Italy has given much to the world over the centuries, from Cicero to Michelangelo to Lollobrigida, but in recent decades its chief contribution has been making other countries feel better about their own dysfunctional politics. The election in Italy today might be its most generous gift yet.
The results are still unknown, but it is hard to envision any happy outcome. On the ballot for Prime Minister is the usual mélange of neo-fascists, socialists, ultra-socialists, outright communists, and assorted crackpots, with four front-runners who represent only a slight improvement. Italy’s economy is moribund, its debt suffocating, its institutions corrupt, and each of the candidates are offering only different varieties of wishful thinking.
One is the incumbent, Mario Monti. A former Senator for Life who is invariably described as a “technocrat,” Monti is the favorite of the continent’s political establishment due to his policy of raising taxes, slashing spending, and otherwise adhering to the dictates of the country’s nervous European Union creditors. This what is President Barack Obama likes to call a “balanced approach” to deficit reduction, but it hasn’t done much to balance Italy’s budget. The taxes have had their predictable dampening effect on the already-reeling private sector, the cuts have inflicted the expected pain on a country that has become reliant on government spending, and the supposed blessing of continued EU membership only means that Italy can’t devalue its way to competitiveness. To his credit Monti has attempted to de-regulate the country’s straitjacketed labor market, but he has failed to persuade the country’s left-leaning legislators.
Another contender is the former Prime Minister, Sylvio Berlusconi. A super-rich media and sports magnate once considered something of a conservative by European standards, Berlusconi is promising tax cuts and rebates to go along with continued austerity, a plan likely to worsen the nation’s debt crises absent the sort of deregulation that the more politically adept Monti failed to achieve. The tax cuts are naturally popular with the voters, as is Berlusconi’s offer to pay off €4 billion of the nation’s debt with his money, but his campaign has been plagued by the sorts of scandals that would be fatal to any conservative American politician. In addition to countless bribery and abuse of power accusations, the 76-year-old Berlusconi is currently on trial for having sex with an underage prostitute during what Reuters calls a “bunga bunga” orgy at his Milan villa, and he’s even reported to have made suggestive remarks to a woman who shared a stage with him at a business event. Political corruption and sexual harassment are longstanding Italian traditions, but Berlusconi was nonetheless protested by a group of topless women who apparently believe that the proper punishment for a dirty old man is to wave bare breasts in his face.
The campaign’s dark horse is Beppe Grillo, a former television comedian. His newly-formed Five Star Movement party is promising lower taxes, a 20-hour work week, free internet and electronic tablets for all schoolchildren, and a “green economy” that will replace the gross domestic product with “gross domestic happiness.” None of this is intended as a joke, apparently, despite Grillo’s past occupation.
As we post this the betting favorite seems to be Pier Luigi Bersani, a longtime political leader of the center-left Democratic Party. Bersani’s prescription for the economy is higher taxes on the rich, a favored solution of center-left Democratic parties everywhere, but the idea hasn’t worked anywhere yet and is even more likely to fail in Italy. There’s a dwindling supply of rich Italians , and they will soon find that there are any number of more accommodating tax jurisdictions where they can spend their euros.
There is some comfort in knowing that there are still places that make America look relatively sane, but it is nonetheless sobering to contemplate how bad things might yet get. America has a staggering economy and skyrocketing debt of its own, and its political leadership is reduced to the same failed notions of “balance,” class resentments, and resistance to freeing the private sector from burdensome government control. We also have allegedly underage-prostitute-loving politicians of our own, too, along with cronyism, elected officials who are both literally and figuratively comedians, and a wishful-thinking public that seems bored rather than outraged by it all. It’s easy to sneer at the Italians, and quite fun, but they should serve as a warning.
— Bud Norman