When Larry Summers was the President of Harvard, one day he opened Morning Prayer at Memorial Chapel with a few words on the theme of what “economics can contribute to thinking about moral questions.” In his talk he weighed economics’ predisposition to measure benefits assigned to individuals, and its assumption that the aggregate good is the sum of each individual’s good. He also addressed the conundrum of whether it is worthwhile to boycott goods produced in developing world sweatshops, when sweatshop work may provide the best economic opportunity for local workers. He diffused those who criticize the selfish, greedy nature of markets by saying, “We all have only so much altruism in us. Economists like me think of altruism as a valuable and rare good that needs conserving.”
Altruism is not blood. Blood flows through us but we must mete it out carefully since it can only be incrementally replenished. Altruism is in our blood. Altruism is a way of thinking about the world, and our place in it. It is an activity that nourishes us in a particular way; it satisfies and fulfills us but there is no limit to how much of it we can offer.
We are impoverished when a man of Larry Summer’s intellect and influence (Chief Economist at the World Bank (1990-1992), Secretary of the Treasury (under Bill Clinton 1999 – 2001), President of Harvard University (2001-2006), and Director of the National Economic Council (under Barack Obama 2009-2010)) has such a wrong-headed view of altruism and dismisses altruism’s possibilities. Money is important in this world, but it is not the only important thing in this world. The sooner that we put money is more reasoned perspective, the sooner we can make progress in the hard work of making this world a more just and equitable place for all.