Sunday, June 20, 2010

Politics in Italy

I arrived in Italy with the assumption that most everyone I would run into would be to the left side of the political spectrum, particularly among my relatives. It would stand to reason that they would be pro-Obama and pro-public sector, having basically fallen for anti-business and anti-capitalist demagoguery.

I did indeed find that to varying degrees, but not as vehemently as I expected. On our second day in Italy, we were in a small convenience store in Lucca. The owner noticed me conversing in English with my wife Susan and then asking for items in Italian.

Siete Americani?” he inquired.

“Yes, we just arrived from America yesterday for a short vacation.”

“How are things in America? Is the economic crisis very bad.”

“Yes, I am afraid it is. It might even be worse than here. I certainly haven’t seen 10% unemployment before. The private sector is moribund. The only part of the economy that is booming is the public sector, particularly the federal government, because it can borrow and print money as much as it likes, at least until the house of cards collapses.

“Isn’t Obama helping?”

“Obama is part of the problem,” I replied.

“You don’t like him?”

“He never impressed me, and I certainly did not vote for him. He can dazzle everyone with inspiring speeches, but the man has never done anything noteworthy other than run for office, and his lack of experience is showing badly. Furthermore, and more importantly, I am diametrically opposed to him philosophically. He sees the government, particularly a large and intrusive central government, as the solution to our problems. I believe the solution lies in people exercising their individual liberty and responsibility without government intrusion. So do most Americans, an increasing majority of whom deeply regret having voted Obama into office.”

But wasn’t the recent passage of a healthcare bill something positive?”

“It sounds really nice to say that everyone ought to have access to healthcare. You all have “la mutua” here in Italy, which means your healthcare is theoretically free, but you have to wait forever for some pretty basic care sometimes. My aunt here waited over a year for a simple knee replacement surgery. And by the way, she is going to have to have it done again. It did not go well. Furthermore, as the owner of a small business, I am sure you know that nothing is really free. Somebody has to pay for it in one way or another. The question is what is the most effective and efficient way to get quality healthcare to the most people. Again, individual liberty and responsibility are the way to go.”

I was pleasantly surprised at the attentiveness and non-combativeness of my interlocutor. He seemed genuinely interested and seemed to hang on my every word.

As we walked out of the store, an attractive young lady stopped us. “I couldn’t help overhearing that you are from America. I spent some time working there a few years ago and am thinking of applying to go back, perhaps to even start a business. Do you think Obama will make immigration any easier?”

“I’m sure he would like to and will do everything in his power to pass his agenda between now and November. But unless something drastic happens between now and then, his party will lose a lot of power. People are fed up with what he is trying to do to the country.”

“America is such a land of dreams and opportunity. I would really like to go back.”

“I suggest you wait a little and see what happens,” I replied. “America has long been a land of opportunity, and some day it may be again, but not now. You might be better off staying here.”

She seemed disillusioned but thankful for my advice.

Most Italians don’t understand how a large government and heavy taxation stifle the economy, because in their mind only the nasty rich people are supposed to pay taxes. They are mostly oblivious to their own tax bill. For example, the amount of money I paid for the items purchased in the convenience store was exactly what was on the price tag, but that price included multiple layers of value added tax which keep getting built into the price of goods and services until they are purchased by the end consumer, who has no idea how much of a cut the government is getting from every single transaction. All he knows is that the prices are terribly high, but instead of railing against the government, he complains about those nasty merchants and entrepreneurs who are robbing him blind. It’s the same thing that happens in the USA with fuel. The price of a gallon of gas already includes hidden local, state and federal taxes, and most people don’t know that the government makes more money off of a gallon of gas without lifting a finger than do the oil companies, who do all the heavy lifting of exploring, drilling, transporting, refining and distributing. But instead of railing against big government, we complain about big oil.

A couple days later we were in Genova and had the joy of attending a family reunion. I got to see some cousins for the first time in seven years or so. I knew most of them to be lefter than left, and I much preferred to catch up and reminisce about old times than talk politics, but they were the ones who brought up the subject:

“So what do you think of Obama?” asked my cousin Roberto, a former card carrying member of the Partito Comunista Italiano.

“Not much,” I replied. “He can dazzle you with fine speeches, but he is an ideologue with zero experience, and it shows. More importantly, he is pursuing precisely the wrong solutions for our country. He believes in a strong central government. I believe in individual liberty and free enterprise. If I don’t like the behavior of a private company, I can always take my business elsewhere. But if I don’t like what the government is doing, to whom do I turn? Government monopolies are the worst kind.”

“Spoken like a true right winger!” he replied. I was pleasantly surprised that his retort was not at all hostile or sarcastic. Perhaps his experiences as a struggling small business owner had caused him to moderate his views.

Peppi, another cousin who is also an independent businessman and highly successful to boot, also chimed in. “Don’t you think you needed a change after eight years of Bush?”

“Oh, another case of Bush Derangement Syndrome,” I thought. Most of my relatives in Italy also suffer from Berlusconi Derangement Syndrome, so I knew not to bring him up.

“Tell me, Peppi. Exactly what did Bush do that caused this mess?”

“As for the economic crisis, nothing.” He was well aware of the intricacies of the Community Reinvestment Act, which fomented years of bad loans to non-credit worthy individuals. He admitted that the house of cards happened to finally fall during the Bush Administration, but that the disastrous policies that led to the collapse occurred mostly under “il vostro presidente sassofonista” (Bill Clinton, who put the Community Reinvestment Act on steroids.) “However,” he added, Bush's war on terrorism and foreign policy were hugely unpopular.”

“Okay, fine.” I replied. “ We can have differing opinions about Bush’s foreign policy. I happened to think it was correct, so let’s agree to disagree, and that is only a small piece of the puzzle. Obama kept talking about ‘hope and change’ but was never specific about where he wanted to take the country. Now people know what he meant and they are not happy about it”

“Yes we can!” Peppi quipped sarcastically in English with a smile. He got my point.

1 comment:

JD Curtis said...

A good comparison for the gentleman in the store who was quizzing you would be comparing Obama il Duce insofar as public speaking skills are concerned.

I would quickly then add that Obama would probably staff the railroad authority with cronies and Black Panthers and he would never have the slightest idea in a million years as to how to make them run on time.