The Italians have caste their lot

April 30, 2013

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.”

Italy’s ruling class has become – as the title of a best-selling 2007 exposé, La Casta (part-written by Sergio Rizzo), has it, a caste, insulated, overpaid, prone to theft and failing its state. The revelations of the crimes and misdemeanors committed by politicians and administrators in their quest to enrich themselves have been piled high in the past decade by journalists, academics and the courts. These have often been greeted with cynicism: So what? Wouldn’t you, if you had the chance?

In harsher times, this attitude breaks down, and anger takes its place. The most recent, extreme example: The unemployed, psychically lost and dangerous Luigi Preiti, went to Rome on Sunday “to kill a politician.” Not being able to find one, he shot two military policemen (one may be paralyzed for life) and a pregnant woman.

There is also the Five Star movement, which still takes its cue from the ranting diatribes in public squares of its leader, Beppe Grillo. Some blamed Grillo for creating the context in which Preiti acted: a reckless claim.

Amid all this a new government, sworn in on Sunday, must find a way to get things done. The prime minister, Enrico Letta, a soft-spoken former No. 2 in the left-of-center Democratic Party, told MPs that his government was “the one last chance” to save Italy. The technocratic former prime minister, Mario Monti, said something similar when he took office 18 months ago. One more time it is the last time.

Letta gave an assured speech, designed to be upbeat, outlining his program in parliament on Monday. But he has a mountain to climb even higher than that which faced Monti. As the commentator of the right, Maurizio Belpietro, pointed out in Libero, Letta promised something for everyone but neglected to say where the billions to fund his pledges were to be found. That’s a particular issue because of Letta’s pledge to cancel 6 billion euros’ worth of tax rises.

However overused the “last chance” rhetoric is, Letta may be right. Tolerance is now thin. People who have borne the elite’s corruption and arrogance with a patient shrug now increasingly say they don’t see why they should take it any more. Young people, both those coming out of the overcrowded and cut-to-the-bone universities and those leaving school for the job – read, jobless – market now join an unstable populace with little stake in the system (a phenomenon not confined to Italy).

Grillo’s movement, though inchoate and unfit for governance, has identified the right target: the political-administrative caste. Healthy democracies can’t bear a caste system for long, just as buses can’t run forever if no one pays the fare.

PHOTO: Newly appointed Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta (C) smiles after the swearing in ceremony for 21 new ministers at Quirinale palace in Rome, April 28, 2013. REUTERS/ Remo Casilli 

One comment

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Italy sounds similar to the USA, though here we have a system of legalized bribery (“campaign contributions” pocketed for personal use tax free and legally) to lead corruption. In both cases, you buy what you want from the Government by paying the “right” people.

At least in Italy they talk about it. Here it is all as “hush hush” as a politician’s child sex scandal. Maybe we should invite some of their investigative journalists to move here? Now there is a real use for an H1B visa program — we have a shortage of honest journalists here.

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