Larry’s World: Professor Summers Teaches Policy Response to the Great Recession

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November 12, 2011; Source: Politico Playbook | The daily Politico Playbook is usually chock full of odd and sundry information about our nation’s current and former political leaders.  In Saturday’s playbook, there was a link to the Spring 2011 syllabus of the  “Crisis Economics: History and Evaluation of the Policy Response to the Great Recession” course at Harvard taught by Lawrence Summers—former President of Harvard University itself, former Secretary of the Treasury for President Bill Clinton, and former Director of the White House National Economic Council for President Barack Obama.  It’s a fabulous and challenging syllabus, well worth an audit, but something struck us about Summer’s reading list. 

In his analysis of responses to the Great Recession, none of the readings had an overtly or significantly nonprofit flavor.  OK, so you might say, that’s silly, why do you have to look for the “nonprofit” in everything and identify those things that don’t sound or feel nonprofit-y enough?  Point well taken, except that in the responses to the Great Recession, if we are to believe the press of the nonprofit and foundation sectors, nonprofits have been industrious and engaged in tackling elements of the Recession when other sectors hunkered down or put out their hands for TARP bailouts. 

It would be our analysis that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009—the “stimulus”—was extraordinarily successful as an anti-poverty instrument, preventing millions of people from sliding into poverty and providing a safety net for those who were hard hit by the recession.  The stimulus didn’t reverse unemployment and underemployment, in part because of the timid stimulus package pushed by the White House and Congressional Democrats, but its spending components constituted the largest anti-poverty program in the U.S. since President Johnson’s War on Poverty.  And to the extent that there were successes in the stimulus—anti-foreclosure and neighborhood redevelopment, community health, weatherization, day care and preschool, and other program elements—the bulk of the implementation of those components relied on the track records and skills of nonprofits such as community development corporations, community health centers, community action agencies, and others.  The role of nonprofits may be embedded in some of the Summers readings, but not particularly visibly. 

Take a look at the readings Summers is requiring of his students.  If you were teaching college students at your alma mater, what readings would you add that address the nonprofit role in the “policy response to the Great Recession.” –Rick Cohen