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A few weeks ago I came across an academic working paper that, like many scholarly works, had a particularly unwieldy title: “United States Monetary Policy in the Post-Bretton Woods Era: Did it cause the Crash of 2008?” A worthy topic, I am sure you agree, even if the 74-page paper is not everyone’s idea of a good bedtime read.
Far more interesting for me, though, was the name of the author: Yanis Varoufakis, the erstwhile Greek finance minister. Given the sorry sequence of events that led to Dr Varoufakis’s political exile, and the revelations that succeeded it, it set me thinking about whether any other modern-day economics or business academics had held government posts and, if so, how successful they had been.
Of course, the man who springs to mind is Mario Monti. After serving as an economics professor at several Italian universities — including Bocconi, where he is still president — he went on to have a very successful career as an EU commissioner. He even became prime minister of Italy in 2011, a safe pair of hands at the height of the financial crisis. So, a clear success there.
But looking at the leaders of the score of other countries whose business schools are represented in the masters in management ranking, there is little sign of a love of academia.
Ireland’s Taoiseach Enda Kenny worked as a primary school teacher for four years, but that hardly counts — though trying to engage seven-year-olds may be good training for running a government in any country.
Portugal’s prime minister, Pedro Passos Coelho, worked as a maths tutor for a while, too, but again I am not sure he can score points there. The president of Portugal, Aníbal Cavaco Silva, comes a little closer, being just one step away from academia — his wife, Maria Alves da Silva, has lectured at the Catholic University of Portugal. It is hard to judge how useful her specialist subjects, Portuguese language and literature, might be in running a country, though.
Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper shows a little more promise. He goes against the grain in Canada in that he studied economics, not law — as usually seems to be the case for political leaders there. He also taught occasionally at his alma mater, the University of Calgary. In political terms he has been relatively successful — he has been in power since 2006 in spite of losing a vote of no-confidence in 2011.
Then we come to Russia. Prime minister Dmitry Medvedev graduated in law from what is now Saint Petersburg State University and then took a role for a while at his alma mater as a docent, just below professorial rank. Of course, he has been president and prime minister, so no one can say he has not been successful, despite the peculiarities of the Russian electoral system.
So on this admittedly sparse survey, it would seem those few with academic credentials do well in high office. What might be more useful in running a country, of course, would be some business credentials or experience. A glance at the aforementioned countries shows premiers tend to be career politicians with a degree in law or politics.
Of course, French president François Hollande did achieve a masters in management from HEC Paris before becoming a career politician.
But I am impressed by the business background of Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte. He had a long career in human resources at Unilever before he moved over to the dark side. Managing people and appointments sounds like good credentials for running a country.
Even more impressive is Finnish prime minister Juha Sipilä, who came to office in May. An engineer by training, before he turned to politics, he became a millionaire as a result of his successful business dealings.
But to return to Greece, perhaps the most interesting thing about Dr Varoufakis’s paper is that it was published as part of the European-wide Fessud project (Fessud stands for financialisation, economy, society and sustainable development). The programme, launched in 2011, is headed by scholars at Leeds University Business School in the UK. The project has been funded by the EU to the tune of €10m.
Given the recent history between the members of the EU and Dr Varoufakis, I am tempted to ask whether this is another occasion on which they might want to ask for their money back.