Greece and Italy, desperate after their gridlocked political systems left them mired in debt and crisis, have both chosen technocratic economists — Lucas Papademos and Mario Monti, respectively — rather than politicians to lead new governments. Both can be described as professors: Monti has been president of Milan’s Bocconi University as well as a European commissioner and Papademos has been my colleague at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in the year since he finished his term as deputy governor of the European Central Bank (ECB).
Not long from now, both men will most likely provoke headlines such as the following: “Professors earn ‘A’ in economics, but flunk politics.” That will be unfair. It is not a lack of political ability that will stymie them, but rather a lack of political power.
Monti, despite strong -popular support for his technocratic government, does not have a parliamentary majority upon which he can rely. Meanwhile, former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has made it clear that he will not set aside his personal political interests for the good of the country.
Papademos has been dealt an even weaker hand. Despite his best efforts to insist on a term longer than three months and the ability to appoint some members of his Cabinet as conditions for accepting the position of prime minister, in the end he won neither demand.
The elevation of these two outstanding civil servants comes after a period when other academics have been squeezed out by the political process. In June, several well-qualified economists from emerging-market countries were passed over in the selection of a successor to Dominique Strauss-Kahn as managing director of the IMF.
In Germany, Axel Weber resigned as president of the Bundesbank and member of the Governing Council of the ECB in January, reportedly because his statements opposing the banks’ purchases of troubled eurozone countries’ bonds reflected his political naivety. The press could not imagine that a technocrat might voluntarily relinquish a sure shot at a position of great power — successor to Jean-Claude Trichet as ECB president — on a matter of principle.
However, that is precisely what Weber did. The willingness to give up power if necessary is one of the advantages that academics bring to such positions. (The ECB presidency then went to another economist and technocrat, Mario Draghi, who is, in fact, the perfect man for the job.)
It is a mistake to conflate technocratic elites (those with PhDs or other advanced economics degrees) with other kinds of elites (those with money or power, especially if they inherited one or the other). Most economists understood the downside risks of European monetary union. It was the politicians who underestimated the technical difficulties when they opted for monetary integration.
It goes without saying that academic or technical expertise is neither necessary nor sufficient to ensure government officials’ success. Indeed, many of my Harvard colleagues would make terrible policymakers, owing to a lack of leadership, managerial or other interpersonal skills. And many excellent political leaders — for example former US presidents George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower — have not been intellectuals.
Technocrats can play a useful role as honest brokers when traditional politicians have become discredited or parties are deadlocked. Moreover, they have the credibility that comes with a lack of desire to be re-elected, either because their term in office has been limited in advance or because they are known to prefer a quiet academic life.