Politicians Scorn Professors

My preceding blogpost, the Hour of the Technocrats, was inspired by the recent accession of Mario Monti and Lucas Papademos, both professional economists, to the prime ministerships of Italy and Greece, respectively.   Today we turn to the U.S., where the political process seldom views academic credentials benevolently.

In the United States, Senator Richard Shelby scorned President Obama’s 2010 nomination of Peter Diamond, an eminent MIT Professor of Economics, and prevented his confirmation as a governor of the Federal Reserve Board.  The Alabama Senator farfetchedly claimed that the nominee was not qualified, and persisted despite the coincidence that Diamond won the Nobel Prize in Economics soon after his nomination (deservedly).   But, then, Shelby was holding up an astounding 70 of President Obama’s nominations, just to try to get two pork projects in his home state funded.   Diamond finally withdrew in June 2011, because Shelby and other anti-technocratic Senators had blocked the confirmation process for 14 months and were clearly going to continue to do so.   Diamond, like Axel Weber in my preceding blogpost, was comfortable foregoing the limelight. 

Of course there are other kinds of technocrats than economists.  Senate Republicans also blocked Elizabeth Warren – a Harvard professor, but of Law, not Economics — from becoming the first head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  Even at the “quant” end of the finance field spectrum, the anti-technocrats in Congress have hamstrung the Treasury’s new Office of Financial Research, and it has not been possible to find a finance professor to be the first Director of the new agency.   As always, the Senate continues to hold up on political grounds confirmation of highly qualified technocrats for ambassadorships, judgeships, and so on.  The latest was the end last week of the campaign to get the Senate to confirm Don Berwick, another Harvard professor (School of Public Health), who had been doing an excellent job of running Medicare and Medicaid.   Another current example is the stalled nomination of Michael McFaul, an outstandingly qualified political science professor from Stanford, to be ambassador to Russia.   The American public has been losing out on the services of a lot of top-quality officials.

It goes without saying that academic or technical expertise is neither a necessary nor sufficient criterion for a successful government official.   Far from it.  On the one hand, many of my colleagues on the faculties of elite universities would not make great policy makers — lacking some of the desirable leadership, managerial, or other interpersonal skills.  On the other hand, many excellent political leaders have not been intellectuals.  George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower are two examples among U.S. presidents.

I would, however, argue that it is necessary to pass a certain threshold of awareness of facts and curiosity about the world.  To take just a few examples of geographical knowledge, a candidate who does not know where the Battle of Concord was fought, where Paul Revere rode, the difference between Brazil and Bolivia, that Africa is not a single nation, which country Iran is, or which country Libya is, is not likely to make a good president.   Call me an egghead if you will; but I consider a decision to invade the wrong country to be more than a minor technical slip.