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Italy Against Itself

La paura e la speranza (Fear and Hope)

by Giulio Tremonti
Milan: Mondadori, 111 pp., €16.00

1.

In late April, Gianni Alemanno, a former neofascist, was elected mayor of Rome, two weeks after Silvio Berlusconi and a right-wing coalition had come back to power with a sizable majority in Italy’s national elections. Following the mayoral contest, the international press made much of the crowds of neofascist youth giving the Roman salute on the steps of the Campidoglio. But perhaps more significant was the parade of Roman taxi drivers triumphantly honking their horns nearby. They were jubilant not so much at the election of a former right-wing bully boy as at the defeat of a center-left administration that had tried to expand the number of taxi licenses. Cabs have become notoriously hard to find in Rome; but the attempt to improve city transportation ran afoul of the lobby of medallion owners, for whom the licenses are a valuable nest egg in an uncertain world.

The taxi drivers’ celebration suggests a country deeply at odds with itself, paralyzed and dysfunctional, angry, fearful, intensely dissatisfied but unwilling to undertake any changes that threaten the fragile privileges of this or that protected group. It is a country that is sick of high taxes but sits by when Berlusconi blocks the sale of the national airline, Alitalia, even though it is hemorrhaging taxpayer money; a country that hates government but expects free education and free health care and takes advantages of the opportunities of a vast government patronage system; a country that clings to its high standard of living and generous welfare state but fantasizes about kicking out millions of foreign workers who now produce close to 10 percent of the gross domestic product and whose presence in the workforce is the only realistic hope for maintaining a national pension system for Italy’s aging population.

That Italians could reelect Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister who they rejected as an incumbent only two years ago, is not as surprising as it may seem. When Romano Prodi’s center-left government was elected in 2006, Italy had endured five years of close-to-zero growth. Berlusconi’s endless self-aggrandizement and myriad conflicts of interest in his various roles as Italy’s richest man, largest media owner, most famous criminal defendant, and prime minister had paralyzed the country and many assumed that with Berlusconi out of the way, the economy would get moving again. Instead, the Prodi government, with a tiny one-vote majority in the Italian Senate and a fractious, heterodox coalition, was hardly able to offer better. When Prodi tried to introduce market reforms in Italy’s economy, the Communist members of his coalition threatened to revolt. In response to his attempt to pass a law allowing civil unions for gay (and non-gay) couples, the Catholic party on his right flank mutinied.

One of the few things Prodi managed to pass was an amnesty for criminals that had been pushed heavily by Berlusconi and that was designed quite clearly to keep Berlusconi’s chief corporate lawyer, Cesare Previti, who had been convicted of bribing judges, out of prison. And so, early in Prodi’s tenure, the Italian public watched the unedifying spectacle of 26,000 criminals going free, many of whom returned quickly to stealing, raping, and killing, while a raft of white-collar criminals, like Previti, were left to enjoy their ill-gotten gains.

Similarly, the Prodi government passed another law, again with the enthusiastic help of Berlusconi and the right, to make it illegal for prosecutors to use criminal evidence gathered against members of parliament who turned up on police wiretaps. In others words, if police were tracking a dangerous criminal and he happened to call up his good friend in parliament, investigators were powerless to pursue the politician’s possible criminal wrongdoing or even use the wiretap as evidence against him.

Thus an administration that had promised a clean-government alternative to Berlusconi appeared no more willing than its predecessor to take on corruption or the system of patronage or Mafia infiltration of the state. The mountains of garbage piling up in and around Naples continued to pile up under Prodi as they had under Berlusconi. But most important to Italian voters, the economy continued to stagnate, only with greater political instability.

Disillusioned, many Italian voters concluded that there was little difference between the politicians of the left and the right and that taken together they were simply a corrupt, self-perpetuating “caste”; not only did its members enjoy extraordinary privileges and absurdly high salaries, they appeared to be not merely useless but a significant drain on public resources as well. Capturing this mood was the book La casta (The Caste), which topped the nonfiction best-seller list for much of the past year.* Why, the book asks, should Italy, with a fifth the population of the United States, have twice as many members of parliament as there are representatives in Congress? And why should they earn more than twice as much, be driven around in chauffeured cars, have free cell phones, free train and air travel, and gain a lucrative pension for life after only two terms in office, particularly when many of them hold outside jobs and don’t actually show up for work?

2.

The anger of the Italian electorate goes much deeper than disappointment over the Prodi government, which did not fully deserve such harsh public condemnation. Italy’s problems, unfortunately, are much deeper, more structural, and not easy to solve.

From the end of World War II until about 1990, Italy’s economy was one of the more successful in the world, not far behind those of Japan and West Germany. It grew at an average rate of about 5 percent during the 1950s and 1960s, and at a healthy 3 percent in the 1970s and 1980s, spreading prosperity, literacy, and generous state services and benefits to a country used to a long history of hardship and misery. For students of contemporary politics, it offered a fascinating paradox. Italy appeared to have a terrible political system—revolving-door governments, constant scandals and government crises, high levels of corruption, a wasteful and inefficient bureaucracy. And yet, year in, year out, the economy continued to grow. By about 1989, Italy’s GDP was about even with that of Great Britain.

But in the past fifteen years, this precarious combination—corruption, bad government, and high economic growth—broke down. Italy’s GDP grew at an average of 1.1 percent a year between 1996 and 2006 compared to 2.3 percent for the UK, 2.8 percent for Spain, and 1.7 percent for the entire euro area. As a result, Italy’s economy is now 20 percent smaller than that of Great Britain and, according to some recent calculations, has been overtaken by Spain’s. Disposable income has been essentially flat for fifteen years, and income inequality in Italy has become the highest in Western Europe, meaning that the standard of living of many has actually declined.

3.

Two recent books offer radically different diagnoses of what’s gone wrong. The first, La deriva: perché l’Italia rischia il naufragio (Adrift: Why Italy Risks a Shipwreck) by the journalists Gian Antonio Stella and Sergio Rizzo, is a sequel to their best-seller La casta. It is a scathing indictment of the Italian political system and its devastating effects on the country. The second, La paura e la speranza (Fear and Hope), is by Berlusconi’s finance minister, Giulio Tremonti.

More than any other country in Europe, they argue quite persuasively, Italy has an aging, male-dominated elite that smothers initiative and change in order to perpetuate its own power. Some 60 percent of Italy’s politicians and union leaders are over the age of seventy. In France, by contrast, the number is 20 percent; in the Scandinavian countries about 38 percent. Italy also has the lowest levels of female participation in both politics and the workplace among the major European countries. When established politicians fail to win an election, they are recycled into patronage positions in local government or in the national health care system or in the European parliament. The result is a depressing lack of turnover in Italy’s public institutions.

This is not true only in politics. Universities, for example, which should be an essential part of an information economy as centers of innovation, research, and meritocracy, are instead a bastion of privilege and patronage in which hiring decisions are not open and fair but are routinely rigged in favor of the friends, relations, or toadies of the so-called baroni (barons, as they are known).

Stella and Rizzo tell the story of a rigged hiring system at the University of Naples medical school in which the reigning baroni were found to have falsified evidence in order to guarantee that their favored candidates, including the son of the chief barone, won the supposedly open competition. But after being found guilty again and again, during eighteen years of legal wrangling the defendants continued to hold on to the professorships they had won illegally.

Even after the offending professors lost their final appeal, the Education Ministry decided to leave them in their jobs with an edict written in perfect bureaucratese: “Annulling a ministerial act cannot be founded on the necessity alone of restoring legality.” Translated into plain English: just because someone is underqualified and a convicted criminal doesn’t mean he shouldn’t hold a university chair. The decision, made by Antonello Masia, the director general of the ministry, was a fairly predictable response by a member of the caste to protect his own. Masia has served at the ministry for thirty-seven years and enjoys repeating the phrase “Ministers come and go but director generals remain,” the mantra of a permanent bureaucracy that sees itself as immune from political control or public opinion.

In this system, the brightest and most ambitious students, who win fellowships at major universities in the US, the UK, or elsewhere, are often treated as if the years they spent abroad are wasted since they were not back in Italy waiting in line and currying favor with the baroni. The result has been a huge brain drain out of Italy. American, British, and French universities, research laboratories, hospitals, and companies are full of talented young Italian professionals who got fed up with Italy and left.

Again and again in Italy one finds that the selfish bureaucracies maintain their power by means of a jungle of ultra-complicated rules and regulations, which make getting things done immensely difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. Opening a business in Italy, on average, costs e5,012 ($6,756) for the necessary government permits, and involves sixty-two days of jumping over sixteen different bureaucratic hurdles. In Great Britain, it’s e381 ($513), four days, and five procedures. In the US, it’s e167 ($231), four days, and four procedures.

Completing a major public works project in Italy (those costing e50 million or more) consumes an average of 2,137 days—slightly less than six years. Spain took only three years to extend the subway of Madrid by fifty-six kilometers with the building of eight transfer stations and twenty-eight ordinary stations. Building high-speed train lines in Italy costs more than four times what it costs in France or Spain, and those that exist are slow. A high-speed train between Madrid and Barcelona takes only two hours and twenty minutes, while traveling between Milan and Rome takes twice as long—even though the distance is slightly shorter.

  1. *

    Sergio Rizzo and Gian Antonio Stella, La casta: così i politici italiani sono diventati intoccabili (Milan: Rizzoli, 2007).

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