Opinion

John Lloyd

The Italians have caste their lot

John Lloyd
Apr 30, 2013 21:24 UTC

Let’s begin with two glimpses of the workings of the Italian state.

First, it was announced last week that passengers would be required to mount a bus only at the door in the front, and pay the driver on entry. The present system, in which tickets are bought in cafes and other shops and stamped at machines on the bus after entry from any one of several doors, has resulted in such widespread evasion that it’s calculated that only a minority of riders buy tickets on publicly owned buses. In Naples, three out of 10 play by the rules. The wonder is that three bother to pay.

Second, the ruins of Pompeii, buried by lava from the volcano Vesuvius in 79 AD and thus preserved as a Roman town, is one of the world’s wonders. It is also among its worst-preserved wonders. The Italian authorities have taken such poor care of it that several buildings have collapsed, and much-needed European Union money has been withheld because of the bureaucratic chaos.

The Italian state is one of the most swollen in the democratic world. It has some 330,000 police officers in a dozen different agencies, more than any other country in the EU and twice the number in the UK, which is slightly bigger in population. The private sector in health, education and welfare is tiny. The administrations, at district, city, provincial, regional and national levels, have their own councils, bureaucracies and, in many cases, police forces.

The largest issue: The state is not only hypertrophied, it is thoroughly politicized. There are more elected politicians in the country than in any other European state.

Yet – or therefore – it is often deeply inefficient and substantially corrupt. It’s corrupt openly and covertly. The politicians, the upper administrative class and the top judiciary have awarded themselves salaries larger than their equivalents in other – and richer – European states. Meanwhile, large amounts of the money allocated by the state for various projects are stolen. Several investigations are now going on into the misuse of funds allocated to Pompeii in the past few years. “Pompeii,” says Sergio Rizzo, one of Italy’s most prominent investigative reporters, “is a beautiful place but … it also reveals the workings of Italian chaos.”

The Tsarnaevs’ Chechen resistance

John Lloyd
Apr 23, 2013 16:01 UTC

Many men in Chechnya, the mountainous region in the Russian Caucasus that has been fought over for three centuries, define themselves as warriors. They see the title as both their birthright, and the source of their manly honor. Now, their example has gone global, like so much else.

Nearly 20 years ago, with Pilar Bonet of the Spanish daily El País, I persuaded two Chechens to drive us out of Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, to some high ground, so that we might catch a glimpse of the Russian army advancing on the city. It was the beginning of the first Chechen war, in 1994. Russian President Yeltsin had tired of the defiance of the self- appointed Chechen leader Dzhokar Dudayev, who had declared Checnya’s independence – one of Russia’s Caucasus republics. He sent in the army.

Our drivers, a father and son, sped their rattling Lada out of the city and headed west, in the direction of the advancing Russians. As we drove, the older of the two men reached under the seat and, grinning, produced a Kalashnikov submachine gun and a pistol. He announced the intention to strike a blow for freedom against the Russians. Not wanting to join them in a bloody ditch, we asked to be let out, to the evident scorn of the son. The older man, with a hint of apology, said you must understand: “Lyubim oruzhie”  – “we love guns.”

The nuance behind the iron

John Lloyd
Apr 16, 2013 14:38 UTC

There’s no time more apt for murmuring the ending of Brutus’s speech in Julius Caesar than the week of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral: “The evil men do lives after them/the good is oft interred with their bones.” No time better, either, to add that the “evil” that, in this case one woman, did is little examined by her detractors, who prefer to stick to a diabolical version of her 12-year rule.

Margaret Thatcher (narrowly) won the 1979 election because the Labour government of the 1970s, under Prime Ministers Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, had unsuccessfully tried to make a contract with the trade unions. In such a contract, pay would have been calibrated to productivity, and increases would be low in order to bring down high rates of inflation and to keep up investment in the socialized education, health and welfare institutions that disproportionately benefited the lower classes. It was the kind of social deal that the Germans and the Scandinavians had and still – in part – have: one that produces economies that, not by chance, have escaped the worst of the economic buffeting of the past five years.

But the attempt failed. The turn of 1978-79 was called the “Winter of Discontent” – another Shakespearean tag, this time from Richard III. Power failed; transport was constantly disrupted; hospitals and ambulance services closed. Most memorably, some gravediggers in Liverpool struck, and bodies piled up in a factory. All that Labour had held out as its usefulness to the nation – the ability to bring organized workers into a lasting, productive and stable agreement – was shattered. The party lost, but so did working men and women.

North Korea’s known unknowns

John Lloyd
Apr 8, 2013 18:06 UTC

As Donald Rumsfeld used to say, there are known unknowns. Two of them are confronting the world today, and both stem from the Korean peninsula. 

One: What will North Korean leader Kim Jong-un do now? He’s ordered missiles to be ramped up, fired a gun on TV, watched missiles shoot down dummy planes and told his military they were cleared for an attack on South Korea and the United States. He said “a sea of fire” would engulf his enemies if they dared to provoke him. Earlier this week, South Korea’s Unification Minister, Ryoo Kihi-Jae, said “there are signs” that a fourth nuclear test is being prepared at the Punggye-ri test site. What is the next move? 

The other quandary: What will the newly installed Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose state has protected North Korea for decades, do now?

Beppe Grillo’s anti-disappointment party

John Lloyd
Apr 3, 2013 17:37 UTC

Jim O’Neill, head of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, thinks Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement is a greater threat to Europe and the euro than the trials of little Cyprus. That’s because Grillo received more than a quarter of the votes in February’s election in Italy and has since gridlocked the political system by refusing any dealings with the established parties. A government can’t be formed.

O’Neill warned that if growth does not come soon to the euro zone’s third-largest economy, stalled for longer than any other in Europe, even more people will start to support Grillo’s movement and its call for a referendum on membership of the euro zone. What, he asked, does Grillo think? His response: “Does anyone really know?”

I do, Jim.

Grillo and his collaborator, the slightly mystic Gianroberto Casaleggio, believe that the Web is the new form of democracy, infinitely superior to the representative parliamentary kind in which, they say, leaders frame the politics and politics fail the people. The Five Star Movement, said Casaleggio in a recent book, believes the word leader “is a word from the past, a dirty word that leads you astray. Leader of what? It means that you attribute intelligence and the power of decision making to others, so you aren’t even a slave, you’re an object.”

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