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Articles on Italy after 2012
How not to solve a problem
Articles on Italy before 2012

  • (november 2012) How not to solve a problem. Italy's new "technocratic" government is emblematic of the inertia that keeps and will keep Europe from solving its problems, and therefore will doom the continent to inevitable slow decline. The Italian parliament appointed Mario Monti as prime minister with the mission to pass unpopular reforms with the aim of balancing the budget (Italy has the largest public debt of any major country in the world) and of spurring growth.
    Italy is a unique case within the ailing eurozone (and probably in the entire world). Italy's debt has been there way before the real estate bubble. In fact, there was no bubble: if you invested in Italian real estate, you probably made a good investment. Prices have not collapsed at all. Italy's problem came out now simply because the international lenders started looking into the domestic affairs of all these countries, but Italy's colossal debt has been accumulating ever since the 1970s. It has repeatedly been termed "explosive" but it never truly exploded, nor has it now. Italy has a unique way to bluff its way through the worst financial crises. Now that the world demanded reforms, Italian politicians appointed an unelected official, Mario Monti, to lead a government in charge of making unpopular decisions. In theory those are the same unpopularity austerity cuts that Spain, Ireland, Portugal and Greece have been forced to make, but in practice the "unpopularity" stems from a unique Italian phenomenon: the fact that most of the debt has been created by criminal politicians who literally stole money. An incredible number of members of the Italian parliament are under investigation for corruption and many of them have even been convicted. One reason why they keep running for office is that members of parliament and the senate are protected against arrest by a law conveniently passed by themselves. A popular joke in Italy is that if a delegation of the Italian parliament went to visit the most dangerous gang territories in the USA, the gangs would flee terrified. Links with the mafia abound, and are sometimes shamelessly public. Millions of euros sent by the European Union have never materialized in the public works for which they had been requested: the majority of the money went into the pockets of the mafia, that in return provided the votes needed to keep powerful politicians in place. When so much money has been stolen by politicians, it is "unpopular" to ask ordinary honest hard-working and tax-paying citizens to "sacrifice" because the state is broke. A minister announced with tears in her eyes the need to raise taxes and cut benefits only to be found involved in yet another money scandal. Some of the most trusted anti-corruption demagogues have been associated with blatant improper use of public funds. The habit is so widespread that can be considered part of the job description for any politicians elected to public office.
    The whole system constitutes an interesting sociopolitical case: a new form of aristocracy that staunchly defends its right to rob the country of its wealth, indifferent to the long-term damage caused to the nation.
    This is not new. The abuses of the 1970s led first to an armed insurrection by the Red Brigades, widely termed "terrorists" at the time, and then by a widespread investigation by independent judges (operation "Mani Pulite") that uncovered the crimes committed by the politicians (and indirectly vindicated the Red Brigades, whose methods may have been brutal and undemocratic, but whose general idea of fighting an evil regime was proven more morally sound than most believed when former prime minister Aldo Moro was assassinated). Today many ordinary Italians (with no love for communist guerrillas) would approve the Red Brigades if they started assassinating the current political leaders. There is a new wave of independent judges who are willing to risk their careers (and lives) to uncover cases of corruption, but the widespread feeling is that we are being presented only with the tip of the iceberg.
    The "Manipulite" trials got rid of that regime but now it has become obvious that one corrupt regime was replaced by another one, no less pervasive and no less damaging. People are beginning to doubt that their country can ever be ruled by honest politicians: the policy of trading favors for votes is just too embedded in the fabric of society.
    The Internet and (of all people) a tv comedian (Beppe Grillo) helped uncover cases of corruption all over Italy despite the power that the government has over the media (another unique Italian trait). The Internet and Grillo's movement are likely to cause the downfall of the current regime. As usual with regime transitions, the question is what will come next. Unfortunately, the current generation of political leaders has introduced a vulgar language and a violent attitude towards politics that is unlikely to fade away. This might be the lasting legacy of political leaders like Umberto Bossi, who is mainly famous around the world for the most vulgar language ever used in politics. Not ideas, but demagogy and plain insults made his fortune. In every country the political leaders set the moral example. In the USA the loser of the presidential election congratulates the winner and pledges to collaborate for the common interest. In Italy the loser insults the winner, and viceversa, and in any case nobody admits to having lost. The next generation of politicians will inherit that "style" from the corrupt regime that is dying now.
    Italy is unique in another respect: the Vatican is in Rome, the capital of Italy. The influence of the Vatican can hardly be termed "positive". It was the main force behind the corrupt regime of the Christian Democrats until the 1990s, and its attitude towards the mafia has basically been one of silent acceptance. After all, most of the legendary mafia bosses were very faithful Catholics whereas most magistrates fighting the mafia are borderline atheists. The mafia as a whole has its roots in the most Catholic part of the country (the south). That the mafia has been a terrible drain on the economy of those regions is negligible to popes who think about the salvation of souls rather than to GDPs. The Vatican has adopted the same complacent attitude towards the massive corruption of the Berlusconi age.
    It is too easy to blame the political class. Italy was ruled by a generation of corrupt politicians until the 1980s. Those politicians (mainly members of the Christian Democratic Party and of the Socialist Party) did not seize power in a coup: they were elected time and again by the people. Then independent judges proved the vast system of corruption and caused the downfall of that system. But it turns out that the Italian people (again, there was no coup, just general elections) voted into power another generation of corrupt politicians, the generation of Berlusconi. In fact, they voted into power an entire party of corruption: when finally convicted in one of the many trials for corruption, Berlusconi immediately threatened to bring down the government, which means that he controls 100s of votes. This is well known: his party and the parties of his allies are full of politicians who have been associated with cases of corruption and mafia. Millions of voters elected to power that party of corruption. Those are mainly voters who wanted the system to perpetuate itself. They too have a vested interest in maintaining Italy's senseless system. Millions of Italians would not vote for a candidate who promises to enforce the laws and to change the senseless laws. Nothing upsets an ordinary Italian more than a mayor, regional governor or government minister who enforces a law.
    Besides corruption, another massive drain on national finances comes from the pension system. Italy still has an aristocratic system that distributes very high monthly pensions to "dirigenti", members of parliament and other categories while paying very little to workers and employees of the lower classes (de facto the Italian equivalent of the Indian "untouchables" who perform lower chores). Hence, pornostar Cicciolina (who was briefly a member of Parliament) is getting a rich pension that is among the highest in the entire world. The wife of hardcore xenophobe and northern Italian separatist Umberto Bossi starting getting a "baby pension" at an early age, probably one of the youngest "pensioners" in the entire world (there are several categories that are entitled to retire early). Both Cicciolina and Bossi's wife are being paid and will receive a pension for the rest of their lives paid with the taxes of all Italians. Money does not grow on trees: someone has to pay for those pensions (and for all the bribes and wasteful spending encountered during the journey from the taxpayer's bank account to Cicciolina's bank account). The beneficiaries of this incredibly senseless system are not ashamed of taking advantage, even while knowing that the costs to the nation are colossal; and someone is paying them those pensions, a hierarchy that feels there is nothing wrong with these senseless benefits; and millions of young people will be working all their life to pay taxes so that the senseless system can pay those pensions, and these young people do not revolt. Therefore all Italians are accomplices. You cannot simply blame the politicians who enacted those laws: everybody works together to keep the system going.
    When they complain, the Italians are in reality complaining against themselves, pretending it is not them: an interesting psychological case.
    A few practical observations may help understand what is wrong with Italy at the level of ordinary people.
    Italy ranks high for cost of living, but very low in friendliness to business. Many multinationals prefer to set up base in very expensive Switzerland (where business is easy to run) than in Italy (where running a business is a task of epic proportions). Even if you are not a large corporations, you can pick up several pieces of evidence. Train tickets need to be validated before boarding a train: paying for a ticket is not enough. You cannot buy a prevalidated ticket. If you forget to validate the ticket, you may be fined by the conductor. If the validating machine doesn't work, it's your problem. Frequently, bus tickets have to be purchased in a Tabaccheria, a mysterious store that sells everything from toys to taxes (yes, you pay some taxes at the Tabaccheria, like the ones on passports, that you are not allowed to pay at the place where you file for a passport)(The other mandatory place for paying some other taxes is the... post office, and sometimes you have to do both). Like all shops in Italy, the Tabaccheria is often closed when you need it and then your next best choice for bus tickets is the neighborhood "bar" or the newstand.
    France used to be the country where people don't speak English. I came from France to Italy and the difference was striking: every single young person in France spoke good English, whereas the vast majority of Italians (of any age group) did not. The French used to speak only their national language out of nationalism. It is not nationalism that makes Italians so attached to their own language: it's bad schools, clearly much less up to date than their counterparts in central, northern and eastern Europe (but even compared with the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa).
    Cell phones are not allowed in French trains (not in he compartment), but are allowed and widely used by Italians. I was sitting in front of an attorney who was shouting into his phone all the details of a forthcoming trial in Rome (so much for the privacy of his customer). The conductor herself stopped checking tickets when her husband or boyfriend called to ask her to buy something. Seats are assigned but you will often find someone else sitting in your seat and telling you "it's the same". Maybe it's all the same, but this forces you to sit in what will turn out to be someone else's seat, thus propagating chaos instead of order.
    Trains are chronically late. A rule of thumb is to never trust any connection that is less than one hour because most trains are delayed at least 20 minutes and often 30-40 minutes, which doesn't give you enough time (in badly marked Italian train stations) to figure out where your next train is and walk to it. One cannot help thinking that the same attitude of the passenger ("it's all the same") applied to the operations of a station ends up causing those chronic delays. It may be a coincidence, but countries in which passengers sit in their assigned seats trains are on time. Whatever the cause, the tourist is also appalled that nobody figured out a solution to the problem: since every single train that i took in Italy was at least 15 minutes late, why not simply change the schedules adding 15 minutes to every train route? Why pretend that this one will be the miraculous train that arrives on time when every passenger on this train is already planning for a minimum 15 minute delay?
    Italy is a neofeudal state in which a number of categories enjoy privileges that are mostly unheard of in the rest of the world. There are categories like notaries and tobacco shops that enjoy a virtual mandate to make money. Pharmacists, taxi drivers, teachers, lawyers and many other categories are protected from birth to death with a web of laws that stymie competition, criminalize competence and reward only one thing: seniority. The "dirigenti", managers of the highest category (the neofeudal equivalent of the feudal knights), are entitled to pensions that often beat the yearly income of an everage CEO. Italy is famous for one of the most generous pension system in the world, but it is just a few categories of pensioners that truly enjoy irrational benefits: some of them retired in their 40s and will receive a monthly salary from the rest of the country for half their lifetime. Trade unions and guilds preside over this circus of accumulated and untouchable privileges. The losers are two categories: young people, who don't belong to any of the privileged categories and have to wait in line for members of those categories to die, and entrepreneurs, who have to do business in the quicksands of Italy's multidimensional bureaucracy with their hands tied behind their back when dealing with those privileged categories. Everybody pays a lot of taxes to support the system, and obviously those taxes only make Italians more desperate to hang on whatever privilege they currently enjoy. Needless to say, one of the categories that did not lose any of its privileges is the category of elected officials, whose salary is one of the highest in the world and whose pensions are the envy of oil sheiks while the salary of car workers are among the lowest in the Western world.
    The government cannot abrogate the privileges of the various categories: it would immediately fall. At the end of the day, it can simply increase taxes, thus making Italy even less competitive than it already is.
    Many Italians (probably most of the young ones) want to move somewhere else, and many will. Unfortunately, many of the brightest ones are among those who succeed in finding a job elsewhere. The irony is that they will most likely find a job in places where the system is completely different from the one they indirectly supported in Italy. My favorite statistics is the one that shows that most Italians emigrate to Switzerland, France, Britain, Germany and the USA, all nuclear-powered countries, when more than 90% of Italians voted against nuclear power at home.
    Contradictions abound. Italians are (correctly) ashamed of their media, many of which are owned by people or parties who are active in politics (Berlusconi an entire media empire). However, they behave as if the national media gave them a better pulse of world events than anywhere else. When i visit my friends and relatives in Italy, they never ask me what is going on in the USA: they TELL me what is going on in the USA. This is typical of most of Western Europe, but it is particularly ironic in a country where nobody (in theory) trusts the media. When Neil Armstrong died, millions of Italians commented that the Moon Landing never happened, it was all faked in a Hollywood studio. It was a reminder that the most ridiculous conspiracy theories become absolute truth in Italy, especially if backed by a Hollywood movie and an "instant book". Watching television in Italy is pure torture: other than an incredible number of sexy scantily-dressed women, it provides virtually no content. Nonetheless the average Italian has strong opinions based precisely on those very media that s/he despises.
    It is hard not to blame ordinary Italians too (not just their corrupt politicians) for the state of their country. In fact, there is a category of people who prove that everything could work just fine in Italy if people only wanted to: foreigners.
    Italian xenophobic parties won quite a few votes since the 1990s, when immigration became an issue, and many Italians look down on Arabs, Africans, Chinese and Indians. However, these recent immigrants have done very well and a cursory analysis tells you why. I woke up early to visit Pisa's Piazza dei Miracoli (Leaning Tower and all) only to find out that the ticket office is closed till 10am (by 10am the line was very long, which meant at best you can start your visit inside the cathedral at 10:20). I wasn't the only tourist who had got up early: there were easily a few thousands in that square alone. The only shops that were already open were the ones run by Arabs, Chinese and Indians. Africans were roaming the streets selling souvenirs. Slowly their Italian counterparts started opening their shops, but many of us had already eaten a non-Italian breakfast (name your favorite Middle-eastern dish) and bought whatever we needed, from batteries to t-shirts. At lunch time we experienced the same situation: most shops closed, and any tourist looking for batteries, umbrellas or a postcard had to buy them from an immigrant. Ditto late in the evening. The beneficiaries of the short opening hours of Italian businesses are the immigrants who are willing to work much longer hours and sometimes to even carry their goods where the tourists are (in the streets and squares of beautiful Pisa). Complaining that these immigrants "stole" business from the Italians is pointless: these ethnic groups simply took advantage of a great business opportunity offered to them by those very Italian businesses who area always closed. Incidentally, the Arabs, Africans, Chinese and Indians are also the most likely to speak English and to provide reliable information.
    Let these (mostly illegal) poor immigrants run the Italian railways and Italian monuments (and possibly even the government itself) and i suspect that services will improve, the economy as a whole will improve, and corruption will get under control.

    See also Too big to be saved? The limits of parliamentary democracy and national sovereignty

    TM, ®, Copyright © 2012 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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  • Articles on Italy before 2012

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TM, ®, Copyright © 2015 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.