in the midst of a tranquil sea taking too much risks. It’s either because they screw up with internal controls like Drexel Burnham, and do illegal things or something like that, or it’s because the whole system has a crisis at once.12 And neither of those problems is hugely well addressed with a lot of this privatizing the losses stuff. That’s why I’m for it, but I wouldn’t put my primary emphasis on it.
M: I’m from South Africa. On the way over here I watched the movie The Social Network. I assume you’ve seen it. My question is, was its portrayal of you accurate? (laughter)
SUMMERS: I had a feeling that one might come up. (laughter) How many people have seen the movie? I’m told that the Winklevii were quoted as saying that the movie was fairly accurate, except Larry Summers was not as nice to us in person.(laughter) On the one hand, I certainly did not tell anybody to punch me in the face, and the exact dialogue is wrong. On the other hand, the Winklevii did come swaggering in with singular arrogance, and I’ve read a few times that I can be arrogant, and (laughter) if that’s true, I surely was on that occasion. (applause) (laughter) I think there was nothing it portrayed, however, that was not something that actually happened at Harvard, but I think it was rather selective in its portrayal of Harvard. And I might also say, as somebody who knows Mark Zuckerberg pretty well, he is a significantly sunnier and more pleasant figure than is suggested by that movie.
M: I have two questions. The first question is, as much as everybody’s talking around the world about the rise of Asia, and China and India, I do believe the rise of Asia could be predicated on the success of the United States. What I do worry about, in the United States, is the fact that, given the shift in manufacturing to China and India, given the shift in innovation that’s happening, and given the unemployment rates in the United States- can the United States rise again?
The second question I have is that from the success the last few years in India, there’s also a dark side to it that’s coming out right now in terms of scams and corruption, etc. I’d like to get your perspective on what you feel a country that’s in that kind of environment right now- on the one hand we’re doing very well, on the other hand, there is a bit of a dark side- what should we be doing about it?
SUMMERS: These are very good questions, and you guys are giving me a lot to think about. I’m trying to think about – here’s my guess. My guess is that if you study all countries, and you study their rise, you will discover that they sort of go through three stages. They were invisibly corrupt, but you didn’t see the corruption, it didn’t get reported in the papers, people weren’t real angry about the corruption, and it was just part of life. Then there’s a second stage, which is everybody’s really angry and upset about corruption, which is when the corruption becomes visible
and observed, and that’s when anger at corruption is at a maximum. But actually, by the time you reach that point, the peak of corruption has actually already passed by some significant margin. And then there’s a third stage, which is, there’s a relatively vigilant press, and a general relaxation of controls, and corruption goes down.
One of the things that people never talk about when they talk about corruption is, if you have a price control, then there’s a black market, and there’s a white market, and there are two different prices.13 And stuff can be moved between them, and therefore, there’s corruption. If you have capital controls, then there’s underinvoicing to move money out of the country – or overinvoicing – to move money out of the country, and then there’s corruption.14 If you don’t have price controls, and you don’t have capital controls, then you can’t have the corruption.
So I think, if you look at the development of most societies, you’ll find that there are three stages, and you’ll find that there’s the highest degree of agitation over the issue when you’re in the second stage, even though the worst of the issue was when you were in the first stage. So if I looked at how the Congress Party won elections in Nehru’s time, or in Indira Gandhi’s time, how licenses were awarded in the License Raj, what the capacity of civil servants to get privileged access to education for their kids, who had particular aspect – particular abilities to get their kids into the right schools, who was able to take money out in order to travel in India- it would take a lot of work to convince me that, in any meaningful sense, there was more corruption in India today than there was 25 years ago.
What is the answer? The answer, I think, is outrage, transparency, and removal of opportunity. And I think things are, in general, moving in that kind of direction. An important aspect of this that I don’t really fully understand, and don’t really know how much it’s moving, but where I’ve heard – less relevant to India, but is more relevant to corruption in some other context – is I think that it is considerably more difficult to be a deposed leader with a billion dollars abroad, and keep the billion dollars abroad, in 2011 than it was in 2002.15 And if that’s right, that’s not a small thing, in terms of how the world will evolve. It’s not, by the way, a completely uncomplicated thing, because if you actually want to depose bad-guy leaders, you probably do need to give them landings that are acceptable if you don’t want them to hold on absolutely until the last gasp. But that is an area where there has really been some quite important change. Again, I don’t think that’s as relevant in India as it is in some other countries.
Your other question was about the United States. Sort of for the reasons that I said in answer to somebody else’s – to your question, I think I’m more optimistic about the American future than many other people who follow it. I am less certain that wealth in the 21st century is going to reside in manufacturing prowess than many other people are. If you look in the United States right now, about 5% of the jobs are production work and manufacturing.16 The statistic that’s widely quoted is double that, but that includes all the secretaries, that includes all the people who handle advertising and finance. If you look at the number of people who are actually on factory floors producing things, you’re in the range of the fraction of people who were farmers a generation ago.17
And so – and I suspect that what’s going to happen over the next 20 years is you’re going to see some return of manufacturing to the United States, and the reason you’re going to see some return of manufacturing to the United States is that, if it’s all done by robots anyway, it doesn’t really matter whether wage rates are lower in China or India than they are in the United States. So the strategy that is based on industrialization for job creation, I don’t believe, is real. Industrialization may happen, but I’m not sure how much wealth creation is going to happen out of the industrialization that can happen.
I think that the wealth creation is going to come more from acts of creation and innovation. And I think the question is going to be how do you cause the wealth creation that comes from acts of creation to be sufficiently widely distributed, since acts of creation are likely to be – have a high fraction of them done by a relatively limited share of individuals.
F: Thank you so much, Larry. (applause)
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