Articles by: Judith Harris

  • Facts & Stories

    A darkening Picture: Painting Today’s Italy by Numbers

    The whole great garbage disaster has become such a visual mud-slinger, even at home, that RAI TV’s Channel One is running a daily news slot entitled Non solo immondizie (Not only garbage). The point is to show the good things Italians do in the world and hence to discourage civic shame despite it all—despite the daily scenes of police struggling to contain stone-throwing Neapolitan citizens, despite the photos of women in face masks carrying groceries past garbage mountains, despite the continued school closures on health grounds. Indeed, the picture that made the most news—get ready for it—was of a street that was entirely clean.

    Most pleasantly, Non solo immondizie has turned out to be more than a homeboy-pride reaction to outsiders’ needling. This is serious soul searching, something more than a smug display of Italian foods, fashions and Florentine paintings. Indeed, one of the justly famous Italian entrepreneurs interviewed seized the occasion to plead for honesty in government, for better schools and for jobs for youth.

    Such thoughtful soul-searching was also in evidence when Eurispes, the independent Italian research institute, presented its annual report on the state of  the Italian economy and society January 25. Not a seat was vacant in the vast auditorium of the National Library in Rome as Eurispes president Gian Maria Fara pulled no punches: “Italy is a country held hostage,” he told the audience of journalists and academics, which broke into applause again and again. “It’s a country taken prisoner by a political class which has buried society underneath a thickening blanket that blocks all movement, every possibility for action, every desire for change and modernity. It progressively reduces the space for democracy, it mortifies vocations, talents, merits, expectations and the aspirations of millions of citizens….Fifteen years after the birth of the Second Republic we’re regretting the demise of the First.”

    Once upon a time, rightly or wrongly, Italian politicians were considered the very essence of Italian intelligence—the country’s brain, he went on to say. But no longer: “Politics itself has become a hostage,” and the politicians’ hold on power has increased in an inverse proportion to their capacity to resolve problems. As a result, one citizen out of two today mistrusts the political class, the law and justice system, and the trade unions as well. Even the Church has lost over one-tenth of its consensus in the past year, dropping in citizens’ esteem from the 60.7% of 2006 to the 49.7% of 2007.

    The economy is in disarray, with Italy vaunting the largest black economy in Europe, the equivalent of the GNP of Poland, Finland, Portugal, Hungary and Romania altogether. The criminal economy alone, estimated at E. 175 billion, amounts to “a state within a state,” which distorts the rest of the economy. In its wake the increase in the criminal economy has generated a return to the cash economy, so as to dodge the tax man, according to Eurispes.

    Elsewhere, in the more conventional world of business and industry, salaries lag behind those in the rest of Europe, where wages have risen by 15% over the past three years. In Italy, the average annual rise during that same period was of 4.1%, or around 12% in three years.

    The newest phenomenon in the labor force is a class of “the new invisible people”—men and women who are fully employed, dress neatly to go to professional jobs, but earn too little to survive. Citing figures of the Bank of Italy, the “invisible poor” category takes in fully 15% of all those employed. They tend to be female and young, with 21% having completed a high school and 7% holding a university degree. Their plight “produces discomfort and fractures…[and] a degree of uncertain and insecurity without precedent.” Although the report did not say this, many of these invisible poor are the ones who make the outside world laugh at their still living at home at thirty-five. “Poverty is spreading in the country, and it is ever younger,” the report acknowledged.

    Industrial productivity was disappointing. Although it rose during the past year by 1.3%, throughout the entire five preceding years productivity had actually fallen on average by 0.7% annually, so that, in the past six years, it has declined by 2.2%. “The performance of a business is inversely correlated with the age of the head of the company,” according to the report, pointing out, however, that most recently the number of under-35’s entering business, especially in chemicals and rubbers, has increased.

    Italy’s notoriously elephantine public sector is largely a special prerogative of female workers, who make up 52.7% of the total, by contrast to their lesser proportion (under 39%) of the total work force. Both male and female workers in the public sector are getting long in the tooth; one out of every six of those fully employed in the public sector is over 46, up two years over 2001 figures. The median age of the supervisors (i dirigenti) had climbed to 48.4; eliminating health care workers, the average supervisor was 53 years old. Not coincidentally, the under-35’s holding jobs in the state or local bureaucracy were 31% of all those employed in 1990, but in 2003, a scant 9%.

    The Eurispes analysis also gave evidence of the extent to which the Italian family is reeling from the economic pinch, with only one in three questioned saying that they can make it to the end of the month. The number of families applying for personal loans has doubled in the past year, from 5% to 10%. Buying on time is no longer unusual; indebtedness rose by nearly 10% in the first semester of 2007 over the same period of 2006, and parents report buying even school text books on credit. Whereas fat savings accounts were once the proud Italian norm, today only one in seven families (13.6%) is able to put money aside at the end of the month. Some of this we already knew: shortly before Christmas reports were arriving of middle-aged white-collar men standing in line for free meals.

    One of the sadder elements that leaps from the Eurispes pages is the continuation of a North-South gap. In Sicily almost 31% of families fall below the official poverty line; in the North the figure is generally 6% (Lombardy, Veneto, Trento, Emilia) and 7.1% in Piedmont. The Southern Italian poor also have larger families and far less schooling than in the North. One out of ten Southern Italians read over seven books a year, while in the North the figure is one  in three. And in the North the number of poor families whose head of family is under 35 were under 5% , but five times that in the South.

  • Facts & Stories

    Let Statistics Tell the Tale

    Although Mark Twain supposedly said, after Benjamin Disraeli, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics,” two newly released statistical reports which occasionally overlap—one on justice, the other on society—offer a fascinating close-up of today’s Italy.

    Introducing the new judiciary year in late January, the senior regent of the Rome court of appeals, Claudio Fancelli, presented the annual statistical summary synthesizing the year from July 1, 2006 through June 30, 2007. Given the controversy over the newly resigned Justice Minister Clemente Mastella affair, which has his wife under house arrest for alleged participation in corruption, it is worth considering what else the magistrates of Italy have been up to this past year.

    The report could hardly fail to describe problems, but it was not by all means entirely negative. Perhaps its proudest moment comes with the striking increase in the number of individuals actually incarcerated for “crimes against the heritage” (patrimonio), up 29.1% over the previous year. This hike reflects the decade-long police crackdown on thefts in museums and on archaeological sites, as well as against the physical environment—the great parks like the Abruzzi, and the cement-blighted coastline.

    Said Fancelli: “Delinquents on all levels consider it convenient from a juridical point of view to operate within our country, given our [inadequate] penal code.” And indeed crimes by foreigners (robbery, prostitution, drug hustling, exploitation of children) have soared, with nearly half the crimes attributed to minors involving children from the Balkan area (“Slavs”).

    The sluggish justice system is a leitmotif. The delays in Rome reflect in part the fact that, between 2000 and 2007, the number of trials taking place in the capital had tripled. The number of divorces winding up in a courtroom soaring by 11% in just one year, and the resulting slow-down had one divorce case in Rome dragging on for 12 years.

    In addition, Rome comes off as particularly litigious, vaunting as many avvocati as in all of France, “with possible effects on the overcrowding of the judiciary calendar,” according to the financial daily Il Sole-24 Ore. “It is an abnormal number,” Fancelli acknowledged.

    Also evident: a North-South judicial split, with the full-employment, industrial Northern sub-Alpine area plagued with a relatively high number of accidents in the workplace. In the South, and increasingly with “infiltrations” into Rome itself and the Lazio region, the judiciary was obliged to confront organized crime: the Mafia, Camorra, ‘nDrangheta and the Sacro Cuore Unito.

    In this the Southern magistrates showed considerable activism. In Palermo, the number of trials for Mafia association rose by a startling 288% (64 cases in 2006 as compared with 248 in 2007). One such trial has just brought about the resignation of the Sicilian regional assembly president Salvatore (“Toto”) Cuffaro, cleared of his being, himself, a Mafia associate, but convicted on charges of providing aid to mafiosi.

    Cuffaro, staunch ally of Silvio Berlusconi, was sentenced Jan. 18 to five years in prison on grounds that a former police officer had told him in 2001 that investigators had bugged the home of a convicted Mafia boss in Palermo. For days Cuffaro braved Palermo demonstrators (including girls who dressed up like cannoli) and refused to leave office until his appeal trial could be heard, but on Jan. 26 he bowed to public pressure and resigned. The pressure in the business community in Sicily for Cuffaro to resign was spurred by the increasing number of businessmen who defy organized crime by refusing to pay protection.

    At the same time, the number of other trials linked to some degree to Mafia activity rose significantly: for alleged extortion, by 67% in just one year; for usury, by 36%; for corruption, by 129%; and, the greatest increase, for drug trafficking, which rose by 741% in a single.

    For the Naples area (the city itself, Caserta, Benevento and Avellino), said Undersecretary for the Justice Ministry Luigi Scotti, it had been “a dramatic year for justice, aggravated by the chronic lack of magistrates.” For that territory, there were 177 murders, 25% more than the previous year, while what are called “Camorra-style” crimes rose from 78 to 103 while at the same time crimes of extortion, believed linked to organized crime, rose alarmingly, by nearly 10%.

  • Facts & Stories

    Rome: Champagne Corks and Chunks of Mortadella Mark Government’s Collapse

    ROME – In a vote of confidence Thursday night the center-left government which has ruled Italy for the past two years sank like a stone. The climate was such that, the minute the decisive vote was announced in the Senate, at least one right-wing senator celebrated by spitting at an adversary while others among the gleeful victors popped Champagne corks and, as an insult, chomped on slabs of mortadella. Clanging his bell loudly to restore order, Senate President Franco Marini burst out, “This is not a tavern!”

    And yet the coalition headed by Romano Prodi, the cycle-riding premier whose opponents razz him for eating that sausage specialty of his native Bologna, mortadella, had fared almost surprisingly well only the day before, when the confidence vote in the Chamber of Deputies showed 226 in favor and 175 against. Nevertheless the Prodi coalition lost the vote in the Senate by a narrow margin, 161 versus 156. Prodi immediately resigned, and on Friday President Giorgio Napolitano launched consultations over what is to be done. 

    What indeed? The most likely outcome is a prolonged crisis that will end in the calling of new elections in April. If you are placing bets, go ahead and place them on a Silvio Berlusconi clan victory, for yet another round of  government by telemarketing. However, President Napolitano is known to be notably reluctant to call elections, so before this happens there will be one or two rounds of attempts to form a government by premier-designates, who will try and most likely fail. Possible choices for an ad interim government of technicians to tend the store for a time—such as have been appointed any number of times in the past—include prestigious outsiders such as former European Commissioner Mario Monti and the banker/economist who has been governor of the Bank of Italy for the past year, Mario Draghi.

    Admittedly, dissatisfaction with the center-left’s squabbling, faltering performance has been building for many months, but meantime, it’s fair to ask just how Prodi could have won by no less than 51 votes in the Chamber, and yet have lost in the smaller Senate because of two senators changing their vote.

    One reason for the good showing in the Chamber is because, under a new electoral law, the victor receives a premium of extra MP’s. This controversial law was a last-minute bequest from Silvio Berlusconi. Shortly before his conservative “House of Freedom” coalition was ousted two years ago, the controversial election law was shoved through with some hair-raising provisos that have contributed to the present government crisis. That new election law had an extremely low threshold of only 2% for small parties to enter Parliament; those hoping to reduce the number of tiny parties had asked for 4% or 5%. This allowed a relatively large number of micro-parties.

    In addition, these tiny parties won a premium of extra representation (i.e., more MP’s) at the expense of the larger ones. “The big winners were penalized while the losers were rewarded,” said the sardonic Senator Antonio Polito of the new Partito Democratico, headed by Walter Veltroni.

    Then the number of  micro-parties was further expanded, after the two houses of Parliament were seated, by self-appointment, to the point that, at last count, 38 parties, among them Lamberto Dini’s three-member formation, were represented in the now-defunct Parliament. “A few friends would chum together, name their party and—without that party’s ever facing an electorate—they would then obtain Parliamentary perks: funding, office space, an official car, a secretary, the right to consultations with the other party secretaries, attention from the TV cameras….” said Polito in a meeting with foreign journalists Friday.

    The law also overturned the old system of indicating individual preferences. This rescinding of the voters’ right to choose individual candidates boosted the power and control of the party bosses immeasurably. The process was for party leaders to compile a roster of names, and, depending upon how many votes the party won, their candidates automatically entered Parliament, starting from the top of the list chosen by the bosses in the proverbial smoke-filled back room.

    A national referendum to overturn this law was in the works, but that referendum would end automatically with the calling of new elections. Nor can Parliament rewrite the election law in the meantime, for the government’s resignation limits its powers to ordinary management until a new government is in office.

  • Facts & Stories

    Italian News Spinning

    ... Three cases last week showed that the Italians spin no less skillfully than anyone else—but that unspinning is extremely difficult.

    The troublesome Case Number One reflects two contradictory facts. In the past three years the presence of Romanians in Italy has tripled, and today over one million Romanians, including Romanian Roma, or Gypsies, live in Italy. Only 400,000 have legal status, hard to obtain partly because bureaucrats and police are simply overwhelmed. Since last summer, a number of widely publicized murders and other serious crimes involving Romanians and Roma have taken place, and Romanians now top the lists of perpetrators of serious crimes, including manslaughter and rape, committed in Italy by foreigners.

    The result is panic and anti-Romanian, anti-immigrant resentment, even though Romanian crime seems to have increased in proportion to the augmented presence of Romanians. Indeed, official statistics show that, while financial crimes and robberies of households in Italy are on the rise, crimes of violence are actually on the wane. If so, then the citizens’ perception that they are under particular threat from the Romanian nationals would be disproportionate to the reality.

    In November the Romanetwork accused both politicians and the media for conducting a “sustained campaign…of inciting panic over crimes purportedly committed by Romanians—and in particular by Romanian Roma. The Italian government has also passed an emergency decree facilitating the expulsion of Romanian citizens, with only limited procedural protection. In the context of agitating for these draconian new measures, the media in both Italy and Romania have participated in explicitly racist incitement, and a number of high-ranking officials have made explicitly anti-Romani statements.”    

    In an evident, if ill considered, attempt at fairness, last week the distinguished president of the Institutional Affairs Commission of the Chamber of Deputies, the former magistrate Luciano Violante, summoned the directors of TV news operations (Berlusconi’s, the independent La 7 and the state-owned RAI), for a three-hour meeting basically asking the media not to fan the flames of prejudice and make the public feel needlessly insecure.

    It didn’t take. The network directors were having no part in political doctoring of the news: “To summon us here to tell us that the news is contributing to making citizens feel insecure would lower us in the ranks of press freedom,” retorted Clemente Mimun, news director of Berlusconi’s Tg5.  The (presumably) more progressive head of RAI’s Tg3 Antonio Di Bella was no less resentful: “The last thing I’d like is to be called in again to be told, a year from now, that crime is on the rise but that public perceptions of it have decreased.” A Northern League spokesman, Roberto Cota, called the intervention “just one more attempt to politicize information.” At the same time the moderate president of the Order of Journalists in Lazio, Bruno Tucci, also blew the whistle, saying that Violante’s were Fascist-style Minculpop tactics: “What does he [Violante] want—for us to ignore reality and sugar-coat sensitive issues that everyone can see? To have journalists not do their job for the sake of the establishment?”

    Case number two was more cut and dried. As the Great Garbage Implosion continued to fill the pages with horrific photos, and the public piazzas with angry mobs, the press could hardly remain on the sidelines. Sardinia has an active recycling program which has produced enviable results, but when Renato Soru, president of the Sardinian Region, offered the island’s modern facilities to the Neapolitans for incineration, a local right-wing newspaper together with a radio station in Cagliari published the “fact” that 36,000 tons of rubbish would be dumped on the island from Naples. The news resulted in a mob scuffle at the port, even though—according to Soru—the real figure was a small percentage of what the newspaper had published: 6,000 tons, or 1.5% of Sardinia’s recycled waste. Accusing the newspaper and radio of fomenting violence through its inaccurate statistics, Soru announced he will sue for defamation.

    The third case of spin gone wrong began with the former primate president of the Italian bishops’ conference, the CEI, and present vicar for the diocese of Rome, Camillo Cardinal Ruini, who compiled a thick file on Rome’s presumed state of degrado, or degradation. This file went to Pope Benedict XVI, who received Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni last week, and rapped the Rome mayor over the head with it.

    The result was enormous resentment of Church interference, and not only from the press; Romans were complaining, not for the first time, that the Vatican does not pay taxes on income-generating property it owns and manages in Rome outside Vatican walls. The leftist press had a field day attacking both pope and mayor: “A donkey being lashed – Veltroni came out of the meeting with Benedict XVI with his bones broken,” said Il Manifesto, only slightly more outraged than the rest of the Italian press.

    Veltroni fired back with statistics showing that his administration had doubled services for the elderly and the poor. Reacting to the uproar, the cardinal who is the pontiff’s deputy in the Vatican, Tarcisio Bertone, backtracked on papal behalf, explaining that it had all been a misunderstanding. After this clarification, Veltroni thanked the pope, adding piously that the Rome administration had been working to “improve the quality of life without losing sight of the needs and rights of the weakest and the most disadvantaged.” Point counter-point—just another faux pas on the road to Roman coexistence.



  • Facts & Stories

    Healthy Italy, but Naples poisoned by garbage

    ROME – Last month’s New York Times article accusing Italy of being adrift continues to trouble the establishment here. In a New Year’s message, center-left coalition Premier Romano Prodi announced that December’s Eurostat statistics, which purport to show that the Spanish economy has trumped Italy’s, were dead wrong. According to Prodi, the real story is told by the International Monetary Fund, whose statistics (also from December) show that Italy’s annual per capita income stands at $31,792, well above Spain’s $27,767. The Italian GNP, he added, is of $1,852 billion, well over Spain’s $1,230 billion.

    Another strong defense of Italy came in a polite letter to the New York Times sent by Italian Interior Minister Giuliano Amato. In it Amato pointed out that the Italian national health care system is ranked by the World Health Organization as second in the world, even as reports of what is called here la malasanità continue to pour in. Sutures in the abdomen, rats in hospital kitchens, the dying left outside shut doors, meningitis in the wards, camorristi in privileged treatment, immensely costly machines rusting in a cellar—you name it, we read about it.

        Nevertheless, Amato has a good point, which he would do well to make at home. My personal experience is that many of the same Italians who utilize the free health service here, and some of those who run it, fail to appreciate that it exists at all, and that the public health clinics scattered throughout Italy are still open to one and all. A healthy diet and the (not always jolly) sociality of family life are only partly responsible for the remarkable Italian longevity, superior to that of the U.S.; surely the public health system with its obligatory immunizations for all children—as of January 1 being challenged by one region, the Veneto, on a test basis—also deserves credit.

    The proof is in the pudding: in 1939 the infant mortality rate stood at 100 deaths within the first year of life for every 1,000 births, down today to five deaths. In addition, in 1939 the average life span was, for men, 53 years and for women, 56; today is 77 for men and 82 for women. Something right is being done, and it is a precious heritage. And this is true despite the obvious risk of politicization (translated: appointing friends and relatives to health service, or ASL, posts).

        If, as is implicit in Minister Amato’s statement, Italy is potentially the second healthiest nation in Europe, Neapolitans have been left out, however. Newspapers this week are running double pages filled with pictures of burning rubbish and seething Neapolitans. Awash in a sea of untended garbage, breathing in dioxin from burning rubbish piles on street corners, infuriated locals do battle with police. No one can blame the Neapolitans for being exasperated: the garbage war has been going on for well over a year now, with no end in sight. Put in the simplest way, the garbage treatment resources are inadequate to the population, but of course nothing is ever that simple. Some blame the camorra but others say the camorra is used as an excuse. Others blame City Hall. Whoever is to blame, last summer the United States embassy in Rome warned its citizens that the garbage crisis may risk travelers’ health in the Campania region surrounding Naples: "U.S. citizens traveling to or through the area may encounter mounds of garbage, open fires with potentially toxic fumes, and/or sporadic public demonstrations by local residents attempting to block access to dumps," said an advisory note. Altogether the eighteen rubbish consortiums of the region employ 2,400 paid employees and countless “consultants.”

    In RAI TV interviews aired on November 19, 2006, Bernardo Iovene pointed out that 71 Campania region city councils have been dissolved on grounds of mob infiltration and their elected officials replaced by administrators. The result, as seen in interviews with workers of a rubbish-gathering consortium hired by local administrators, shows men standing idly about and chatting. Herewith an edited portion of interview transcripts:

    Iovene: How many men are here now?
    Man No. 1: Two hundred sixty, two fifty six…
    Iovene: Two hundred sixty people? And just now what are you doing?
    Man No. 2: Nothing
    Iovene: That is, you do nothing?
    Man No. 3: Nothing, because the trucks can’t go out….we are supposed to work shifts but the trucks are all broken down….
    Man No. 4: We work three shifts, morning, afternoon, night…we are supposed to bring in the differentiated rubbish but as you can see, we aren’t doing anything at all…
    Man No. 6: We come here, we sign in, and we wait for time to go home.
    Iovine:  Are you telling me the truth?
    Man No. 6: Certainly!...The tires are smooth, the motors burned out…
    Union rep.: These workers ask only to be able to work…
    Man No. 8: We don’t have the means to work. The trucks are all broken down…We have thirty of them. Only eight work.
    Iovine:  Are there mechanics in here?
    Man No. 3:  We are all mechanics….
    Iovine (voice-over): The City prefers to use a private company…this is a private consortium.

    Consortium President (named in text and on camera):  Ah no, you must turn off that camera.    

        According to Agence France Presse on, Jan. 3, “Criminal investigators say the Camorra mafia pay truckers to haul industrial waste from factories in northern Italy for fees that undercut those of the legal trade. They bring it to illegal dumps in the Naples region made by blasting holes in mountainsides.”

          Il Messaggero on the same day pointed out a solution: that Neapolitan rubbish be shipped to Germany, where it will be turned into electricity, which can be resold to Italy, which already buys 15% of its electricity from Germany.


    * * *

        A post-script to my December piece on Italy’s winter of discontent: I had dated the general indifference to the study of mathematics (and hence the loss of basic training in logic) on the part of the masters of the Italian school curricula to an ideological quirk of the Seventies. Turns out that this snubbing of math dates from the year following Mussolini’s take-over, 1923,  when Minister Giovanni Gentile’s school reform project boosted the importance of the liceo classico (Latin high school) at the expense of the scientific high school. According to Dario Ragazzini, historian of education at Florence University, “For the elementary school Gentile justified his choice saying that mathematics serves to resolve problems, and that the children could do without this, therefore, because they have no problems.” (Cited in Focus Storia, No. 3, “Come si viveva ai tempi di fascismo,” Milan, 2005) It is


  • Op-Eds

    A Winter of Discontent

    ROME – Down at the outdoor market at Campo de’ Fiori in Rome today it was clear that winter is here, for artichokes had finally appeared, albeit at a stunning price of $1.60 apiece, a 20% hike over last year. The recent truckers’ strike has pushed up all food prices just in time for Christmas dinner, and shoppers were truculent.

    Inside my usual café on a corner of the Campo it was also wintry, as in talk of Italy’s winter of discontent. A New York Times article Dec. 13 cited a poll purportedly showing that Italians are dismal in spirit and generally adrift. At the café many agreed. “We’ve been sitting on our laurels for a long time now,” said Paola, who has a shoe store just off the Campo. “We’re going nowhere.”

    But others here are eager to rebut the Times. Last Sunday an often raucous comic from Piedmont named Luciana Littizzetto turned serious. In a heated counter-attack on TV Three’s Tempo Che Fa, she said that the Americans may be right about Italy going to seed, but at least the Italians don’t go around shooting people at random in shopping malls and schools. So there, take that, America.

    This long-time observer of Italy (perhaps participant in Italy is more correct) has long believed that Italy is, as Paola said in the café this morning, resting on its laurels, and resting with smug self-satisfaction at that. The other night, as we discussed the Times article, I complained that what it said is obvious, but the why is more pertinent and also more difficult to grasp. It is also useful to factor into the misery equation other West European nations. French society is not particularly better off, or more creative; and as for relatively wealthier Britain, the troubles ahead in that poly-religious society, where the urban-countryside clash is painful to watch, and Gordon Brown is floundering, are all too obvious.

    It is consoling that despite Asian competition innovative manufacturers have made Italy more present internationally than ever. As a regional survey of Italian exports between January and September shows, exports actually rose between 10.6 and 18 percent over the same period of 2006, according to the national statistics-gathering agency ISTAT (

    On the other hand, few would argue that Italy today faces some extremely serious problems. Aside from the generally abysmal tone of political exchanges (not least the anonymous delivery of bullets to three sitting cabinet ministers Wednesday), they begin with Italian mass education, whose belated arrival, post-1965, is still beached on the rocky shore of 19th century rhetoric. Recent polls here are troubling: 50% of Italian middle school students cannot synthesize what they have read, and only a slightly lower number can do elementary math. So let’s try to sort out which fundamental problems are holding back the country.

    1. The lack of teaching of basic logic. The Seventies produced an excess number of teachers from technical training schools, who had received a smattering of business and law but who turned out to be unemployable. More or less charitably they were given jobs in public schools teaching math, but since they did not know how to teach math, they flopped. The result: students at a critical age failed to learn simple logic.

    2. The lack of jobs for young people who remain at home unemployed into their thirties. This is not funny although outsiders are usually amused by it. As a result of this, as a front-page comment in the financial daily Il Sole-24 Ore said recently, young people do not accumulate the work experience they need, they do not accumulate the money, and by the time they find a job, they’ve already lost their verve and creativity. An old friend who finally became a university professor at La Sapienza confirmed this: “I had to struggle so hard to get here, I no longer care about being here.” Who to blame? Begin with the trade unions—but not only.

    3. The lack of a minimum required for a political party’s representation in Parliament. The current plethora of mini-parties cedes too much power to narrow minority interests, however worthy. Under desultory discussion is to amend the political process by introducing a 5% minimum for representation in Parliament. Without this, tiny minorities have a stranglehold, and the governing process is stalemated.

    4. The lack of honesty within the political system. Those attacked for corruption always scream that it is a political attack, but this is obviously ridiculous in the case of the general in the Finance Guards corps who made state helicopters and boats available to freeloading politicians for August trips to Capri and other vacation spots, when Parliament was out of session. Nor were all from the far right. Such arrogant corruption is an affront (not to say dissuasion) to anyone paying taxes.

    5. The lack of pudor. In a telephone conversation June 21, 2007 (to hear it, select and then under, politica, “colloquio telefonico”), former Premier Silvio Berlusconi pleads for bosomy actress Evelina Manna to be given a starring role in a RAI TV production. The request, Berlusconi explains, was on behalf of an unnamed potential turncoat center-left coalition Senator. Explanation: in the Senate, the left alliance survives but barely; in a confidence vote Dec. 6 the government survived there by just two votes, 160 to 158.

    And by the way, what other nation can vaunt a government whose ministers and their deputies total over one hundred people? Shame, shame, shame.

    6. The lack of willingness to accept apparently menial jobs and build upon them. A few years ago a single Sikh was hired to work on an archaeological dig near Rome, and today he and 24 others of his family and neighbors from back home have developed into a team of skilled archaeological restorers. “In many areas Italians simply won’t do stoop labor,” was the analysis of the late Professor Paolo Sylos-Labini. “It’s a medieval attitude.” He identified a lack of work ethic to those geographical areas where rainfall was scarce and wheat the main commodity, meaning backbreaking labor for short periods and long periods of indolence.




    Judith Harris is an American expatriate who has lived in, observed, and written about Italy for many years. She has reported for BBC, Time Magazine and NBC, and has recently published Pompeii Awakened: A Story of Rediscovery.