Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers didn’t exactly bite the hand feeding him on Thursday, but in an appearance at The Atlantic’s “Summit on the Economy” in Washington, he certainly gave his host a bit of a nip.
Asked about the increased role of money in U.S. elections, Summers warned of what he sees as a more insidious threat to public discourse, something he referred to as the “shadow civil society.”
Summers, who ran the Treasury Department under President Bill Clinton and served as director of President Obama’s National Economic Council, said that, like it or not, money has always bought influence n political campaigns. He said he worries more about money buying credibility in national conversations about important issues.
Wealthy individuals, he said, are increasingly using their money to “gain respect, to gain hearing of their views through prominent journalistic institutions or prominent think tanks. I think those things do raise questions.”
Lost on nobody was the fact that Summers was speaking at a “Summit on the Economy” hosted by Atlantic Media and underwritten by Koch Industries, the business empire of the libertarian Koch brothers, who have very strong political views that they support with large donations and sponsorships.
He said that when media outlets team with outside sponsors, or think tanks accept gifts from corporate sponsors, it creates the impression – if not the actual proof – of bias. Atlantic Media’s properties include the magazines The Atlantic and National Journal and the business website Quartz.
“I don’t know what to do,” he confessed. “I believe in the First Amendment…but I think that if universities, publications and think tanks reflected more fully on all of this it would be a good thing.”
Summers said that during his tumultuous tenure as president of Harvard, he had ruffled feathers by raising similar concerns.
“I resisted the university taking a number of gifts or accepting a number of sources of funding where I thought that, on balance, the university’s reputation was being arrogated for the benefit of a particular financial interest,” he said.
“If I can presume to make a suggestion to our hosts and others,” Summers said, referring to The Atlantic, “I’d like to see a bit more effort to allow institutions that represent the middle class but don’t have the resources to be sponsors, to nonetheless be provided sponsorship opportunities or forums of various kinds so as to create greater balance in public dialogue.”
Moderator David Leonhardt of The New York Times jokingly asked if Summers was proposing “sponsorship scholarships.”
“That would be one way of thinking about it,” Summers said drily.
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