George Papandreou, the former Socialist prime minister who was at the helm when Greece’s economic ship smashed on the rocks of fiscal ruin, has landed a job at Columbia University teaching, of all things, how to govern financial crisis.
The Ivy League school announced the move with great fanfare last month, calling Greece a “living laboratory” for key global public policy challenges. Papandreou, who led Greece from October 2009 through November 2011, is teaching a course on the European financial crisis and will host a lecture Wednesday on “Bailouts and Ballots: The New Challenges to Democracy and the Case of Europe.”
Bringing in the man who led Greece when its economy cratered — and then went begging for bailouts — had some critics second-guessing the Manhattan school. Well before taking office, Papandreou, whose father and grandfather were also prime ministers, was also a top leader of the Socialist party whose policies led to Greece's metastacizing financial problems.
“It’s good that students get to know firsthand knowledge of someone who was in the situation,” said Matthew Melchiorre, an expert on European economic affairs at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “But they’ve also got to take into account that his party has been responsible for the growth in government excess that has been a problem since 1981. The unsustainable promises his party made to the Greek people have now come home to roost. He’s been intimately involved in creating all of the problems that Greece now has today.”
"He’s been intimately involved in creating all of the problems that Greece now has today."
- Matthew Melchiorre, Competitive Enterprise Institute
For Columbia, Papandreou is more a trophy than a tutor, according to Desmond Lachman, a resident fellow at American Enterprise Institute. In fact, Lachman said, he might be better qualified to teach what not to do.
“I have no idea what he [Papandreou] is going to be teaching,” said Lachman. “But one thing he shouldn’t be teaching is how to run an economy. He might want to teach them how to run an economy into the ground.”
Papandreou’s biggest mistake, Lachman said, was failing to recognize that Greece’s mammoth debt was unsustainable. Instead of exiting the European Union and getting the nation's fiscal house in order, Papandreou continued the same policies until Greece's debt bomb became the entire EU's problem, he said. At that point, Papandreou gave in to EU demands for the austerity measures that now make him extremely unpopular.
Papandreou's defenders say he is uniquely qualified to discuss fiscal and political challenges in Greece and Europe. Vassilis Papadimitriou, an adviser to Papandreou from his Athens office, told that Papandreou introduced many reforms during his two-year tenure, including combating patronage and the lack of transparency in Greece's financial affairs.
“Regarding the critics in Greece, it is important to remember that when Mr. Papandreou became Prime Minister in 2010, he discovered that Greece had a real deficit of 15.4 percent of gross domestic product and not 6.4 percent as the previous government had claimed,” Papadimitriou wrote. “True, the austerity measures that Papandreou was forced to introduce in order to bring down the deficit did not make him popular. Cutting salaries and pensions will never make a politician popular. Today’s coalition government in Greece, led by Mr. Samaras, is following exactly the same program as the one introduced by Papandreou.”
Papandreou joins a roster of international leaders who have received instructional appointments at SIPA, including former president of Ireland Mary Robinson, former Prime Minister of Hungary Gordon Bajnai and former secretary-general of the United Nations Kofi Annan.
“It’s a great privilege to welcome George Papandreou to our community as a SIPA Global Fellow,” Dean Robert Lieberman said in a statement. “Greece today is a living laboratory for some of the key global public policy challenges of our time — including economic policy, social policy, and more — and I know our students and faculty look forward to learning about decision-making at the very highest level.”