- (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
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
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
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.
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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