The Technocrats' Time

The Hour of the Technocrats has arrived. In desperation from debt crises that their gridlocked political systems have created, Italy and Greece both in November chose new Prime Ministers who are technocratic economists rather than politicians: Mario Monti and Lucas Papademos, respectively. One can even describe them as professors: Monti has been president of the prestigious Bocconi University when not a European Commissioner in Brussels, and Papademos has been my colleague at Harvard Kennedy School in the year since he finished his term as Deputy Governor of the European Central Bank (even teaching a class I usually teach).

No doubt, whatever happens, pundits who evaluate their performance will soon be writing: “Professors Earn ‘A’ in Economics, but Flunk Politics.” This will be unfair. It is not lack of political ability that will stymie them, but lack of political power in the mandates they have been given. Mario Monti, despite very strong popular support among Italians for his technocratic government, does not have a parliamentary majority that he can rely on. Berlusconi, in boasting that he can pull the plug on Monti anytime he wants, has made it clear that he still will not lay aside his personal political interests for the good of the country even when everyone understands what he is doing.

Lucas Papademos in Greece 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 requirements for accepting the Prime Ministership, in the end he could not get even these minimum conditions.

The elevation of these two outstanding civil servants comes after a period when some other professors have been squeezed out by the political process. Several good technocratic economists from emerging market countries were passed over in June, when choosing the successor to Dominique Strauss-Kahn as Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund.