Italy tries someone new.Apr 28, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 31 • By MICHAEL LEDEEN
Italy has long been Europe’s political laboratory, having invented fascism, incubated eurocommunism, launched the postwar economic miracle, and brought the social democratic nanny state to ruin. Most Italians are very unhappy, as well they might be. Unemployment is at record highs (13 percent overall, the highest in the history of the measurement, while for 15-24-year-olds, it’s 42 percent). The cost of living, as anyone who has visited recently will know, is outrageously high, and more and more parents are telling their children to learn German or English and emigrate. Few believe in a new miracle. They think their country is rotten to the core, profoundly corrupt in all key institutions, from politics to business, and banking to soccer. Even the old bit of folk wisdom “things were better when they were worse” (because people were more honest and worked harder) has proven wrong. Things are worse, and they haven’t gotten at all better.
This explains the country’s latest political experiment: Throw the old bums out, let a new generation give it a try. The broom is wielded by a 39-year-old Tuscan named Matteo Renzi who has been prime minister for a month and a half. I’m obliged to tell you that I’ve known him for about 10 years, and he has always seemed to me the creation of central casting: handsome, well spoken, a lovely and talented wife who teaches school, three terrific kids. He’s a lot more fun than the usual geriatric crowd that Italians are accustomed to, including 88-year-old president Giorgio Napolitano and the man who governed the country for most of the past 20 years, Silvio Berlusconi, now pushing 78. Renzi’s presence in the official residence (Rome’s Palazzo Chigi) has produced at least some hope of positive change. He’s energetic, an avid tweeter, gives lively press conferences, and is calling for real reform of the country’s sclerotic institutions and practices.
Renzi’s spectacular career is an extended revolt against various political establishments and flies in the face of conventional political wisdom. In a very few years he’s gone from political unknown (mayor of the Florence Province) to mayor of the city of Florence, to head of the center-left Democratic party (PD), to prime minister. The last three advances were widely written off in advance by the pundits as quixotic adventures. But there he is, having swept aside the Florentine leftist establishment, the elders of the PD in a national primary he won by a landslide, and then a sitting government. Many now ask whether he has the skills and the stomach to govern a major country in crisis.
As in the past, his current agenda is very ambitious. He sums it up as “cut up Italy.” Cut taxes, cut the bureaucracy, cut government programs and agencies, and effectively reduce parliament to a single house (he wants an unelected senate with no budget, no role in selecting the prime minister, no vote on budgetary matters). He’s created a panel to choose the first batch of “useless organisms” to eliminate, and he says that’s only “the antipasto,” with many more to come. He’s starting well. Last week parliament approved his budget, including tax cuts.
Among the likely projects: eliminate the requirement that all companies sign up with their local Chamber of Commerce, and find a way to encourage banks to lend more money to families and businesses. The IMF says that credit restrictions over the last 18 months have cost the country roughly 2.5 percent of GDP. But the biggest challenge will be the reform of labor laws, which means resolving the longstanding impasse between the trade unions, who want job security for their members, and the business community, which insists on greater flexibility in hiring and firing. Right now, there are long-term (think lifetime) contracts, and short-term agreements for brief periods, after which the former employees get thrown back on the unemployment rolls. Some of those who counsel Renzi think it would be best to have a much freer labor market, providing greater hope to those now working beneath a ticking clock as their short contract expires, and greater freedom to employers to expand and contract their employment numbers in response to market conditions.
While Renzi is the head of a center-left party that is the most recent version of what used to be the Communist party, he is certainly no doctrinaire leftist, and in many ways is no leftist at all, as demonstrated by his unlikely political alliance with Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia. Berlusconi himself remains a major force, and has just dodged imprisonment for fraud, which is a lucky break for Renzi since Berlusconi provides the prime minister with a majority.
Understanding Italy, one train at a time.Aug 12, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 45 • By THOMAS SWICK
Tim Parks has followed in that predominantly British literary tradition of making another country one’s home and then making that home one’s principal subject. Gerald Brenan chose Spain; Lawrence Durrell and Patrick Leigh Fermor shared Greece; William Dalrymple has claimed India. For the last three decades, Parks—with books like Italian Neighbors, A Season with Verona, Medici Money, and a number of novels—has taken it upon himself to explain Italy to the English-speaking world.
The slow, but steady, revelations of the Fascist era.
Jun 24, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 39 • By MICHAEL LEDEEN
Perhaps the most terrible thing about fascism was its enormous popularity. The German and Italian people—the same who had given the Western world many of its most notable cultural achievements—not only endured fascist tyranny; most of them were active and enthusiastic participants.
Atop a political volcano.
Mar 11, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 25 • By MICHAEL LEDEEN
Italy has long been the political laboratory of the West. From Roman republics and tyrannies through the city-states of the Renaissance, into the Counter-Reformation and on to fascism, Eurocommunism, and homegrown terrorism, the Italians have provided us with advance looks at our future. We should keep that in mind when sifting through the flotsam and jetsam of the Italian elections at the end of February.
2:35 PM, Jun 20, 2012 • By DANIEL HALPER
A new chart, set to be released later today by the minority office of the Senate Budget Committee, finds that, in the next five years, "U.S. Per Person Debt To Increase 7 Times Faster Than Italian Debt."
9:02 AM, May 16, 2012 • By DANIEL HALPER
The Republican Senate Budget Committee will release this new chart later today, showing that the "U.S. Spends More Per Person Than Portugal, Italy, Greece, Or Spain."
4:24 PM, Feb 16, 2012 • By RICHARD CLEARY and THOMAS DONNELLY
The $489 billion cut to defense budgets engineered by Barack Obama — as well as the played-for-fool Republican accomplices on Capitol Hill — won't just mean less American military power. These cuts have significant consequences for America's allies, as well.
The mystery of the land of Machiavelli and macaroni. Dec 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 14 • By MICHAEL LEDEEN
This thoughtful and useful book is misnamed: It should be called Italy, a Historical Portrait of a Failed State. But David Gilmour’s timing is impeccable, giving us this affectionate profile just as Italy raced to the brink of self-destruction. If you want to understand better how and why Italy doesn’t seem to function very well, this volume will help.
12:00 AM, Nov 26, 2011 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
Greece and Italy may be ungovernable, but America is ungoverned. The president ducked out of the country for an Asian tour while the supercommittee tried to reach agreement on a plan to cut the deficit.
11:07 AM, Nov 18, 2011 • By DALIBOR ROHAC
Mario Monti’s appointment as prime minister of Italy has given some hope to observers of the current crisis in the eurozone.
12:13 PM, Nov 23, 2010 • By JOHN ROSENTHAL
Last Friday, the American embassy in Rome held a panel discussion on the subject “Is the Internet Changing People’s Engagement in Democracy?” Fair enough. But the curious part is the identity of the featured speaker: one Sam Graham-Felsen, identified on the embassy website as “the Chief Blogger of the Electoral Campaign of President Obama” – by which is meant, “Chief Blogger” of the electoral campaign of then presidential candidate Obama in 2008.
The bailouts may be only just beginning.8:55 AM, Jul 19, 2010 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
In his statement celebrating the passage of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill last week, President Obama said: "There will be no more taxpayer-funded bailouts -- period."
Really? Let's assume Obama is right. Even under the best-case scenario, in which Dodd-Frank performs exactly as its technocratic architects intended, the legislation would -- with all necessary caveats attached -- prevent bailouts just in the financial sector.
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