There was a lawyer, an engineer and a politician...
Apr 16th 2009
From The Economist print edition
Why do professional paths to the top vary so much?
Illustration by David SimondsWHEN Barack Obama met Hu Jintao, his Chinese counterpart, at the G20 summit in London, it was an encounter not just between two presidents, but also between two professions and mindsets. A lawyer, trained to argue from first principles and haggle over words, was speaking to an engineer, who knew how to build physical structures and keep them intact.
The prevalence of lawyers in America’s ruling elite (spotted by a Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, in the 1830s) is stronger than ever. Mr Obama went to Harvard Law School (1988-91); his cabinet contains Hillary Clinton (Yale Law, 1969-73) as secretary of state, Eric Holder (Columbia Law, 1973-76) as attorney-general, Joe Biden (Syracuse University law school, 1965-68) as vice-president and Leon Panetta (Santa Clara University law school, 1960-63) as director of the CIA. That’s the tip of the iceberg. Over half of America’s senators practised law. Mr Obama’s inner circle is sprinkled with classmates from Harvard Law: the dean of that school, Elena Kagan, is solicitor-general; Cass Sunstein, a professor there, is also in the administration.
President Hu, in contrast, is a hydraulic engineer (he worked for a state hydropower company). His predecessor, Jiang Zemin, was an electrical engineer, who trained in Moscow at the Stalin Automobile Works. The prime minister, Wen Jiabao, specialised in geological engineering. The senior body of China’s Communist Party is the Politburo’s standing committee. Making up its nine members are eight engineers, and one lawyer. This is not a relic of the past: 2007 saw the appointments of one petroleum and two chemical engineers. The last American president to train as an engineer was Herbert Hoover.
Why do different countries favour different professions? And why are some professions so well represented in politics? To find out, The Economist trawled through a sample of almost 5,000 politicians in “International Who’s Who”, a reference book, to examine their backgrounds.
Some findings are predictable. Africa is full of presidents who won power as leaders of military coups (such as Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir) or as guerrilla chiefs (Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame). Naturally, they rely on old comrades-in-arms. The army’s influence can outlast its direct control. In Indonesia, military rule ended in 1998 but generals are still big in politics because, in a country of 17,000 islands, the army is among the few nationwide institutions. But selection bias in politics (the tendency of people of similar backgrounds to cluster together) goes far beyond the armed forces. Many countries, including America, have political dynasties; in Britain, networks are formed at Oxford and Cambridge universities. Personal ties matter in China (Vice-President Xi Jinping is the son of a Long March veteran). Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister, has an inner circle dating from his time at St Petersburg city hall and his
career in the old KGB.
Different countries—because of their history, or cultural preferences, or stage of development—seem to like particular qualities, and these qualities are provided disproportionately by only a few professions. Lawyers and business executives are common; economists, academics and doctors do surprisingly well (see chart 1).
Countries often have marked peculiarities. Egypt likes academics; South Korea, civil servants; Brazil, doctors (see chart 2). Some emerging-market countries are bedevilled by large numbers of criminals, even if this doesn’t usually show up in their “Who’s Who” records.
In democracies, lawyers dominate. This is not surprising. The law deals with the same sort of questions as politics: what makes a just society; the balance between liberty and security, and so on. Lawyerly skills—marshalling evidence, appealing to juries, command of procedure—transfer well to the political stage. So, sadly, does an obsession with process and a tendency to see things in partisan terms—us or them, guilty or not guilty—albeit in a spirit of loyalty to a system to which all defer. In common-law countries, the battleground of the court is of a piece with the adversarial, yet rule-bound, spirit of politics. Even in places with a Napoleonic code, lawyers abound. In Germany, a third of the Bundestag’s members are lawyers. In France, nine of Nicolas Sarkozy’s first cabinet of 16 were lawyers or law graduates, including the president, the prime minister and the finance minister, an ex-chairman of Baker & McKenzie, an American law firm.
In China, the influence of engineers is partly explained by history and ideology. In a country where education was buffeted by the tempests of Maoism, engineering was a safer field of study than most. In fact, communist regimes of all stripes have long had a weakness for grandiose engineering projects. The Soviet Union, which also produced plenty of engineer-politicians (including Boris Yeltsin), wanted to reverse the northward flow of some great Russian rivers, for example.
The presence of so many engineer-politicians in China goes hand in hand with a certain way of thinking. An engineer’s job, at least in theory, is to ensure things work, that the bridge stays up or the dam holds. The process by which projects get built is usually secondary. That also seems true of Chinese politics, in which government often rides roughshod over critics. Engineers are supposed to focus on the long term; buildings have no merit if they will collapse after a few years. So it is understandable that an authoritarian country like China, where development is the priority and spending on infrastructure is colossal, should push engineers to the top.
A Gallic compromise
France, you might say, has elements of both American and Chinese political cultures: it is a democracy with a strong, centralised administration and a predilection for state planning. Its politics is influenced by super-civil servants: the graduates (only about 100 a year) of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, based in Strasbourg. ENA has a quasi-monopoly over many top civil-service jobs, which, in France, serve as stepping-stones to politics. Seven of the last 11 prime ministers and two of the last four presidents have been énarques. Though Nicolas Sarkozy is not one of the breed and has only one énarque in his cabinet, he has eased the institution’s hold only at the top; ENA is still a fast track to political success. A tenth of the French politicians in the sample are énarques.
The second most common “profession” is that of businessman. Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and Mitt Romney in Massachusetts are only two who parlayed business experience and a supposed toughness of decision-making into political office. The credit crunch has made financiers more prominent: in Britain, a former boss of Standard Chartered bank is now minister of trade; a former adviser to UBS Warburg, an investment bank, is competitiveness minister. In America, Hank Paulson, a former treasury secretary, and Jon Corzine, the governor of New Jersey, are both former chief executives of Goldman Sachs, a bank apparently blessed by Midas.
Though it might seem as if rich democracies are most susceptible to managerial charms, the suits are in fact more significant in emerging markets. Anek Laothamatas, the former leader of the Mahachon party in Thailand, argues that businessmen have played a decisive role in his country since the 1980s. Thaksin Shinawatra, the fugitive ex-prime minister and fomenter of the “red protests” that are now congesting the streets of Bangkok, is only the most prominent example.
In local elections in Russia between 1997 and 2003, 38 businessmen (all men) ran for governorships, of whom ten won. Scott Gehlbach and Konstantin Sonin, of the Centre for Economic and Financial Research in Moscow, argue that three factors have influenced businessmen to go into politics in post-Soviet countries. Politics helps them harm competitors; in new democracies, robber barons are often the only ones rich enough to finance election campaigns; and business people do not trust politicians to keep campaign promises because there is no real party discipline, so they go into politics themselves.
One might add a fourth consideration: parliamentary immunity has enabled some corrupt businessmen to ward off legal investigation. This clearly matters because, when the Kremlin started to extend its control over parliament, overriding claims of immunity, politics went out of fashion among business people. Considerations of immunity may also help to explain the remarkably large number of legally challenged politicians in India: according to the Public Affairs Centre, a think-tank based in Bangalore, 23% of members of India’s parliament have been served with criminal charges.
Some mature democracies, especially Britain and America, are seeing a new phenomenon: the rise of politics itself as a profession. In the old days, politics was something you went into after doing a real job. In Britain, Tory MPs were stereotypically squires of independent means or retired businessmen; Labour ones, trade-union leaders or university lecturers. No longer. David Cameron, the Tory leader, went from university into the party’s research department and, apart from a few years studying the dark arts of public relations, has been in politics all his adult life. Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, Britain’s current and former prime ministers, became members of Parliament at the tender ages of 32 and 30 respectively, their other careers (journalist and barrister) having been merely useful preludes.
The emergence of politics as a career choice has been made possible, argues Peter Oborne in his book “The Triumph of the Political Class”, by a penumbra of quasi-political institutions—think-tanks, consultancies, lobbying firms, politicians’ back offices. They have increased job opportunities for would-be politicians. Increasingly, therefore, the road to a political career leads through politics itself, starting as an intern, moving to become researcher in a parliamentary or congressional office, with a spell in a friendly think-tank or lobby group along the way.
Mr Oborne says this is producing an inbred class that lacks proper connections to the outside world. Perhaps. But the trend is unlikely to stop. The intrusive demands upon aspiring members of any American administration make it harder for outsiders to enter politics. (The Obama team asked applicants, “If you have ever sent an…e-mail, text message or instant message that could…be a possible source of embarrassment to you, your family or the President-Elect if it were made public, please describe.”) For good or ill, politics is becoming its own profession.