Larry Summers—former president of Harvard, chief economist of the World Bank, and Obama administration Treasury Secretary—took a road trip to the sticks.
Economists like me see the world through the prism of models... But there are other ways of gaining understanding about an economy and its workers. This was brought home to me last month when I accompanied my wife on a trip different to any I had ever taken. We drove 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.
If this were a bad movie scene, the former president of Harvard would now directly reference the concept of “flyover country.”
Driving across America, as opposed to looking down from a plane, makes clear how much of this vast country is uninhabited.
Larry Summers was born in America, and has lived here for 63 years.
Again and again, we encountered signs warning us to check our gas because it would be 50 miles to the next gas station. I’m sure there were moments when we were 250 miles from any place where I could have bought an iPhone charger. Often there was no mobile phone service either.
Larry Summers was the leader of what is considered the best institution of higher learning in the country.
The conversations we overheard hewed close to local matters. I have always taken it for granted that broadened opportunities for young people are a good thing and that disadvantaged parents would be among the greatest champions of that idea. Now I see more nuance.
Top adviser to multiple presidents. Architect of global financial deregulation. Larry Summers.
The phrase “way of life” is, I have come to think, an idea that those concerned with political economy could usefully ponder. It is fashionable to talk about business leaders and cosmopolitan elites who are more worried about the concerns of their conference mates in Davos than those of their fellow citizens in Detroit or Düsseldorf, Germany. They are blamed for provoking a backlash against globalisation. What I saw on my trip was how profoundly different ways of life are within the US. I began to understand, better than I had, those who live as their parents did in smaller communities closer to the land.
I like to imagine in him in a top hat and monocle, delivering this speech to a bored waitress at a Pizza Ranch in Altoona, Iowa.
The US is a remarkable place because it is an amalgam of remarkable places. Americans want to live in very different ways. Perhaps more appreciation of that on the part of those who lead our society could strengthen and unify our country at what is surely a complex and difficult moment in its history.
-Larry Summers, 63 years old, tasting American cheese for the first time.
Larry Summers, the Burger “King” is in not, in fact, an official monarch. Please make a note of it.