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Articles on Italy after 2005
Italy is not fit for the eurozone
Woytila's sins
Woytila and the USA
When democracy betrays itself
The unlikely alliance
Is Berlusconi fit for Europe?
Berlusconi: the Italian way to bipolarism
Something did change in Italy
Italy: The truth about the unsolved mystery of the 1980 crash at Ustica
Italy's new democracy: new names but old habits

  • (September 2005) Italy is not fit for the eurozone Italy should have been expelled from the European Union when its voters elected Silvio Berlusconi as their prime minister: Berlusconi embodies all the worst problems of Europolitics. (But then one would have to expel France too, because Chirac's record is not any cleaner).
    Now Italy is also wreaking havoc in the economic arena. Its national debt is the highest of any major country in the world (120% of GDP), and it keeps growing by more than 3% a year. Over the last 15 years (according to the Economist), Italy's economic growth has been the slowest in the European Union. Italians seem totally indifferent to the numbers, perhaps because they have been warned for decades of an impending apocalypse that never came. But the apocalypse might just be around the corner, and the entire eurozone would be affected.
    Far from accepting the responsibility of having lived above their means, Italians are asking the government to retain as much of the social system as possible and to keep increasing the salaries of government employees. At the same time, Italian workers are demanding salary raises from Italian companies that are not competitive on the world markets, and each salary increase makes them even less competitive. Labor cost has gone up 27% in Italy since the introduction of the euro, one of the highest increases in the West, while productivity has declined slightly and energy prices remain among the highest in the world. (See the Global Competitiveness Report 2005-2006 of the World Economic Forum: Italy ranks below many third-world countries). Basically, nobody in Italy feels that he or she should pay any part of the national bill. Italians carry on with life as usual, convinced that money will magically appear.
    The explanation for this attitude is very simple: for a long time, before Italy joined the eurozone, money (liras) used to magically appear. For a long time, the Italian government used a simple logic to set the record straight, the "you pretend to work, I pretend to raise your salary" approach. Both the Italian government and Italian entrepreneurs would accept increases in spending to satisfy the people's demands, but then the Italian government would simply devalue the lira. Between 1992 and 1995, for example, the lira's value fell almost 35% compared with the major European currencies. De facto, the Italian government simply made all Italians 35% poorer while granting them a 10-20% salary increase. Italian companies were still competitive because a 10-20% salary increase in liras was offset by a real drop of 35% for the devalued lira. Italians learned that they could ask for the moon, and get it: except that each time they got the moon (on paper) their house shrank a bit (not just on paper). To get a bit richer, Italians paid the price of getting a lot poorer. This system worked wonders for decades. Italians got poorer and poorer compared with Germany and Japan (that were as poor as Italy in the 1950s), and less and less rich compared with just about any rising economy, from Spain to Ireland. But Italians were willing to accept it in return for salary increases, pensions, free health care, etc.
    Italians are still behaving the same way, except that now the euro does not allow the Italian government to use the old trick: the Italian government can't make Italians poorer by devaluing the currency anymore. Thus the increases have become real (the cost of labor in Italy has increased faster than in any other major western economy), thus Italian companies have lost competitiveness worldwide, thus Italian entrepreneurs have shut down operations or left Italy. De facto, Italy is now one of the most expensive places in the world to run a business (especially if one also takes into account the country's byzantine bureaucracy, personified by an army of highly-paid notary publics, and the poor telecommunication infrastructure, personified by millions of Italians who have never sent an email). In the meantime, Italy has raised a class of professional non-workers who manage to get a salary from the government without working: an impressive percentage of the population does not work but receives money from the government (early retirements, unemployment benefits, handicap insurance). Those who do work have a strong motivation to retire as soon as they get offered a deal: Italian pensions are among the most generous in the world (especially if they have reached the aristocratic level of "dirigente", which entitles one to a monthly payment many times higher than the monthly payment of an ordinary person). The Economist's estimate is that real employment in Italy is 58%, compared with Britain's 73%.
    The number of parameters that are spinning out of control in Italy is very high, and ranges from the financial to the infrastructural. Italy's infrastructure (roads, railways, airports and especially the postal service) is terrible by any standard (entering Italy overland from any other country is always a shock). On the financial front, Italy's stockmarket is one of the smallest in the West (and even smaller than in many developing countries). The influence of the Vatican does not make things easier. For example, the Bank of Italy is the personal feud of an Antonio Fazio who is more famous for going to church every single day than for being honest.
    Italians are unlikely to change. They may change the government, but the new government will be governing over the same Italians, and therefore will simply do more of the same: more salary increases, more pensions, more subsidies. Italians still expect to live above their means, and expect someone else to pay for it. This will only lead to more companies shutting down or leaving Italy, and to an ever higher national debt. The obvious solution is to go back to the lira, which can be conveniently devalued. If Italy abandoned the euro and returned to the lira, the lira would be worth much less than it was before the introduction of the euro, which would automatically adjust labor costs and everything else to make Italy less expensive. This may help the Italian industry recover.
    In other words, Italy has to become as cheap as Romania and China in order to recover. (In fact, Italy's "black" economy is booming: one reason that Italians have managed to stay afloat is that thousands of businesses are not legally incorporated, therefore they do not have to obey the laws on labor issues, therefore they are competitive, but, of course, they do not pay taxes and their employees are in the same unprotected situation as the illegal African immigrants).
    Ultimately, the reason for this situation is that Italy, while living above its means, has built precious little value over the decades. While Germany and France can boast highly competitive industries, Italy is competitive only in sport cars and fashion, industries that employ very few people, and that are, fundamentally, low-tech. High-tech exports only account for 12% of all exports, a percentage more typical of developing countries than of industrial countries. On the other hand, how could it be otherwise, if Italy only spends 1% of its GDP on research? And how can there be innovation if the quality of Italian education (particularly high school and university) keeps falling dramatically? (No Italian university makes the OECD list of top 90 universities in the world). The big Italian companies survive only thanks to government subsidies. They couldn't find a buyer if they wanted to. Italian goods are just very low quality, manufactured with obsolete processes in ageing factories manned by old-fashioned workers. Thus the only solution is to make Italian goods, at least, very cheap, which involves the traditional devaluation, which can happen only if Italy leaves the eurozone. (To be fair, Italy's government has tried a new trick: it legitimized part-time and temporary jobs that are reminiscent of the unregulated jobs in developing countries, a trick that has created almost one million jobs in a few years).
    While the percentage of manufacturing jobs has dropped to 10% in the USA, it remains artificially high in Italy at more than 20%. This is a symptom that Italians have been extremely reluctant to move on. But now they find themselves with one of the most obsolete economies in the West. (Ironically, many Italian politicians and activists are doing everything they can to "protect" those grotesquely antiquated manufacturing jobs).
    Stop blaming Berlusconi: Berlusconi represents, after all, the typical Italian narrow-minded attitude of caring only for one's immediate interests and leaving the solution of the big problems to future generations. Berlusconi is a symptom, not the source of the problem. Any politician who accepts to become prime minister of Italy is either incompetent or dishonest. This will be true also for the next one. And it is not clear what is worse: incompetence or dishonesty.
    It is hard to see how Italy can stop its decline, unless Italians are willing to make the sacrifices that they always pretended to make but never actually made.
    TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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  • (April 2004) Woytila's sins. Karol Woytila is now being hailed as a great man by everybody, but one wonders how many really mean it. His policies had few fans, if any at all, outside the Vatican. His main achievement could be, quite simply, that he lasted a long time.
    To start with, he did very little to improve the lots of millions of poor people in the world. He stuck to the Church's old concept that starving to death is not too bad, as long as you believe in redemption. If fewer people starve to death in 2005, it is not thanks to Pope John Paul II, but thanks to the politicians who improved the economies of third-world countries (usually, on the basis of liberal capitalism) and to the USA that spread free trade and democracy all over the world. The Pope did very little to foster this change. In fact, there is evidence that the Church resented it, and tried to slow down the process. Clearly, poor starving people are more likely to go to church than free, wealthy people.
    Woytila was also grotesquely indifferent towards the biggest plague of his age: AIDS. He rarely pronounced the name, and rarely made sensible proposals to fight it. Mostly, he kept telling people that if you don't have sex, then you don't get AIDS (false, by the way). And, to those dying, he basically preached that dying is ok as long as you go to paradise. Both messages make a lot of sense if you believe in Woytila's afterlife, if you share his concept that life on this planet is a brief prelude to eternal life; but most people in 2005 simply don't. Thus the Catholic Church can pride itself in being the world organization that did the least to fight AIDS.
    Thus it is not surprising that this Pope presided over the exodus from the Church of millions of Catholics, particularly in urban areas. Since they were saved by democracy and/or capitalism, they have little or no motivation to attending mass. The fact that the Catholic Church was so negligible in improving the living conditions of the world has caused a decrease (not an increase) in the degree of spirituality around the world. The Pope's funeral is evidence of this trend: it has become a great media circus, similar to the ones that followed the trial of rugby player O.J. Simpson or pop star Michael Jackson. Jesus must be shivering on the cross.
    The notion that the Pope caused the downfall of communism is exaggerated at best. Communism fell because the Soviet Union (the real name for what used to be called "communism") went bankrupt and couldn't afford any more invasions. It went bankrupt not because the Pope held a mass in Poland, but because the USA kept fighting it globally. Eventually, one system prevailed (the USA) and the other one collapsed (the Soviet Union). The Catholic Church helped the USA win the same way by supporting right-wing dictators such as Pinochet and Marcos who massacred communists. But most of the job was done by the USA. The Pope visited Poland in 1979: nothing changed in Poland, the Soviet Union of the world. The leader of the Soviet Union was Breznev, possibly the staunchest defender of the one-party system. The Soviet Union began to collapse later, in 1985, when the pressure applied by Ronald Reagan became intolerable.
    In fact, humankind was lucky that the Pope mattered so little, because he could have seriously derailed the process towards freedom and democracy. Take Iraq. For twenty years, Pope John Paul II ignored Saddam's crimes. He even blessed Saddam's helper Tariq Aziz, but never blessed the Kurdish martyrs butchered by Saddam's regime. When the USA decided to remove Saddam was power, the Pope was adamantly against the idea. Once Saddam was removed, the Pope never even thought of blessing the new Iraqi government, elected by the Iraqi people. De facto, this attitude meant that he supported Saddam Hussein and opposed democracy. This is, in fact, emblematic of the way the Catholic Church has behaved throughout the centuries in all parts of the world. One of his predecessors adopted the same stance towards Mussolini and Hitler, condoning their crimes and ignoring the holocaust.
    The greatest failure of this Pope is that he did not manage to change the Church, make it less cynical and more humane, make it a tool for the people not for the dictators.
    As a matter of fact, this can be viewed as one of the Catholic Church's lowest moments: the Pope's funeral has become a media circus, a rather embarrassing spectable of millions of "pilgrims" eager to take a picture of the Pope's cadaver as a souvenir or a collector item. The Church accepts it out of desperation: since the Church is less important than ever, since the Pope matters less than ever, since fewer and fewer Catholics attend mass, all the publicity the Vatican can get for free is welcome. In a sense, this is the culmination of the Pope's mission to generate as much publicity as possible for the Church, as the only way to slow down its inevitable decline.
    TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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  • (April 2004) Woytila and the USA. He presided over a rapidly declining faith. He presided over a church weakened by scandals (the countless cases of child molestation by priests) and by the blatant anachronism of its dogmas (women are inferior to men, sex out of wedlock is sin, abortion is murder, etc).
    Nonetheless, his first visit to Poland in 1979 contributed to the downfall of communism, and thus to shaping the history of the 21st century, in particular the "reunification" of Western and Eastern Europe (one of his declared goals). Indirectly, he also contributed to the rise of the religious right in the USA, that would eventually produce one of the most conservative presidents of all times, George W Bush. (Bush is, in many ways, the political counterpart of Woytila's conservative moralism). Whether by sheer luck or by design, Woytila had clearly contributed to dramatically alter balances of power in the world at a time when the Catholic Church was weaker than ever: quite an accomplishment.

    His relationship with the USA, in particular, has been ambiguous at best. They were allied against communism, but the Pope never seemed to embrace enthusiastically the leader of the free world. It always seemed like a marriage of convenience. The Pope must have been aware that he owed his power to the USA. Without the USA, the recent history of Poland would have been much less exciting. Without the USA, persecution against religion by communist regimes around the world would have continued to take a toll. It was the USA's victory in the Cold War that made it possible for the Church to resurrect in so many countries, previously ruled by atheist regimes.
    The funerals themselves are symbolic of this fact. Millions of people are watching and traveling to see the Pope's funerals. It is not only the largest crowd in history, but also the largest gathering of world leaders in history. But this is only partly due to the popularity of the Pope: it is, instead, mainly an indirect consequence of the USA's domination of the world. The popularity of both the Catholic church and Islam is largely due to the fact that the USA won the Cold War. For fifty years half of the world lived under the tyranny of communist regimes that were happy to burn churches and mosques. With the victory of the USA, religion has been able to regain its foothold in human society almost everywhere in the world (the notable exception being China).
    If, on one hand, Woytila owed his "power" to the USA, on the other hand the USA was probably his nemesis.
    Far from contenting himself with the results of his political meddling, Woytila had probably just embarked on a new ambitious project: criminalizing the USA, the strongest force pulling away from Catholic values.
    The USA may indeed be the main enemy of everything this Pope stood for. A world ruled by the USA is almost as bad as a world ruled by the communists: are capitalist greed and consumerism indifference any better than communism? The USA is, de facto, creating a world in which religion is not essential. This is even more dangerous than the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union oppressed religion, but religion remained in the hearts and minds of the people. The USA is removing religion from the hearts and minds of the people. Furthermore, the center of the world is moving towards America, away from Europe. If the Church wants to remain a powerful political establishment and not only a tourist attraction, it needs to "conquer" the USA.
    It is likely that Woytila saw the USA as a mere tool in the fight against the totalitarian regime of Moskow that was trying to annihilate the Church in his home country, and little more. Once the goal of restoring the Church in Poland was achieved, he turned against the USA, realizing (correctly) that the USA more than any other force (more than Islam itself) represents the most appealing anti-Christian alternative, a life of degenerate sex and unbounded selfishness; an alternative that has been making converts faster than any religion.
    The problem runs even deeper. There is a fundamental friction between the Church and the USA: the USA is a democracy, a strong believer in spreading democracy to the whole world. Religion is not a democracy: religion is a dictatorship of God. It makes no sense to speak of a democratic religion: either the rules come from God (and humans have no power to change them) or they don't (and God does not exist). You can't have it both ways. If rules come from God, then the will of millions of Americans is totally irrelevant: if God exists, it is irrelevant what the majority of American Catholics think about abortion, premarital sex, priests' marriage, etc. But American Catholics are, first and foremost, American: their instinct is to follow the will of the majority, not the will of God. The Catholic Church in the USA will inevitably become more and more democratic (more and more run by the will of the majority, not by the will of God). The Roman Catholic Church thinks in centuries, and is indifferent to what the majority of today's people think today: something that Peter or Paul said two thousand years ago is far more important than what the majority of today's people think, because Peter and Paul were supposed to be speaking on behalf of God, and today's masses are not. On the other hand, Americans think in years, not in centuries: they are interested in what happens during their lifetime, not in what Peter or Paul of Jesus himself said two thousand years ago.
    Put it bluntly, Americans don't care whether the Pope is closer to God than them or not. They only care for what they like and don't like. What God wants is negligible compared with what they want. This is a chasm that, most likely, no Pope will ever bridge, short of abandoning the dogma of God's infallibility. Ultimately, Americans don't believe in God: they believe that "they" are God. (Not surprisingly, Zen is making converts faster than Catholicism).
    This is a fundamental ideological conflict between the Catholic Church (that believes in the dictatorship of God, represented by the holy scriptures as interpreted over the course of two thousand years of holy people) and the USA (that believes in the democracy of today's human beings).
    Woytila didn't have time to complete his crusade against the USA, only to frame the problem: on one side, the Church with his faith in love and social justice; on the other side, the USA with its faith in business (the opposite of love) and the market economy (the opposite of social justice). The next Pope will decide how to tackle the issue: continue the crusade (possibly allying with the enemies of the USA the same way Woytila allied with the enemies of the Soviet Union) or find a way to reconcile USA capitalism and Roman Catholicism.
    Let us not forget that the Soviet Union was brought down by the combined action of two religions: the Pope started the rebellion in the Soviet colonies of Eastern Europe while the Afghan Mujaheddin crippled Soviet rule in Central Asia. (And one could add the Jews, who worked in a subtle way inside the system, and eventually ran the transition to post-Soviet Russia). Was the Cold War a war between the USA and the Soviet Union, or was it a war between atheism and religion? Who won it, the USA or a coalition of Catholicism and Islam? If we recast the Cold War as a war between atheism and religion, then the USA would be its next natural target... as Islamic fundamentalists already realized.

    TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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  • (May 2004) When democracy betrays itself. "Quando la democrazia si tradisce" ("When democracy betrays itself") was the title of hte May 20 front-page article in one of Italy's main dailies, "La Repubblica". The article (alas, typical of the level of Italian journalism) was the usual concentrate of anti-American rhetorics, a sloppy mixture of Mussolini-style propaganda and Al Jazeera- style exaggerations. The title was meant to refer to the USA, a democracy which betrays itself when it kills and tortures prisoners of war (the article indirectly implied that this is done daily by all USA soldiers). But the title can better refer to the attitude displayed by this very article. Readers of dailies such as "La Repubblica" live in a virtual world, invented by the imaginative writers of "La Repubblica", a world that has little or nothing to do with the real world. They are fed daily news that are mostly exaggerations or personal interpretations of (more or less) real facts (for example, a world in which the USA has lost the war in Iraq, as an article of May 18, page 18, said). Day after day, the editors of these dailies write "editorials" (i.e., personal interpretations) of the fictional "facts" reported the day before. Thus the reader of "La Repubblica" becomes a sort of "Alice in Wonderland" or "Pinocchio" living in a magic world that continuously reinvents itself.
    This makes for great sociological discussions (why are people hypnotized by newspapers that do not report news but only personal interpretations of alleged news?) but it also represents a serious breach of the contract between the democratic state and its citizens. Basically, these antidemocratic forces exploit a trick to fight democracy from within. All democratic constitutions grant citizens freedom of speech. That freedom is restricted in that one cannot insult others or spread rumours/lies that would hurt someone else's reputation or business. In other words, your freedom is restricted by the right of others to sue you if you say or do something that hurts them. But there is no law keeping people from lying on general issues. If I write in a book that "Rome is the capital of France", nobody can punish me. This is perfectly legal. There is no law against spreading false information. Never mind that millions of people who have not studied geography will be fooled into thinking that the capital of France is indeed Rome.
    Out of this loophole of democratic constitutions, an entire category of media has been created whose main business is to spread false information, and then interpret it, analyze it, review it, etc. Basically, these media first decide which editorials they want to write, and then create (or exaggerate) the news to justify those editorials.
    Needless to say, false information would not sell if it were about, say, the king of Morocco or the president of Zimbabwe. It sells if it is about the USA, the most famous and controversial topic of the era. Thus the vast majority of such "false-news analysis" targets the USA. But the phenomenon extends way beyond anti-American propaganda. In the USA, Rush Limbaugh (one of the most popular radio personalities of all times) is a good example of the same phenomenon applied to the opposite political spectrum (staunch USA nationalism, mostly based on grotesque lies and exaggerations). Bill O'Riley, one of most partisan commentators in the world, routinely edits interviews with his guests so as to distort what they actually told him. (See for example David Cole's case). People like Limbaugh and O'Reilly are enemies of democracy as much as communists.
    The way these media "betray" democracy is by using a fundamental principle of democracy (freedom of speech) to legitimize lying on a grand scale. In Italian, one could coin the expression "cultura della menzogna", a culture of lying. A lie repeated many times, over and over again (like a mantra), becomes a fact. And soon a virtual reality is created out of these "facts".
    This is clearly a weakness of democracies. There is no law against lying. There is no punishment for writing that Rome is the capital of France, or that the marines never entered Baghdad, or that the USA routinely tortures prisoners, or the many documented lies that embellish Rush Limbaugh's delirious speeches. Sure, it's easy to prove the falsity of all of these statements, but readers of dailies such as "La Repubblica" in Italy and Limbaugh's listeners in the USA are not interested in hearing the other version of the facts. They, too, are exercizing a democratic right: the right to read (listen to) only what they want to read (listen to). Democracy indirectly protects people who lie and people who want to hear only the lies. The combination of writers who specialize in lying (who invoke the right to lie) and readers who are not interested in the truth (who invoke the right to only listen to the lies) creates a market for false news, an eventually an entire culture of lying. Democracy has no way to stop the spreading of the "cultura della menzogna": it grants both the right to lie and the right to read the lie.
    That was not the reason that democracy was invented. In fact, democracy was meant to foster accurate reporting of the facts instead of a dictator's self-interested propaganda. But the media often betray democracy by interpreting freedom of speech as freedom of lying. We need laws that would punish any media report that can be proven to be false. Opinions are opinions, but facts are facts: Rome is "not" the capital of France, and anyone who says or writes so should be liable in front of the law.
    The USA democracy did not betray itself: in fact, the good news is that this scandal (like all the previous ones, from Watergate to Monica Lewinsky) was revealed in the USA. The president has virtually apologized and someone may have to resign. The good news is that the USA democracy is correcting itself. But media such as "La Repubblica" are betraying democracy with no self-correction mechanism.
    TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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  • (May 2004) The unlikely alliance. Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's prime minister, is an odd character. Just about everybody in Italy thinks that Berlusconi (the richest man in the country and one of the richest in the world) is mainly interested in advancing his own private agenda rather than improving Italy's economy. Just about everybody abroad thinks that a man who controls the six largest tv channels (he owns three of them and indirectly heads the three national ones) is tampering with the very concept of democracy.
    But his personal record (rare if not unique among leaders of democratic countries) is less bizarre than his enemies. He has somehow managed to create a united front against him that includes the most unlikely partners. First of all, there is the old establishment, right and left united: both the old Christian Democrats (DC) and the old Communists belong to the anti-Berlusconi alliance. They spent 50 years fighting each other (and controlling about 60-80% of the votes), but now side with each other. They include such glories of Italy as Giulio Andreotti, the most charismatic DC leader, who has been repeatedly accused of ties with the mafia and ran the DC during the age of widespread corruption. The members of the old PCI (Communist Party) are divided in two: there is the new Party of the Left (DS), headed by Piero Fassino (previously by Massimo d'Alema), which has aligned itself with Europe's socialdemocratic parties, and then there is the Stalinist party of Fausto Bertinotti. The latter is a rather small entity, but it is the most purely anti-American component of this aggregate. Thus it is not surprising that Bertinotti, an old-fashioned Stalinist, is sometimes leading the anti-Berlusconi camp (similarly, the leaders of the ultra-comunist parties Arlette Laguiller and Olivier Besancenot are leading the "pacifist" front in France). The anti-Berlusconi front also includes politicians that led the transition from the old order (the corrupt political system of the DC era) to the new order (when the "Mani Pulite" scandal sent many of Andreotti's colleagues and friends to jail). The most notable is Romano Prodi, now president of the European commission but also candidate of this united front to replace Berlusconi. He represents bureaucracy for the sake of bureaucracy, having been in charge of large Soviet-style state companies and having been in charge of bureaucracy within the European Union. Another influential character of that intermediate generation is Azelio Ciampi, now president of Italy, a largely honorary position. He is seen by many in Italy as being neutral, above the fray, despite the fact that he has clearly sided against Berlusconi and clearly sided against Italy's venture in Iraq. A widely-read daily, "La Repubblica", devotes most of its articles to anti-American propaganda and, as a by-product, to attacks against Berlusconi (a sort of "Al Jazeera" for the Italian middle class). Finally, the Catholic Church (and sometimes pope John Paul II in person) does not hide its annoyance at Berlusconi's moves. The vast majority (if not totality) of Italy's intellectual class (writers, filmmakers, etc) are solidly against Berlusconi.
    Berlusconi has aligned himself and Italy with Bush and his Iraqi war. This has significantly increased the gap between the Berlusconi camp and the anti-Berlusconi camp (suddenly regrouped under the banner of "Pace", "peace", a slogan ironically appropriated by the Stalinists themselves). The more Berlusconi sides with Bush, the more united the anti-Berlusconi front seems to be.
    Berlusconi can count on very few friends, and those are odd friends too: Alleanza Nazionale, led by Fini, is a descendant of the old fascist party, and Lega Nord, led by Umberto Bossi, is one of Europe's largest xenophobic parties. Italy's industrial elite is probably closer to Berlusconi than to his opponents, but they provide a rather mild support. Berlusconi's real weapon is his control of television programming. At one point his networks are said to have broadcasted hours of interviews with Berlusconi but only a few seconds of interviews with the opposition. Berlusconi won the elections thanks to this key advantage, but also (mainly?) because the country was fed up with traditional politicians.
    Italy has a record of having pioneered ideas (particularly the bad ones) that later spread around the world: fascism (that begat Hitler and the Latin-American caudillos), the mafia (that begat organized crime and the druglords), the DC (that begat corrupt democracies in developing countries), and the conversion of communists into socialdemocrats (later copied throughout Eastern Europe). The world should watch closely to what happens in Italy. Its unlikely alliance of Catholics, former Communists, intellectuals and Euro-nationalists might herald a new kind of politics, where the old ideological poles are replaced by new "political" poles. Italy is experimenting a shift of dimensions. It Communists and Christians, who used to be the two poles of the old order, are just one pole when viewed from the new dimension. It represents an old system of values, in which it was ok to dissent on things such as democracy and Marxism, but fundamentally they agreed on a traditional way of doing politics. The new pole that is emerging in Italy's new political dimension is the pole of a different kind of politics, much more cynical and much less ideological. In a sense, Italy is experimenting with a system in which one pole is the pole of ideologies (no matter which ones) and the other one is a pole in which ideologies are banned and pragmatics prevails (to wit, a return to Machiavelli, albeit in a democratic setting). Fini best summarized the new pole with his non-ideological slogan "Only one interest: the Italians".
    Summarizing, one can see Italy's experiment as a new kind of democratic system in which the citizen does not choose between two ideologies, but chooses (at a higher dimension) between the (old) system of ideologies and a system without ideologies.
    At least, that was the intention of the voters who created these poles. Berlusconi may have given his own interpretation of this new political dimension, one in which the non-ideological pole is simply a permanent exaltation of Berlusconi himself. But, despite whatever distortion Berlusconi's persona may have introduced, Italy's experiment is intriguing, to say the least.
    TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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  • (July 2003) Is Berlusconi fit for Europe?. Italy inherits from Greece the presidency of the European Union, at a time when its prime minister, Berlusconi, happens to be the most controversial leader in EUrope.
    The majority of Italians, including the ones who voted for him, believe that Berlusconi did something wrong, but then all Italian politicians and businessmen did something wrong at some point in their career, so it's ok to have a prime minister who is, to some extent, a crook. For example, ask 100 Italians about Romano Prodi and they will tell you something very similar: it is likely he, too, was involved in shady deals when he was one of Italy's chief businessmen and when he became prime minister. Nonetheless, Romano Prodi has been leading the European Commission. Now ask the same Italians if they prefer Prodi or Berlusconi as prime minister and they will shiver at the idea of having Prodi again: the guy can't even speak, and was mainly famous for not doing anything, for working out only compromises for the sake of compromises (he's doing the same in his current job, and that is the reason why he is so popular among members of the European parliament: he doesn't do anything, so he is not dangerous).
    The question of ethical values in politics is a good one, but one wonders why pick on Berlusconi (who is guilty, at worst, of having bribed people) and not on Chirac (who is guilty of association with one of the worst killers since Hitler, his "personal friend" Saddam Hussein, and has supported dictators worldwide) or Schroeder (whose government is not completely innocent of the widespread sales of German nuclear and chemical technology to rogue states around the world). The democratic world lacks clear standards of morality: why was Clinton impeached for lying about a love affair while Bush is not impeached for lying about his tax cuts, which cause much bigger damage to ordinary people?
    Berlusconi is probably unfit for Europe. So are Chirac and Schroeder.
    TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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  • (May 2002) Berlusconi: the Italian way to bipolarism. During his campaign, Berlusconi promised to cut taxes, create jobs, curb immigration and reform health care and pensions. On these very important issues, nothing has changed ("No government has ever been as precise or as punctual as ours in keeping to the pledges made to the voters," declared Berlusconi to his magazine "Panorama", but everything is relative, of course). On the other hand, Berlusconi found the time to deal with issues that were not part of his political program, but that affect him personally, either because they save him from jail (false accounting is no longer a crime, evidence from foreign countries cannot be used in some trials, European countries cannot issue European-wide warrants) or because they enrich him and his family. Berlusconi found the time to appoint the new managers of national television (RAI), which controls half of the viewers: Berlusconi owns the other half through his own media empire. He also found the time to fire Renato Ruggiero, a highly popular minister who was respected worldwide and one of the few ministers in his government who was busier doing his job than playing political games. For every action Berlusconi takes there seems to be a private motive, that has little to do with his promises to the Italian people or with the needs of the Italian nation. One of the most influential men in the Italian parliament also happens to be the lawyer who is defending Berlusconi in a criminal trial. There are now wide-spread rumours that Berlusconi's ministers are using money allocated for reforms to fund their own private agendas (and their own families and friends).
    The problem is that Italians largely know and accept this shady behavior. They know that Berlusconi is not a saint and that he would be in jail in most western countries. By electing him, Italians also sent a message that being a crook (a crook by anglosaxon standards) is not all that bad. Italians have been ruled for centuries by crooks and have learned that sometimes a smart crook is better than a dumb saint. That's why the Mafia ruled Sicily for so long, after all: the Mafia was providing the order and security that the Italian government couldn't provide, although at the cost of bribes and vexations. That's why Berlusconi got elected: Italians hope that he will be more effective than the previous (left-wing) government, despite the cost of his conflicts of interest.
    In a sense, that is the key to understanding the Berlusconi phenomenon: Italians still have not adopted the ethical standards of other western countries. They'd rather have a smart crook than a dumb saint. After all, isn't it better than the French, who elected a dumb crook instead?
    TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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  • (June 2001) Something did change in Italy In a surprising turn of events, Italians finally gave a party enough votes to run the country and finally kicked out smaller parties from Parliament. For the first time since Italy was created, the Italian parliament looks like an Anglosaxon parliament: one party has the majority of votes and one party has the minority and only one of the smaller parties has survived. Unfortunately, most of the "baroni" who runs Italian politics managed to get elected not because Italians voted for them but because of rules that resemble those of the USSR's communist party,
    Silvio Berlusconi, the media tycoon, won the 2001 national elections and returned to power (a center-left coalition had been running the country since 1996 through the usual sequence of short-lived governments). The economy does not justify the huge losses (sometimes humiliations) of the left: the economy was growing at a decent pace (2.9%), unemployment is now at historical lows, inflation is reasonable (3%), the national deficit is still one of the highest in the world but no longer in runaway mode. Berlusconi won for a number of reasons, and mainly thanks to his opponents' incompetence:
    1. Italy is far from being a perfect democracy: Berlusconi owns most of the media, and can interview himself whenever he wants. His rival was rarely mentioned on his tv stations. This is usually the case in a dictatorship (the ruling dictator has control over the media). Italy and Russia are probably the only democracies that have to deal with this paradox.
    2. The left is more typical of Italy's political mess than the right. The right (or at least Berlusconi) understands what it takes to live in the 21st century. The left is still living in the old order of things: shameless compromises, political plots, patronage, low ethical standards, widespread abuses of privileges. Sure, the right is even more guilty of these aberrations: but the left was in charge for five years, and basically legitimated the system. The difference between the old Christian Democrats and the "new" left is that the new left is less corrupt. But the system of power is very similar. Italy still has the three RAI stations that were created by the "old" system. Ministers are mainly incompetent politicians, just like in the "old" system. Worse: the left is still behaving under the assumption that a country is to be run by party leaders instead of by the elected government. Most decisions of the Prodi government were made by D'Alema, who was not even a member of that government. Basically, the left is associated with old-style government, that some Italians have learned to dislike.
    3. For reasons that are not clear to anybody, the left helped Berlusconi survive. The leftist government even passed laws to protect people like Berlusconi who had "oiled" the system with bribes and even argued against Berlusconi selling his media empire to Rupert Murdoch. And recent changes to the judicial system virtually make it impossible to convict a wealthy person (as long as you can afford to pay for attorneys, they can file motion after motion until the lawsuit expires). The left never thought of passing laws against conflicts of interest like the ones Berlusconi obviously qualifies for (the left did try at the very end, when the polls were showing a dramatic loss, but it was too late).
    4. Romano Prodi, the prime minister chosen by the left in 1996, lost his job mainly because Massimo D'Alema wanted it (some suggest D'Alema was jealous of Prodi's successes). D'Alema is still a powerful party leaders, but he is a weak choice as the leader of the country. It was difficult for Berlusconi to measure up to Prodi's fame and competence, but relatively easy to dwarf the old-fashioned and incompetent D'Alema.
    5. Fausto Bertinotti, the leader of the hard-line communists, managed to win 5% of the votes and survive in parliament. Prodi himself founded his own party and won 14.5% of the votes. D'Alema's party won 16.6%. Anybody who can read can also understand what this means: D'Alema may lead the largest party on the left, but very few Italians want that party to run Italy. That does not mean that Italians do not want a leftist government: they just don't want D'Alema and his party to run it. D'Alema has not learned the lessons of his predecessors, when the Communist Party was the second largest party but was also the number one party that people did not want to run the country: in a democracy, what people do not want is sometimes more important than what they want. But go tell an ex-communist.
    (Note of August 2001)
    Among the very first laws passed by the new government is a law that will de facto make it impossible to prosecute Berlusconi for the crimes he was accused of (basically, false accounting is now legal in Italy - welcome, corporate thieves of the world!). In the meantime, a Berlusconi-controlled commission is finalizing a slight change in the way Italian judges can use evidence obtained from Swiss banks. It is a minor change but it so happens to make it difficult if not impossible to use the evidence obtained from Swiss banks against Berlusconi in another case he was likely to lose, a case of corruption. Once both steps are taken, Berlusconi
    will be safe from Italian justice. He will also have remade Italian justice. In a stunning parallel, Thailand has been following the exact same path: a movement to clean up national politics, the indictment of the richest man in the country (Thaksin Shinawatra), a dubious decision by Thailand's supreme court to clear this man from all charges, a triumphal return of this man to politics (the Thai Rak Thai party won the majority in Thailand a few weeks after Berlusconi's Forza Italia won in Italy). A few years ago Venezuela followed a similar course, when Hugo Chavez went from being an outlaw to being elected president and clearing himself of all charges.
    The funny thing is that Italians have a reputation for dismissing any non-European country as "third world". One wonders what the differences truly are between Italy and those "third-world" countries (at least in politics). One could claim that, over the course of 50 years, Italy taught those countries how to rule with corruption and mafia, but not that Italian politics (and, alas, Italian media) are that different from Thailand's or Venezuela's politics and media.
    TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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  • (October 1999) Italy's new democracy: new names but old habits for an old-fashioned operetta Italy has the world record of governments (an average of about one a year). However, one party ruled Italy for about 50 years: the Christian Democratic Party (or DC), which enjoyed American support in their crusade against the Communist Party (or PCI), the largest in the West. Why so many governments then, if one party consistently held on to power? Because the DC never had 50% of the votes and they needed help from the very small parties in the left center to make up a governing coalition: whenever one of the small parties pulled out, the government would fall. Typically, small parties (especially Bettino Craxi's socialists) demanded expensive rewards for their support.
    Then "Tangentopoli" came (a vast investigation into allegations of high-level corruption and kick backs) and the traditional party system collapsed. Old party bosses were indicted of corruption and worse (although nobody ever went to prison for more than a few days). Bettino Craxi had to flee to Tunisia. New parties were created and an electoral reform was supposed to elect a cleaner parliament.
    The net result is that: Italy boasts now more than 40 parties in parliament; governments still fall like leaves in autumn; small parties in the left center are responsible for the instability; constitutional reform is dead; the president of the republic is still elected by political manouvering rather than by popular vote; the fight against corruption has been itself criminalized; former corrupt leaders have been rehabilitated (Giulio Andreotti, the supreme DC leader, was acquitted of links with the Mafia, Craxi died in exile and was treated like a martyr); and new leaders have been found as dishonest as their predecessors (Silvio Berlusconi, prime minister in 1994, has even been convicted, a rarity in Italy, but still runs the second largest party and is projected to win the 2001 elections). The only difference is that now the government is run by the former communists, led by Massimo D'Alema, which has been the first in the West to open diplomatic ties with two of the worst dictatorships in the world: Libya and North Korea. The country's television is owned half by Berlusconi (the leader of the conservatives) and half by the parties of the left. The fact that now two parties are equal contenders for power is an objective improvement over the old one-party system. But everything else remains sadly the same.
    It is telling that Italians have a reputation for flocking to the polls when there is a national election, but shun the polls when there is a referendum. Italians vote the same way they root for a soccer team. A referendum is about issues, and the average Italian doesn't seem to know what to do with an issue. An election is about parties trying to win a contest, just like soccer teams try to win the "scudetto". The Italian system has not changed because Italians have never learned that voting for an issue is more important than rooting for a party.
    Racism, in the meantime, is rampant, and may prelude to even worse times. A growing number of Italians blame Italy's problems on the "extracomunitari", the (mostly illegal) immigrants from Africa, South America and Eastern Europe. Italy is the only country in the world in which two (not just one) xenophobic parties are represented in parliament: the Lega of Umberto Bossi and the Alleanza Nazionale of Gianfranco Fini. They total close to 20% of popular votes, which dwarfs Austria's and France's right wing parties.
    This is quite amusing, because disorganization, chaos, theft, etc, were ubiquitous (and even worse) 30 years ago, before the arrival of the extracomunitari. Removing the immigrants would still leave the Italians, who run and mess up the country. The truth is that extracomunitari take mainly low-paid jobs that Italian kids refuse. A staggering 43% of the working population is not working (compared with 30% in Europe and 22% in the US) but they would rather stay unemployed (supported by their parents and the government) than take a low-paid job. The behavior of Italians reinforces the stereotype of a lazy race, that wants everything but doesn't want to work for it. Now they also found a scapegoat to blame for their bad habits: the extracomunitari.
    The truth is that companies throughout Italy, even in the deep south, have to hire "extracomunitari" (often illegally) because Italians refuse to take the jobs that are available. While employment is the highest of all major western countries, companies in the north and in the south sometimes boast more foreign than Italian employees. Unlike Italians, the extracomunitari really want to work. Most Italians are reluctant to cross their city to go to work (the assumption being that jobs have to come to their neighborhood, not that they should move where the jobs are), whereas extracomunitari are willing to travel continents to find a job. Unlike Italians, the extracomunitari really want to work. It is ironic (and, alas, exemplary of Italy's widespread racism) that Italians consider the extracomunitari as people who do not want to work, when the extracomunitari are the ones who take up any job available.
    Italians prefer to enjoy lifetime degrees in sociology and literature (where jobs do not exist) rather than get a degree in computer science (where jobs are plenty), prefer to stay home and watch tv rather than take one of the many jobs available. As long as the government and the family supports them, they would rather wait for something easier and more fun to come around. (Ironically, despite so many graduates in the humanities, Italy ranked last but one in a 1999 survey on book and newspaper reading among European countries).
    Unfortunately, this attitude is creating a generation of people who have never had a real job, who have never really worked, who have no idea what real life is, who cannot grasp the fundamentals of today's economy. No surprise they are easily seduced by mediocre and corrupt politicians who would embarass any third-world country.
    Italians would find the explanation for their problems if they looked at their own electoral behavior: a referendum to allow stores to stay open till late was defeated, a referendum to change the electoral law was voided because too few people showed up. The anticorruption effort by Italian magistrates was short lived because Italians started feeling pity for the poor politicians sent to jail, as if robbing a country was an inevitable human passion that only heartless, overzealous judges would prosecute.
    April 2001's election will be Italy's 59th since the end of world war.
    And all of this comes at a time when statistics show that an apocalyptic number of Italians (especially of the younger generations) are abandoning culture in favor of "consumismo" and entertainment, resulting in lower and lower political education.
    Italy is the ideal ground for a rise of a Mussolini-style demagogue.
    If Berlusconi wins, he will be the only major head of state besides Russia's Putin to control all of the country's television stations (he personally owns three of them and the Italian government owns the other three). Why do opinion polls show Berlusconi leading by a large margin then? Are Italians so naif? No, Italians have basically no choice. Berlusconi came up with a list of projects that he would undertake and there are few that Italy does not badly need. The current governing party (basically, the Left) had no ideas until Berlusconi started outlining his own program: then the Left simply started copying his ideas. Italians know that Berlusconi is far from honest and possibly even dangerous, but many of them are reluctant to vote for his opponents, who are, quite simply, incompetent.
    TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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  • (September 1999) The truth about the unsolved mystery of the 1980 crash at Ustica. In 1980 a civilian jet loaded with passengers plunged in the Mediterranean Sea. The cause of that accident has never been explained. Since the beginning, there was evidence of a cover up. All leads were pointing towards NATO ships but no conclusive evidence could be gathered. US, UK and France did everything they could to halt or hijack investigations, even denying the presence of huge air carriers that thousands of eyewitnesses had seen in the port of Naples. Journalists learned that another plane had crashed in southern Italy: a Lybian MIG. Subsequent investigations led to conclude that the original report by the Italian authorities had been false: the MIG crashed the same day that the civilian jet crashed. Quite a coincidence. And why the initial denials?
    The latest revelations are pretty much what everybody has always known: a military plane of unknown nationality was flying in the shadow of the civilian plane; other military planes attacked it; one of the planes crashed (the MIG); one of the military planes struck the civilian plane causing its crash and the death of all passengers. There are now very few doubts that this is the truth. What remains to be done is identifying the nationality of the warplanes.
    An old hypothesis was that the Italian government had secretely allowed Qaddafi to fly over Italian air space and suggested his MIGs follow a civilian plane to escape NATO detection. Then the combat started and one MIG was downed, while Qaddafi made it to Lybia.
    Another hypothesis is that it was a NATO jet that was hiding behind the civilian plane, hoping to surprise the MIG with the important passenger.
    Some also suspect that the corrupted Italian government of the time was so friendly to the Arabs that it let Lybian planes spy NATO installations. NATO found out what was going on and engaged them in an air combat which accidentally caused the crash of the civilian flight.
    This is a nasty intrigue that is likely to cause embarassment to the Italian rulers of the time (christian democrats and socialists), to the United States (the likely killer of the airline's passengers) and to Lybia.
    81 people died. Noone has been punished yet.
    TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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