12: The Affliction of Comfort

Frank Bruni, The New York Times, September 17, 2011

Just when you thought that absolutely nothing could make you feel warm and fuzzy about the American political system, I bring tidings from Italy. Here there are 945 active members of Parliament, in contrast with 535 members of the United States Congress, though Italy's population is less than a fifth of America's.

Italy has roughly twice as many members of Parliament per capita as Germany, and more per capita than France and Spain as well. The Italian Parliament is one larded body of government, fatter than a haunch of prosciutto.

You're figuring that with power scattered across so many lawmakers, each makes a pittance. Figure again – and get ready to fantasize about a new job as chairman of the Subcommittee to Oversee Trevi Fountain Coin Removal. (I made that assignment up, but in the context of Italian cronyism and waste, it's entirely plausible.)

Once you add the members of Parliament's salaries and an array of supplements – including travel allowances, even though lawmakers fly and take trains within the country free – all of them earn well above $100,000, while many make closer to $200,000. That's not to mention handsome pensions and subsidized health care, which reportedly covers thermal baths.

Such bloat spreads, like a Prada-shod Blob, from Rome. As Rachel Donadio reported in The Times last week, one Sicilian town of just 960 people has nine traffic officers on the payroll.

Italians outside of government – still, thankfully, a majority – are suitably outraged. They turned "La Casta" ("The Caste"), a 2007 exposé of government privilege, into a publishing sensation, with more than one million copies sold.

But when the Italian Parliament passed a $74 billion austerity package last week, government salaries didn't take a huge hit, and for the obvious reason: people on those salaries passed the package. They gave as much consideration to the preservation of their own comfort as to the broader interests of the country, which needs every euro it can muster for education, for infrastructure – for the future.

That underscores a central tension in these brutal, fearful economic times in much of Europe and America as well. Will the people who have already made it cling as tightly as ever, or perhaps more tightly than before, to their privilege and affluence, even if doing so lengthens the odds of outsiders' gaining traction? Or will they budge enough so that opportunity still exists, some sense of fairness is preserved and investments with long-term payoffs can be made?

That question has turned Europe into a battleground. Pensioners push back against decreased benefits while students scream that the largess their forebears long enjoyed – not to mention the debt these forebears racked up – has raised the cost of their own education and bequeathed them an economy leached of hope.

In America there aren't as many demonstrations, but it's otherwise not so very different. Without additional revenue or entitlement reform – and it would be best to have both – we can't spend as much money as we should on schools, roads and much else to stay globally competitive and position ourselves for optimal growth.

But there's potent resistance. Entrenched interests dig in further; sacred cows die hard. Last week's Republican debate demonstrated that Social Security remains a political grenade to be lobbed back and forth rather than a subject of serious, constructive discussion. And the latest round of Obama v. Boehner affirmed that any increase in taxes won't come easy, if at all.

Meantime, we keep slipping educationally, and the gap between rich and poor widens. Last week's joyous revelations? The College Board reported that for the high school class of 2011, the average SAT reading score was the lowest on record, while the Census Bureau reported that the percentage of Americans living below the poverty line last year, 15.1 percent, was the highest since 1993. These aren't the building blocks of a better tomorrow.

In Italy, the specter of present realities jeopardizing future possibilities looms especially large. The country's stubbornly low birth rate threatens to throw the balance of pensioners and tax-paying workers (or tax-evading ones, as is often the Italian case) wildly out of whack.

And Italy has its own education failures. Roberto d'Alimonte, an Italian political scientist from whom I've often sought insight, told me that only about 14 percent of Italians between the ages of 25 and 64 have college degrees or the equivalent. That puts Italy far behind France, the United States, South Korea and many other countries.

"It's one of the phenomena that explains continued support for the Berlusconi government," he said. "Low education."

In Italy there's also the problem of professionals – lawyers, pharmacists, notaries, journalists, government employees – who sometimes operate like members of exclusive orders, establishing systems and accumulating perks designed principally for self-protection. Many of the Italians I talked to mentioned and rued this.

"Older generations have closed ranks," said Maurizio Viroli, a political theorist whose 2010 book about Silvio Berlusconi's Italy, La Libertà dei Servi ("The Liberty of Servants"), will be published in English next month by Princeton University Press. Without enough new blood, he told me, "There's an impoverishment of leadership."

D'Alimonte said that in too many sectors of Italian life, "There's no meritocracy. And this dampens growth and the capacity to innovate. You don't get the best from people, and a society only thrives if you allow people to give the best of themselves."

He added that portions of northern Italy, with its vibrant manufacturing activity, were a robust exception to the doldrums of the rest of the country. But elsewhere, he said, the country was to some extent mired in competition-choking, incentive-depressing rules and entitlements.

And favors. You can't forget favors, which brings us back to government, a capacious trough of ready money on national, regional and municipal levels. One of the people currently supping at it is Nicole Minetti, 26, a former dental hygienist who will learn from a Milan court next month if she's to be tried for allegedly procuring prostitutes for Berlusconi.

Last year, thanks to his placing her on his party's ticket, she was elected to the legislature for the region of Lombardy. She reportedly makes more than $15,000 a month in that job, and doesn't have to worry the way she once did about plaque and gingivitis.

§ § § § § § § § § § § § § § § § § § § § § § § § § § § § § § § § § § § §

Editor: Berlusconi's Italy may be an extreme instance of an ailment that afflicts much of the world not excluding Canada. And to help deal with it, we would make it compulsory for the government to compile – upon the request of a minority of three citizens – any legislation never repealed but simply ignored.


-- from COMER, October 2011