Casual readers of the press might be put off by the fact that Larry Summers received $2.7 million last year just for giving speeches, including a $135,000 appearance at Goldman Sachs. Maybe they think he was being buttered up by companies whose business plan now consists of siphoning off taxpayer money by the tanker load. They shouldn’t jump to conclusions though.
I have it from a confidential source that Summers’ performance was worth every penny, and then some. What does a speaker have to do to earn four times the median full-time wage in a single night? You name it, Summers did it. “He was awesome, just awesome”, says Monique (not her real name). “You think you’re just getting an economist, but he was so much more than that—an artist, an entertainer and one of the greatest minds of the last 500 years.”
The first thing to realize is that Summers doesn’t just walk onto the stage like any other former college professor turned policy czar. Sure, he has a flashy PowerPoint, but “Inconvenient Truth” doesn’t begin to touch it. “It was like a stadium rock concert,” explained Monique, “with a light show and incredible special effects. I thought I would never be able to actually see the world economy, but there it was. In fact, with the 3-D glasses he handed out, you would swear you were actually in the world economy.” Unfortunately, near the end of the talk the complex circuitry behind the stage shorted out, and the world economy spectacle came to a sudden end. Cleanup crews had to work long into the night to gather up countries that had literally melted down as a result of a series of electrical fires. But the audience loved it, and even the crash-and-burn finale worked brilliantly as theater.
But lets talk about Larry himself. First of all, remember that he is not only an economist, but was president of Harvard University, often walking into classes with a bewildering array of subject matter—physics, archaeology, literary theory—and wowing students with his ability to lead a cutting-edge discussion that their professors could only envy. So don’t assume that Summers simply gave a speech about the economy. “I would call it performance art,” offered Monique. “He gave us poetry, music and insight into emerging economic trends. The highlight came when Larry, who had worked himself into a very funky rap groove, began rapping in tongues so that dozens of languages, some maybe going back to the stone age, were bouncing off the walls. People were going wild. And the amazing thing is that all of it had something to do with managing complexity in a flat world framework.”
For an encore, Summers fielded questions from the audience. Here he demonstrated his legendary capacity for passing quick judgment: he devised innovative business strategies on the fly, identified market niches that no one had noticed before in fifteen emerging economies and successfully predicted the contours of future government bailouts of the financial sector, right down to the tiniest loophole. “He changed my life,” Monique concluded. “It was his entertainment that opened me up and made me receptive, but the economic vision was irreplaceable. I thought I was maximizing wealth before I heard Larry, but I didn’t know the half of it.”
So the bottom line is that, at $135,000 for two hours, Larry was doing Goldman Sachs a big favor. He doesn’t owe them, they owe him.