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Posts Tagged ‘Italy’

I wrote last year about the moral vacuum that exists in Europe because gun control laws in nations like France make it very difficult for Jews to protect themselves from barbaric attacks.

But the principle applies more broadly. All law-abiding people should have the human right to protect themselves.

Politicians in Denmark don’t seem to understand this principle. Or maybe the do understand the principle, but they are so morally bankrupt that don’t care. Not only do they have gun control, they even have laws against pepper spray. And they are so fanatical in their desire to turn people into sheep that the government apparently will prosecute a girl who used pepper spray to save herself from rape.

Here are some excerpts from a report in the U.K.-based Daily Mail.

A Danish teenager who was sexually assaulted near a migrant asylum centre has been told she will be prosecuted after using pepper spray to fend off her attacker. …she managed to prevent the man from attacking her further by spraying the substance at him. …However, as it is illegal to use pepper spray, the teenage girl is set to face charges.

How disgusting.

And what makes the situation especially frustrating is that the criminals and terrorists in Europe obviously don’t have any problem obtaining firearms.

So the only practical effect of gun control (or bans on pepper spray) is to make life easier for the scum of society.

And the real insult to injury is that a teenage girl who should be hailed as a hero now faces the threat of punishment. Just like the unfortunate British woman who was persecuted for using a knife to deter some thugs.

And here’s some of what the BBC reported about

Italian hospitality for the visiting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has stretched to covering up nude statues. Italy also chose not to serve wine at official meals

Pathetic. Particularly since the Italians bent over backwards for a truly heinous regime.

Kudos to President Hollande in France, by contrast. The Daily Mail notes that he held firm.

A lunch between the French and Iranian presidents in Paris was scrapped today because France refused to remove wine from the menu.

By the way, there clearly is a role for common courtesy and diplomatic protocol. It obviously would be gratuitously rude for a nation to serve pork at a dinner for officials from Israel or any Muslim nation, just as it would inappropriate and insensitive to serve beef for an event for officials from India.

Moreover, officials from one nation should not make over-the-top demands when visiting other countries. Just as it would be wrong for French officials to demand wine at state dinners in Iran, it’s also wrong for Iranian officials to demand the absence of wine at meals in France. After all, it’s not as if they would be expected to partake.

In the grand scheme of things, though, the kerfuffle about wine and statues doesn’t matter compared to the potentially life-and-death issue of whether Europeans should be allowed to defend themselves.

That’s why Europe isn’t merely in trouble because of fiscal bankruptcy, but also because of moral bankruptcy.

P.S. While having the ability to protect your life or to guard against rape isn’t a human right in most European nations, take a look at some of the things that are “rights.”

All this is amusing…in a very sad way.

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George Santayana was certainly was right when he wrote, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Consider, for instance, the foolish American politicians who want to rejuvenate Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and other forms of housing subsidies even though we’re still dealing with the havoc of the last government-created housing bubble.

Though when Italian politicians fail to learn to from history, do it on a bigger and bolder scale.

We’ll start by going back a couple of millennia. Larry Reed of the Foundation for Economic Education tells the story of how Ancient Rome disintegrated thanks to the welfare state.

More than 2,000 years before America’s bailouts and entitlement programs, the ancient Romans experimented with similar schemes. The Roman government rescued failing institutions, canceled personal debts, and spent huge sums on welfare programs. The result wasn’t pretty. …these expensive rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul efforts were major factors in bankrupting Roman society. They inevitably led to even more destructive interventions. Rome wasn’t built in a day, as the old saying goes — and it took a while to tear it down as well. Eventually, when the republic faded into an imperial autocracy, the emperors attempted to control the entire economy.

In reading Larry’s article, I learned about many awful politicians from ancient times.

But if I had to identify the Roman version of Barack Obama, Larry makes a persuasive case that it would be Tiberius Gracchus.

By 133 BC, the up-and-coming politician Tiberius Gracchus…passed a bill granting free tracts of state-owned farmland to the poor. Additionally, the government funded the erection of their new homes and the purchase of their farming tools. …Tiberius, incidentally, also passed Rome’s first subsidized food program, which provided discounted grain to many citizens. Initially, Romans dedicated to the ideal of self-reliance were shocked at the concept of mandated welfare, but before long, tens of thousands were receiving subsidized food, and not just the needy. Any Roman citizen who stood in the grain lines was entitled to assistance.

Sure enough, more and more Romans over time learned that it was more fun to ride in the wagon rather than pull it.

…at its peak, a third of Rome took advantage of the program. It became a hereditary privilege, passed down from parent to child. Other foodstuffs, including olive oil, pork, and salt, were regularly incorporated into the dole. The program ballooned until it was the second-largest expenditure in the imperial budget, behind the military.

So what’s the moral of this story?

Larry’s article shows that my Theorem of Societal Collapse has a long history.

The Roman experience teaches important lessons. As the 20th-century economist Howard Kershner put it, “When a self-governing people confer upon their government the power to take from some and give to others, the process will not stop until the last bone of the last taxpayer is picked bare.” Putting one’s livelihood in the hands of vote-buying politicians compromises not just one’s personal independence, but the financial integrity of society as well. The welfare state, once begun, is difficult to reverse and never ends well. Rome fell to invaders in 476 AD, but who the real barbarians were is an open question. …Maybe the real barbarians were those Romans who had effectively committed a slow-motion financial suicide.

In any event, Italy slipped into the dark ages.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that Italy also helped Europe recover from the dark ages. There was no unified nation at the time, but city states such as Genoa and Venice became major trading hubs.

Indeed, private money actually first evolved in the Italian city states.

Over several hundred years, modern Italy came into being, and that occurred during a period when government was constrained. Indeed, it’s worth noting that there wasn’t an income tax until the 1860s.

And Italy had less redistribution than the United States as late as 1930.

So there was a period where government was reasonably small and Italy enjoyed some degree of prosperity.

Unfortunately, once modern-era welfare-state programs were adopted, growth was negatively impacted. And now it’s disappeared entirely, as noted in an article by Alessio Terzi for Bruegel.

Italy…is the only EU member state, together with Greece, where real GDP is now below its 2000 level. …Moreover, Italy’s longstanding vulnerabilities such as its mammoth public debt – second only to Greece’s in GDP terms – …could easily derail the recovery.

Here’s a very depressing chart (if you’re Italian, or even if you merely care about Italy) showing that economic output today is lower than it was in 2000.

The only silver lining to this bad news is that the Italians presumably have less reason to be upset than the Greeks.

Sure, both nations have enjoyed zero growth in the 21st Century, but the Greeks went through an illusory period where they thought they had growth.

So it probably is even more painful to them now that they’ve taken a tumble.

By the way, Alessio’s article actually speculates that Italy may be poised for an economic rebound.

I hope that’s correct, and the article does mention a few reforms, but I’m not overly optimistic.

Check out the country’s ranking from Economic Freedom of the World.

As you can see, Italy ranks only 79 out of 152.

To be sure, that means there’s a lot of room to climb. But does anyone expect Italy to become Switzerland on the Mediterranean?

Heck, at least one Italian region is so dour about the nation’s outlook that it’s petitioning to be annexed by Switzerland!

Italy’s lowest grade in Economic Freedom of the World is for fiscal policy. And since government spending consumes a bit more than half the nation’s economic output, you can understand why there’s so little activity in the private sector.

Especially when you consider that excessive government spending results in punitive tax policy.

Here’s another reason to be pessimistic. Italy’s demographic profile is terrible. I’ve previously explained that even a nation with a medium-sized welfare state is in deep trouble if its population profile begins to resemble a cylinder rather than a pyramid.

Well, that’s happening to Italy, except it has a large welfare state rather than a medium-sized one.

So there’s not much reason for hope.

P.S. Allow me to rephrase something. I wrote above that “Italy’s demographic profile  is terrible.” That’s not actually accurate. There’s nothing a priori wrong with women deciding to have fewer children. And it’s unambiguously good news that people are living longer. What I should have written is that Italy’s long-run fiscal outlook is terrible. And the reason for that grim situation is the combination of demographics and redistribution programs.

P.P.S. As a general rule, demographics is destiny. At least in most advanced nations. The exceptions are jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and Singapore. By the way, both have aging populations and extremely low birthrates (Singapore in last place out of 224 nations and Hong Kong third from the bottom). But because they have very low levels of redistribution, both jurisdictions are well positioned to deal with changing demographics.

P.P.P.S. I can’t resist the temptation to comment about Ireland. If you look at the chart showing post-2000 growth in major European nations, notice that Ireland has enjoyed far more growth than any of the other nations. When the recession hit, many leftists chortled that this was a sign that low-tax policies were a failure. That was always a silly assertion since a housing bubble was Ireland’s biggest challenge. But now that time has passed and we see that Ireland has out-performed other nations, the lesson is that countries that get reasonably good scores in Economic Freedom of the World prosper more than nations that get lower scores. Yes, policy matters.

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Since the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame is getting crowded, I’ve decided we need a system to limit new entrants.

So today we’re doing an experiment. We’ll look at two separate stories about lazy and overpaid bureaucrats, and the comments section will determine which one actually is most deserving of joining the Hall of Fame.

Let’s start in Italy, where Alberto Muraglia stakes his claim to membership. Here are some excerpts from a story in the UK-based Times.

Video footage of a policeman clocking in for work in his underpants before allegedly heading back to his bed has become the symbol of an embarrassing absenteeism scandal among council employees in San Remo, on the Italian Riviera. Alberto Muraglia, a pot-bellied, 53-year-old officer, was secretly filmed as he clocked on at council offices. He lives in the same building, a converted hotel, where he occupies a caretaker flat — allowing him to register his presence at work, and then go back to bed, it is alleged.

To be fair, our Italian contestant has an excuse for his truancy.

Though it’s about as plausible as the Groucho Marx quote, “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?”

Mr Muraglia’s wife, Adriana, said the family had an alibi for every instance in which her husband was suspected of clocking in at 5.30am, opening the gates to the council building, and then returning to bed. “Some mornings, if he was a few minutes late pulling on his trousers, he would clock in in that manner and then get fully dressed immediately after and go off to work,” Mrs Muraglia told La Stampanewspaper. “Some mornings he may have forgotten, and he telephoned me to clock in on his behalf.”

In any event, Signor Muraglia is not the only bureaucrat scamming the system.

More than a hundred employees — 75 per cent of the council workforce — are under investigation for allegedly skiving off in the resort town…investigators…filmed employees swiping their time cards, and sometimes those of multiple colleagues, before turning tail and heading off to pursue other interests. One employee, filmed paddling a kayak on the Mediterranean, is alleged to have spent at least 400 hours away from his desk in the planning office, a dereliction of duty estimated to have cost San Remo council more than €5,600.

Though I have to say 400 hours away from his desk is chicken feed compared to the Italian doctor who worked only 15 days in a nine-year period.

And I like how the bureaucrats awarded themselves bonuses for their…um…hard work.

Eight of the suspected skivers shared a €10,000 productivity bonus last year.

Just like the IRS bureaucrats and VA bureaucrats who got bonuses for improper behavior.

I guess there must be an unwritten rule in government: The worse your performance, the higher your compensation.

Now let’s see how Alberto compares to our American contestant. As reported by the Contra Costa Times, former City Manager Joe Tanner is scamming taxpayers for a lavish pension, yet he’s asking for more on the basis of a shady deal he made with the City Council.

By working just two and a half more years, retired Vallejo City Manager Joseph Tanner boosted his starting annual pension from $131,500 to $216,000. He wants more, claiming he’s entitled to yearly retirement pay of $307,000. …he is now taking his six-year dispute to the state Court of Appeal. At issue is whether CalPERS must pay benefits on a contract Tanner and the Vallejo City Council concocted to boost his pension.

An extra $85,000 of pension for the rest of his life just for working 2-1/2 years?

Geesh, and I though the Philadelphia bureaucrat who is getting $50,000 of yearly loot for the rest of her life, after just three years of “work,” had a good deal. She must be feeling very envious of Mr. Tanner.

Yet Mr. Tanner isn’t satisfied.

Here’s the part that seems like it should be amusing, but it’s not actually funny when you realize that government employee pensions are driving states into fiscal chaos.

Ironically, Tanner was a critic of pension excesses. …Yet his personal spiking gambit was breathtaking. The case exemplifies how some top public officials try to manipulate their compensation to grossly inflate their retirement pay. …Tanner’s quest for another $90,000 a year, plus inflation adjustments, for the rest of his life is unreasonable.

Here’s how he schemed to pillage taxpayers.

His first contract with Vallejo called for $216,000 in base salary, plus a list of add-on items that would soon be converted to salary, bringing his compensation to $306,000. But when CalPERS advised that the amount of those add-ons would not count toward his pension, he insisted the contract be fixed. The result: His contract was amended. The add-ons were eliminated and his base salary was simply increased to $306,000, plus management incentive pay and other items that brought the total to about $349,000. If CalPERS used that number, his pension would have started at $307,000 a year. CalPERS says it was an obvious subterfuge. The amended contract was never put before the City Council at any public meeting. And there was never a truthful public explanation for it.

Of course there wasn’t a truthful explanation.

Whether bureaucrats are negotiating with other bureaucrats or whether they’re negotiating with politicians, a main goal is to hide details in order to maximize the amount of money being extracted from taxpayers.

By the way, the example of Mr. Tanner is odious, but it’s not nearly as disgusting as what happened in another California community.

Before inviting readers to vote, I want to make a serious point. Government employee pensions are a fiscal black hole because they are “defined benefits” (DB plans), which means annual payments to retirees are driven by formulas. And those formulas often include clauses that create precisely the perverse incentives exploited by Mr. Tanner.

The right approach is to reform the system so that bureaucrats instead are in a “defined contribution” system (DC plans), which basically operates like IRAs and 401(k)s. A bureaucrat’s retirement income is solely a function of how much is contributed to his or her account and how much it earns over time. By definition, there is no unfunded liability. There’s no fiscal nightmare for future taxpayers.

Now that I have that cry for fiscal prudence out of my system, I invite readers to vote. Does the shirking underwear-clad Italian bureaucrat deserve to join the Hall of Fame, or should that honor be bestowed on the scheming and hypocritical American bureaucrat?

P.S. While I think DC plans are inherently superior (and safer for taxpayers) than DB plans, I will acknowledge that some nations manage to run DB plans honestly.

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What’s the best country in the world?

My emotional response is that the United States belongs in the top spot.

But a more dispassionate analysis suggests that Switzerland is more deserving of the honor.

It has the 4th-freest economy according to the most recent rankings from Economic Freedom of the World, eight spots above the United States.

And it is ranked #2 in the Human Freedom Index, 18 spots higher than America.

There are several specific reasons why Switzerland is a good role model.

Perhaps most important, the Swiss people are eminently sensible, as seen by their votes in favor of a spending cap and against class-warfare taxation, minimum-wage mandates, single-payer healthcare, and the death tax.

I’m not sure I would trust my fellow Americans to show similarly sound judgement.

So it’s surely true that there are lots of reasons to admire Switzerland.

Indeed, it’s such an attractive country that many people in Sardinia want to secede from Italy and have their island become a Swiss canton.

Here are some passages from a report in the Wall Street Journal.

“In Sardinia, people want to be Swiss.” Welcome to “Canton Marittimo,” or “Canton of the Sea,” a bid by Mr. Caruso, a 51-year-old dentist from Sardinia, and his comrade Enrico Napoleone, a car dealer there, to liberate Sardinia from Italy and tether it to Switzerland. …With a population of 1.5 million, the island, which lies between Italy and Spain, is today home to more than 10 parties calling for secession from Rome, emphasizing a culture, dialect, and history distinct from Italy’s mainland. …Mr. Caruso says…“Switzerland is the ideal nation to help us secure our culture and traditions.” … “Most of the local population would go for it, starting tomorrow,” said Matteo Colaone, a spokesman for Domà Nunch, a separatist group in the Italian regions surrounding Milan.

And what do the Swiss think about this idea?

At least one lawmaker likes the idea of adding cantons, though the government’s official position is not very welcoming.

In 2010, a member of Swiss parliament named Dominique Baettig proposed amending the constitution to aid regions in neighboring countries that want to become new cantons. Switzerland’s executive branch swiftly condemned it as “an unfriendly political act.” …There is little evidence the Swiss would want to adopt a rocky island that has many more sheep than people and per-capita economic output just one fourth that of Switzerland’s.

Here’s a video report on the topic from the WSJ.

In any event, it’s easy to understand why Sardinians are anxious to leave Italy and become part of Switzerland.

Here are some excerpts from a story in the U.K.-based Guardian.

“We think of Switzerland as a good teacher who could lead us on a path of excellence.” As the 27th canton, Sardinia, so goes the argument, would bring the Swiss its miles of stunning coastline and untapped economic potential. Sardinia could retain considerable autonomy, while also reaping the benefits of direct democracy, administrative efficiency and economic wealth.

Whereas staying in Italy means endless statism.

…their frustrations with inefficient public spending, complex layers of decision-making and intimidating bureaucracy can be heard throughout the country. …being a small businessman in Italy was “a continuous battle”. “It is fighting every day with a problem that the administration, the bureaucracy, creates instead of solves,” he said.

And while the Swiss government doesn’t seem overly excited about adopting Sardinia, ordinary Swiss citizens seem to like the idea.

An online poll of 4,000 people asking, in German, “should we accept Sardinia?” produced a 93% yes vote.

I suspect that an actual referendum in Switzerland wouldn’t be that lopsided, and the final result would probably depend on whether Swiss voters thought Sardinians were simply seeking good policy or whether they were looking for big handouts (Switzerland does have some redistribution from rich cantons to those with more modest incomes).

The bottom line is that there’s scholarly evidence suggesting that supporters of decentralization, self-determination, and limited government should favor the ability of regions to either declare independence or choose to join neighboring countries (assuming there’s a mutual desire for union).

That why I think secession or radical decentralization is/was the right approach in Ukraine, Belgium, and Scotland.

And as Walter Williams points out, secession can be peaceful, such as when Norway left Sweden early last century.

So I hope Sardinia moves forward.

Yes, it would be best for them to become part of Switzerland (and there already is an Italian-speaking canton). But even if the Swiss ultimately aren’t interested, the Sardinians at least would have a chance to escape Italy’s dysfunctional economic policies if they became independent.

P.S. The seven villages of Liechtenstein have the right to secede.

P.P.S. On a lighter note, here’s what would happen if the American right and left decided to secede from each other.

P.P.S. In our final postscript, let’s look at some fresh data about Switzerland.

Check out this chart (h/t: Constantin Gurdgiev) looking at how growth rates have changed in various European nations. As you can see, the 2002-2014 period has been grim for all nations compared to the years between 1980-2001. But Switzerland has had the smallest decline.

By the way, the left is always arguing that high tax burdens are necessary to help the poor. But as you can see from this chart (h/t: Fabian Wallen), every single income group is better off in low-tax Switzerland than high-tax Sweden.

In other words, big government is bad news for everyone (other than insiders), but it’s especially bad for poor people. Bono realizes that capitalism is the right model for upward mobility. Now let’s hope Pope Francis learns the same lesson.

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If you want to pinpoint the leading source of bad economic policy proposals, I would understand if someone suggested the Obama Administration.

But looking to Europe might be even more accurate.

For instance, I’d be hard pressed to identify a policy more misguided than continent-wide eurobonds, which I suggested would be akin to “co-signing a loan for your unemployed alcoholic cousin who has a gambling addiction.”

And now there’s another really foolish idea percolating on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

The U.K.-based Financial Times has a story about calls for greater European centralization from Italy.

Italy’s finance minister has called for deeper eurozone integration in the aftermath of the Greek crisis, saying a move “straight towards political union” is the only way to ensure the survival of the common currency. …Italy and France have traditionally been among the most forceful backers of deeper European integration but other countries are sceptical about supporting a greater degree of political convergence. …Italy is calling for a wide set of measures — including the swift completion of banking union, the establishment of a common eurozone budget and the launch of a common unemployment insurance scheme — to reinforce the common currency. He said an elected eurozone parliament alongside the existing European Parliament and a European finance minister should also be considered. “To have a full-fledged economic and monetary union, you need a fiscal union and you need a fiscal policy,” Mr Padoan said.

This is nonsense.

The United States has a monetary union and an economic union, yet our fiscal policy was very decentralized for much of our nation’s history.

And Switzerland has a monetary and economic union, and its fiscal policy is still very decentralized.

Heck, the evidence is very strong that decentralized fiscal systems lead to much better outcomes.

So why is Europe’s political elite so enamored with a fiscal union and so opposed to genuine federalism?

There’s an ideological reason and a practical reason for this bias.

The ideological reason is that statists strongly prefer one-size-fits-all systems because government has more power and there’s no jurisdictional competition (which they view as a “race to the bottom“).

The practical reason is that politicians from the weaker European nations see a fiscal union as a way of getting more transfers and redistribution from nations such as Germany, Finland, and the Netherlands.

In the case of Italy, both reasons probably apply. Government debt already is very high in Italy and growth is virtually nonexistent, so it’s presumably just a matter of time before the Italians will be looking for Greek-style bailouts.

But the Italian political elite also has a statist ideological perspective. And the best evidence for that is the fact that Signore Padoan used to be a senior bureaucrat at the Paris-based OECD.

The Italian finance minister…served as former chief economist of the OECD.

You won’t be surprised to learn that French politicians also have been urging a supranational government for the eurozone. And presumably for the same reasons of ideology and self-interest.

But here’s the man-bites-dog part of the story.

The German government also seems open to the idea, as reported by the U.K.-based Independent.

France and Germany have agreed a new plan for closer eurozone political unionThe new Franco-German agreement would see closer cooperation between the 19 countries.

Wow, don’t the politicians in Berlin know that a fiscal union is just a scheme to extract more money from German taxpayers?!?

As I wrote three years ago, this approach “would involve putting German taxpayers at risk for the reckless fiscal policies in nations such as Greece, Italy, and Spain.

But maybe the Germans aren’t completely insane. Writing for Bloomberg, Leonid Bershidsky explains that the current German position is to have a supranational authority with the power to reject national budgets.

The German perspective on a political and fiscal union is a little more cautious. Last year, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and a fellow high-ranking member of the CDU party, Karl Lamers, called for a euro zone parliament (not elected, but comprising European Parliament members from euro area countries) and a budget commissioner with the power to reject national budgets if they contravene a certain set of rules agreed by euro members.

And since the German approach is disliked by the Greeks, then it can’t be all bad.

Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, Schaeuble’s most eloquent hater, pointed out in a recent article for Germany’s Die Zeit that, in the Schaeuble-Lamers plan, the budget commissioner is endowed only with “negative” powers, while a true federation — like Germany itself — elects a parliament and a government to formulate positive policies.

But “can’t be all bad” isn’t the same as good.

Simply stated, any sort of eurozone government almost surely will morph over time into a transfer union. And that means more handouts, more subsidies, more harmonization, more bailouts, more centralization, and more bureaucracy.

So you can see why Europe’s political elite may be even more foolish than their American counterparts.

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The world is a laboratory, with lots of experiments to see if a nation can prosper with big government and pervasive intervention.

The results are not encouraging. I’ve written about France being a basket case, over and over again.

And I am equally pessimistic about Greece because the moochers and looters outnumber productive people in that country.

Heck, much of Europe is a mess because of widespread statism.

But the rest of the world is filled with bad examples as well. Japan has attracted my critical attention, and I have very little reason to think that nation has a bright future.

I’ve also dinged bad policy in Mexico and South Africa, so nobody can accuse me of being parsimonious when it comes to criticizing politicians that promote big government.

But the country that may be in the deepest trouble is Italy.

To understand the depth of the problem, you should read a recent article in the U.K.-based Spectator.

Here are some excerpts, starting with an anecdote about the government-funded opera house in Rome.

Financed and managed by the state, and therefore crippled by debt, the opera house — like so much else in Italy — had been a jobs-for-life trade union fiefdom. Its honorary director, Riccardo Muti, became so fed up after dealing with six years of work-to-rule surrealism that he resigned. It’s hard to blame him. The musicians at the opera house — the ‘professori’ — work a 28-hour week (nearly half taken up with ‘study’) and get paid 16 months’ salary a year, plus absurd perks such as double pay for performing in the open air because it is humid and therefore a health risk. Even so, in the summer, Muti was compelled to conduct a performance of La Bohème with only a pianist because the rest of the orchestra had gone on strike.

The story says all the staff eventually were fired.

Is that a sign that policy makers in Italy are sobering up? Or is it too little, too late?

The author of the column, Nicholas Farrell, is not optimistic.

Italy’s irreversible demise is a foregone conclusion. The country is just too much of a basket case even to think about. …The youth unemployment rate here is 43 per cent — the highest on record. That figure doesn’t factor in the black market, which is so big that the Italian government now wants to include certain parts of it — prostitution, drug dealing and assorted smuggling — into its official GDP figures.  …Just 58 per cent of working-age Italians are employed, compared with an average 65 per cent in the developed world. …Italy’s economy has been stagnant since 2000. Indeed, over the past five years it has shrunk by 9.1 per cent. …Italy’s sovereign debt, meanwhile, continues to grow exponentially. It is now €2.2 trillion, which is the equivalent of 135 per cent of GDP — the third highest in the world after Japan and Greece. …In Italy, as in France, a dirigiste philosophy has predominated since the second world war. The government is run like a protection racket… Even newspapers are publicly subsidised, which is why there are so many of them.

But high debt in Italy isn’t because of low taxes.

Anyone who works in the real private sector — the family businesses that have made Italy’s name around the world — is in a bad place. Italy has the heaviest ‘total tax’ burden on businesses in the world at 68 per cent… To start a business in Italy is to enter a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare, and to keep it going is even worse. It also means handing the state at least 50 cents for every euro paid to staff.

So where do all this tax money go?

Not surprisingly, there’s a parasitic public sector that is very well compensated. Starting with the politicians.

Italian MPs are the highest paid in the civilised world, earning almost twice the salary of a British MP. Barbers in the Italian Parliament get up to €136,120 a year gross. All state employees get a fabulous near-final–salary pension. It is not difficult to appreciate the fury of the average Italian private sector worker, whose gross annual pay is €18,000. The phrase ‘you could not make it up’ fits the gold-plated world of the Italian state employee to a tee — especially in the Mezzo-giorno, Italy’s hopeless south. Sicily, for instance, employs 28,000 forestry police — more than Canada — and has 950 ambulance drivers who have no ambulances to drive.

I gather Sicily is like the Illinois of Italy, so those horrifying numbers don’t surprise me.

And don’t forget that Italy’s representative in the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame is from Sicily as well.

So what’s the solution to this mess?

Simple, adopt a policy of small government and free markets.

An Italian government that really meant business would make urgent and drastic cuts not just to the bloated, parasitical and corrupt state sector, but also to taxes, labour costs and red tape.

And the current Prime Minister, to be fair, is proposing baby steps in the right direction. Unfortunately, he’s being far too timid.

To get an idea of the magnitude of the problem, the Wall Street Journal opined on Italian labor markets, explaining that “pro-worker” interventions by government impose very high costs.

Led by the country’s largest union, the Italian General Confederation of Labor, or CGIL, the activists want to preserve Italy’s job guarantees as they are. Call it Italy’s economic suicide movement. …there is the Cassa Integrazione Guadagni. Under this income-assistance scheme, businesses that need to downsize can put some workers on “standby,” and the government will cover a significant share of the normal salary until the company can hire back the worker. The program strains the state’s budget, discourages workers from seeking other jobs, and prevents struggling companies from downsizing to stay competitive. Need to fire a worker for poor job performance? To do so, businesses must persuade a judge that no alternative short of termination was available—a process of administrative hearings and litigation that can take months and drain company resources. The World Economic Forum in its 2014-15 assessment of labor-market efficiency ranked Italy 141 out of 144 countries for hiring and firing practices, just above Zimbabwe.

And the biggest victim of the “pro-worker” interventions are…you guessed it…workers.

Italy has the largest number of small businesses in the European Union not because companies don’t want to grow, but because they fear growth will mean having to negotiate with the militant national unions like CGIL. The unsurprising result of all these barriers to firing and efficiency is that businesses are reluctant to hire. The official unemployment rate stands at 12%, and half of Italy’s young people are unemployed.

If you want more info about Italy’s dysfunctional labor markets, I also shared some good analysis from the WSJ back in 2012.

Let’s now circle back to a question asked above. Can Italy be saved?

Like Mr. Farrell, I’m not optimistic. There’s no pro-market political party in Italy. And the so-called technocrats have demonstrated amazing levels of incompetence, so they’re obviously not the solution.

P.S. There is one tiny bit of semi-good news from Italy. Over the past 8 years, government spending has increased, on average, by just 1.6 percent per year. The bad news, though, is that the private sector has grown at an even slower rate, so the actual burden of government spending has increased.

Between 1996-2000, by contrast, government spending grew by 1.1 percent per year. But since the private sector was growing, the burden of government spending fell as a share of GDP.

In other words, when you satisfy Mitchell’s Golden Rule, good things happen.

P.P.S. Even though Italy is a complete mess (or perhaps because it is a complete mess), you won’t be surprised to learn that a New York Times columnist thinks America should adopt Italian-style government policies.

P.P.P.S. Then again, American statists have been urging European-type statism in the United States for decades. To see where that leads, check out these cartoons from Michael Ramirez, Glenn Foden, Eric Allie and Chip Bok.

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Does big government necessarily and automatically imply incompetent government?

Unfortunately, that seems to be the case. Robert Samuelson, for instance, has written that the federal government is so large that it breeds failure and disappointment.  I added my two cents, writing that:

…government is far more likely to have a “reverse Midas touch” when it is too big to manage.

I also posed a rhetorical question in another post from 2013.

I suppose a more interesting program would be to identify things that the government does intelligently and effectively. Any suggestions?

That wasn’t a throwaway line. There are some legitimate functions of government and I want those to be handled efficiently.

But I worry that effective government is increasingly unlikely because politicians are so busy intervening in areas that should be left to families, civil society, and the private sector.

The response to the Ebola Virus is a sobering example.

Writing for The Federalist, David Harsanyi explains that the bureaucrats at the Centers for Disease Control are whining about not having enough money to contain and fight Ebola, yet there wouldn’t be any problem if the CDC wasn’t distracted by things that are irrelevant to its core mission.

CDC’s budget and purview have swollen over the past few decades as it has seen an infusion of funding due to temporary health scares and  trendy crusades that often go well beyond any mission it should be pursuing. …the CDC needs to rethink it’s scope. The CDC can’t afford to keep a aerial ‘bio-containment unit’ on retainer, but it does have museum, a massive staff and a lots of waste and fraud. In 2007, Senator Coburn’s office authored a 115-page report detailing things like the CDC budget gimmicks, the agency’s hundreds of millions of dollars of waste on junkets and elaborate digs and its institutional failures to actual ‘control diseases’ – and this includes AIDs prevention. …The CDC, an agency whose primary mission was to prevent malaria and then other dangerous communicable diseases, is now spending a lot of time, energy and money worrying about how much salt you put on your steaks, how often you inhale second-hand smoke and how often you do calisthenics.

To be fair, some of the blame should be shared with the politicians who divert resources away from disease fighting.

Though keep in mind that bureaucrats and politicians generally work hand-in-hand when budgets get approved and government power gets expanded.

With lobbyists and interests groups greasing the way, of course.

But today’s post isn’t about the corrupt machinations of Washington, so let’s get back to our main point.

Professor Glenn Reynolds of the University of Tennessee is similarly worried that mission creep undermines the government’s ability to accomplish important things.

While we’d be better off if the CDC only had one job — you know, controlling disease— the CDC has taken on all sorts of jobs unrelated to that task. …These other tasks may or may not be important, but they’re certainly a distraction from what’s supposed to be the CDC’s “one job” — protecting America from a deadly epidemic. And to the extent that the CDC’s leadership has allowed itself to be distracted, it has paid less attention to the core mission. In an era where new disease threats look to be growing, the CDC needs to drop the side jobs and focus on its real reason for existence. But, alas, the problem isn’t just the CDC. It’s everywhere. It seems that as government has gotten bigger, and accumulated more and more of its own ancillary responsibilities, it has gotten worse at its primary tasks. It can supervise snacks at elementary schools, but not defend the borders; it can tax people to subsidize others’ health-care plans but not build roads or bridges; and it can go after football team names but can’t seem to deal with the Islamic State terror group. Multitasking results in poorer performance for individuals. It also hurts the performance of government agencies, and of government itself. You have one job. Try doing it.

Amen.

For an amusing, yet insightful, look at the connection between government size and government competence, Mark Steyn nails it.

On the other hand, some columnists argue that more power for government is the way to deal with government incompetence.

Amazing.

P.S. I wrote a couple of days ago that Obama was right about the relative weakness of European economies, but then asked why on earth he wants to make America more like Europe with bigger government.

On a related note, here’s a blurb from an article in the Daily Caller.

Don’t allow big government to take over free market system, Italian journalist Matteo Borghi warns in his new e-book, “Italy, Where Dems’ Dreams Die: How Big Government Pauperized A Prosperous Country.” He outlines the “Italian situation” he says has resulted from government growth — soaring debt, high unemployment rates, burdensome tax rates and a corrupt and nearly bankrupt pension system. His goal is to convince Americans not to follow suit. “You are already better off, but if you will go on increasing big government and cracking down on entrepreneurs you could soon become like Italy,” Borghi told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “That’s why, in my book, I say: ‘You shouldn’t give up American Dream to follow Italian nightmare.’”

Or the French nightmare. Or the Greek nightmare. Or the Swedish nightmare. Or the German nightmare.  I could continue, but you get the point.

P.P.S. Though there is one deluded New York Times columnist who thinks we should emulate Italy.

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