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  • Review: Good Italy Bad Italy February 4, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

    good italy bad italy

    Italy is a total maverick: a country of extremes that breaks all the rules of how a modern western democracy should work and yet that does work and, in many respects, works quite well. Observers from other countries, particularly from the English-speaking world have long  been fascinated by this anomaly. On the one hand, they fawn over the country, watching bad romantic comedies, which unwind languidly under the Tuscan sun, and comparing notes on gelaterie; on the other hand, they shake their heads about the Italian economy, Italian business, Italian corruption… There is, in fact, a minor genre of ‘Italy’ books: examples include Hofmann’s That Fine Italian Hand, Tim Parks’ various efforts, and Barzini’s now dated The Italians. The latest book to join the club is Bill Emmott’s Good Italy, Bad Italy and it is a tease of a read.

    First some background. Bill Emmott was The Economist’s editor from 1993-2006 and presided over much of the Economist’s notable anti-Berlusconi campaign of those years: in fact, The Economist is still dealing with the legal fall-out from their memorable articles on il cavaliere. Bill is, then, a seasoned internationalist, who has published extensively on Asia, particularly Japan. He writes well in that slightly sanitized style that Economist readers will immediately recognize: one in which jokes can sometimes be rather stilted yet endearing, and where everything is admirably expressed; no complaints about clairty here.  He claims to have a great affection for Italy and, yet, notes that he has imperfect Italian.

    The thesis of the book is a simple one. Italy has a good and a bad side. This might seem ‘the bleeding obvious’, but here BE immediately deserves credit. Many books concentrating on Italy’s politics and economy just concentrate on the bad: the Italy of Caporetto, instead of Vittorio Veneto. But there are many things where Italy is head and shoulders above other countries in the public sphere, particularly Anglo-Saxon ones: death care, trains, remedial education, small businesses, high street shopping, rubbish collection… Then there is Italy’s private sphere with high savings, protection of the elderly and single mothers, low crime, relatively low drug use etc etc. The truth is that foreigners could come to Italy and learn much from that country.

    So far so good then: it isn’t all rain and hail. There is a problem though with this Manichean thesis. As anyone who has lived in the country for more than six months will know the two Italys are actually different sides of a single coin. An example. Italians have a clannish side that in the south emerges as organized crime and in the centre and north as systemic corruption. Yet this is precisely the same form of communal solidarity that, for instance, protected Jewish Italians in the war and Allied prisoners of war and that has created closely knit communities where families look after each other and their neighbours. Then, just to make things even more complicated, the bad side of the coin has, in any case, its positive sides. For example, the vast underground economy may not be ideal, but it means that there is, in many parts of life, an efficient free market operating, one that feeds and clothes hundreds of thousands of people.

    Then, there is the problem of the solutions offered by BE and others like him. Italy has to modernize. It has essentially to grow the hell up and start acting like a normal country. Taxes must be collected properly, services must be improved… Yet this is perhaps the worst thing that Italy could do. Authors like BE come from countries where the state functions relatively well, and where there is a sense and even the pleasure of duty among state employees. In Italy the state and its apparatus is overwhelmingly about self service. It is a job for life and for every job there are two or three individuals employed, the vast majority chosen by personal recommendations: in an Umbrian post office a friend tells me that about seven out of ten jobs are given to friends of friends or friends of politicians. In fact, the closest to the welfare scrounger in Italy, is strangely the state employer who takes advantage of their position, exciting the groans and rage of neighbours who work and yet lack maternity leave, pensions and economic ‘rights’.

    Part of the secret of the economic miracle in Italy was that the state was, while widely and correctly recognized to be parasitic, also relatively small. It stayed out of large areas of individual’s lives and there was an unwritten agreement that the self-employed (over 25% in Italy, by far the highest in the OECD) paid very little by way of taxes because they were allowed to get away with tax evasion. The reforms of the last twenty years (not many admittedly) and above all those of Monti were predicated on the basis that the state begin to collect those taxes. Of course, it could conceivably work. Perhaps the new taxes could be used to reinvigorate Italy’s education system or Italy’s failing medical care? But the truth is these systems don’t need money, they need a new culture where the citizen matters more than the employers. That can only start with root and branch reform of the labour laws. At present the income of a bad teacher matters more than the fact that he or she fails to teach several hundred children over two or three decades.  A third of the public sectors needs to be laid off and money needed should consequently fall by a third.

    Instead, the self employed in Italy are paying twenty percent higher taxes, in the last years, for services that are getting steadily worse. I and my wife send our children to private schools now because the local state schools are beyond use. If we need health exams we go to a private clinic because it saves us a dozen hours and a series of rude state employed ‘servants’. If we need to repair the road outside our house, which is technically a public road, we would pay a private contractor rather than wait ten years for ‘our rights’. The state is rarely the best answer to any question. In Italy the state is, in fact, an unreformable nightmare. There is no country in the west where the case for a night watchman state is stronger and with the remarkable entrepreneurial spirit of the Italians, with their powerful sense of community and family, there is nowhere where such a system has a better chance of working to the benefit of all.

    7 Feb 2014: Chiara writes in with an Italian perspective. This has been translated quickly from Italian, apologies for any inelegancies, which were certainly not there in the original! ‘Yes, I agree. Italy does not work on the declared rules, but on unreportable shared rules. These are unreportable because morality today is a product of the Protestant west, which has made it all a question of public ethics, as well as of system efficiency. The construction of the Italian public space is senatorial and tribal, closer to that of other Mediterranean civilizations . That traditional structure is very much alive behind the public facade as Roman paganism is still breathing under the Catholic strata. What is difficult for Emmott to understand, and that you explain, is that without shared undeclared rules, Italy simply would not hold together. An important point that I would add to your article is the fact that there are important territorial imbalances. The south is maintained by the north through pointless public work and private financing. This is uncontroversial enough, but you cannot discuss the fact publicly, as it would be politically incorrect. Lombardy has 400 Rangers, there are 420 in Veneto, 390 in Piedmont in the north. Calabria has 11,000, there are 30,000 in Sicily (this data is taken from Repubblica though you can find it all over). This has massive implications for the national economy, because the taxes necessary to keep the south going are too high and therefore tax evasion is tolerated. This means that public wages must be low and this means, in turn, low productivity and extra untaxed work. If the State was reduced to a nightwatchman, the economy territorial and then national would crumble.’ Thanks Chiara!