Summers’ Law of sartorial signaling

Larry Summers on jackets and ties: who says social scientists have discovered no infallible laws?

Social scientists are often slammed for not having discovered any infallible laws. That’s not fair; there are a few.

Economists disagree on many propositions, and some of the propositions they agree on are false. Still, the Law of Demand and Gresham’s Law hold up pretty well.

In political science, there is of course Sabl’s Law of political rhetoric: “No argument can succeed in American politics if it contains a subjunctive.”  I submit that the debate over the effects of fiscal stimulus, not to mention negotiations over the debt limit, represent simple corollaries to this law.

I now find that Larry Summers, asked about his meeting with the Winklevoss twins (portrayed in The Social Network), has articulated a new infallible law and applied it to good effect:

One of the things you learn as a college president is that if an undergraduate is wearing a tie and jacket on Thursday afternoon at three o’clock, there are two possibilities. One is that they’re looking for a job and have an interview; the other is that they are an a**hole. This was the latter case.

(h/t: Daniel Luzer via Gawker).

Update: I corrected the spelling of “Winklevoss.”

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

9 thoughts on “Summers’ Law of sartorial signaling”

  1. Shouldn’t Sabl’s Law rather be stated “Were an argument to succeed in American politics, it would not contain a subjunctive”? Or something like that.

  2. QB: While formally equivalent, your version would be self-defeating: after all, I want my law to succeed in American politics.

  3. It probably takes one to see one and Summers confirms that hunch. OTOH as_holes like Summers probably also project a great deal, and assume others are as nasty as he is. That may well have been the case this time as ell.

    What a sorry contemptible excuse for a human being from his time at the World Bank till now.

  4. I find it shocking that a former president of a major American university would make that comment about his former charges. He had a duty of care towards all the students of Harvard University. (apologies for confusion: was he head of the university, or of Harvard College?)

    Even if true. Especially if true.

    Another block in the structure regarding Summers that he is arrogant, insensitive and undiplomatic. Unsuited to the role he took on.

  5. Summers is great on the one-liners: Greg Mankiw points to this Larry Summers comment on the Charlie Rose Show:

    Never forget, never forget, and I think it’s very important for Democrats especially to remember this, that if Hitler had not come along, Franklin Roosevelt would have left office in 1941 with an unemployment rate in excess of 15 percent and an economic recovery strategy that had basically failed.

    That’s almost a two-liner, but still…

  6. “Never forget, never forget, and I think it’s very important for Democrats especially to remember this, that if Hitler had not come along, Franklin Roosevelt would have left office in 1941 with an unemployment rate in excess of 15 percent and an economic recovery strategy that had basically failed.”

    If there’s one more iron law of economics, it’s that right-wing econoomists are incapable of looking at history, and seeing what actually happened (Krugman recently blasted Boskin for this). This, of course, applies to both Mankiw and Summers.

    Look at a chart and see how things were when FDR took office.

  7. Why would FDR “have left office in 1941”? The election was in 1940, and FDR won handily, despite an unemployment rate of around 15%. The US didn’t enter the war until more than a year later.

  8. Thanks, Dave. Showing again that historians should freely flog right-wing economists. And by ‘flog’, I don’t mean verbally.

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