Whenever a public intellectual runs for or is appointed to high public office, people who think and/or write for a living tend to get very excited. At some point after that, they usually get very disappointed.
Sometimes it’s just that the intellectual can’t connect to voters. Other times he or she is thwarted once in office by short-sighted, lunk-headed foes. More often than not, though, what makes a person an interesting thinker isn't what makes a good political leader. William F. Buckley used to say that he “would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2,000 people on the faculty of Harvard University.” There’s some sense in that.
So…good luck to Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s new finance minister!
Varoufakis is an academic economist who was transformed by the European economic crisis into a public intellectual. His 2011 book “The Global Minotaur” argued that the hugely imbalanced global monetary system sometimes called Bretton Woods II, by keeping the dollar unnaturally high and allowing the U.S. to run endless current account deficits, had tipped the world into crisis. This wasn’t all that different from the analysis of, say, the Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf, but Varoufakis expressed himself in more colorful language (the “Global Minotaur” is his term for Bretton Woods II) and with more disdain for economic orthodoxy.
He also proved adept at the tools of modern idea-dissemination, such as blogging and social media. Speaking, too. He’s good at that. I had never heard of Varoufakis before being asked to chat with him about his book on stage at Columbia University in 2011. Others clearly had, as he drew a packed house that included David Byrne in the front row. On that same book tour he was talked into taking a job as economist-in-residence at a gaming-software company in Seattle, but couldn’t stay away from the European crisis for long.
Now he’s finance minister. He says he will keep blogging. As he wrote Tuesday:
"The time to put up or shut up has, I have been told, arrived. My plan is to defy such advice. To continue blogging here even though it is normally considered irresponsible for a Finance Minister to indulge in such crass forms of communication."
That will be fun. Will it be effective? Varoufakis’s views on how to solve the Greek crisis appear to be pretty similar to those expressed in multiple editorials here at Bloomberg View -- give Greece a break on its debts, stop forcing it to try to slash its way to prosperity. They’re not out on some crazy fringe.
To make those things happen, though, he would need to be finance minister of Germany, not Greece. He and his colleagues in the new Greek government are still in the position of supplicants, even thought it looks like they’re planning to do their supplicating in a pretty confrontational way. That’s awfully hard to get right.
As someone who writes and sometimes thinks for a living, I still cannot help but be excited by Varoufakis’s appointment. I’m just bracing for disappointment.
* Justin Fox is a columnist writing about business. Prior to joining Bloomberg View, he was the editorial director of the Harvard Business Review. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”