Posts tagged with: italy

European workers and trade union reps protest in Brussels

Things really aren’t looking good across the pond.  Acton’s Director of Research, Samuel Gregg, has written quite a bit about the decline in Europe. His latest ‘Meanwhile, Europe is (Still) Burning’ in the American Spectator, discusses the inability or unwillingness of European governments to respond to economic trouble.

Two of the world’s large economies, France and Italy, are examples of this. In France, workforce unemployment is 11 percent, the government has engaged in possibly illegal activity by hiding the fact that it hasn’t cut its fiscal deficits, and it won’t actually get around to making these cuts until 2017. The situation in Italy is even worse: unemployment is at 12.6 percent, youth unemployment is at 42.9 percent, and the country is ranked as one of the worst in the world in terms of “labor market efficiency.”

Despite these problems, necessary changes are not being made:

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is the latest Italian head of government to propose some marginal labor-market reforms. Alas, he too has discovered that Italy’s unions are essentially opposed to anything except the status quo. That’s why an estimated 1 million Italians marched in the streets on October 25, claiming that “fundamental rights” (which evidently don’t extend to Italians below 30) were being endangered.

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What a sweet spectacle it is to observe Rome’s pastel-colored cityscape and glowing white marble churches from above St. Peter’s Basilica just before sunset. But this is not what one Italian entrepreneur had in mind late Monday evening and years since experiencing any kind of dolce vita in his native land.

According to local press reports, around 6:00 pm on May 20, Vatican police and tourists discovered a businessman from Trieste, Marcello Finizio, atop the massive dome of St. Peter’s, the one famously redesigned by Michelangelo to awe the millions of visitors to Rome each year.

Clinging to an upper window ledge and support cable, he unfurled a white banner with Italian and English words of protest and plea:
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Kishore Jayabalan, Director of Instituto Acton in Rome, Italy, joined France 24 News today to discuss the pontificate of Pope Francis I as he assumes his new office of leadership.

New York Post illustration

New York Post illustration

In the New York Post, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg looks at “the spread throughout America of economic expectations and arrangements directly at odds with our republic’s founding” and asks what the slow walk to “Europeanization” means for the long term. Gregg:

Unfortunately there’s a great deal of evidence suggesting America is slouching down the path to Western Europe. In practical terms, that means social-democratic economic policies: the same policies that have turned many Western European nations into a byword for persistently high unemployment, rigid labor markets, low-to-zero economic growth, out-of-control debt and welfare states, absurdly high tax levels, growing numbers of well-paid government workers, a near-obsession with economic equality at any cost and, above all, a stubborn refusal to accept that things simply can’t go on like this.

It’s very hard to deny similar trends are becoming part of America’s economic landscape. States like California are already there — just ask the thousands of Californians and businesses who have fled the land of Nancy Pelosi.

Europeanization is also reflected in the refusal of so many Americans to take our nation’s debt crisis seriously. Likewise, virtually every index of economic freedom and competitiveness shows that, like most Western European nations, America’s position vis-à-vis other countries is in decline.

Is there a way out, even as the “fiscal cliff” negotiations vividly illustrate the inability of Washington’s political elites to take spending and tax problems seriously? Gregg holds out hope: (more…)

In what was dubbed the “Bailout Game” of the 2012 European Championships, the German national team defeated their Greek counterparts, the 4-2 score only slightly representative of the match’s one-sidedness. The adroit, disciplined Deutscher Fuβball-Bund owned 64% of the ball, prompting at least one economic retainment joke and the asking of the question: What does this game mean for Europe?

Not much, according toIra Broudway of Bloomberg Businessweek, who last week issued a preemptive “calm down” to the throngs of journalists, broadcasters and politically-aware fans itching to work their witticisms into the soccer-as-political-grudge-match conversation. Chill out, he says; thinking soccer could have any say in the realm of global affairs is “mass lunacy.” He’s right, the German’s systematic defeat of the Greece’s beloved Blue-White’s won’t spur any continental economic legislation or seal Greek’s fiscal fate. But maybe Broudway’s treatment of the match’s relevance is a tad too dismissive.

To deny the social influence of sports, especially in soccer-crazed Europe, is to forget about a history of cultural milestones. Less than two weeks before Germany and Greece met on the pitch, international tensions between Poland and Russia, together with a poorly-scheduled game-time resulted in violent riots on the streets of Warsaw. For a brighter recollection, think only of the Miracle on Ice, the 1995 Rugby World Cup or you name that sporting-event-turned-movie. For better and for worse, athletics have an undeniable ability to inspire and incite.

But what’s behind this potential? Social scientist Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, has written and spoken widely on the topic of “earned happiness.” It’s difficult to think of a realm that encourages earned happiness more than athletics. Sports pit conflicting dreams of teams, cities, nations against each other and promise fulfillment to the winner. Done fairly, competition even maximizes potential for all involved parties.

Imagine the consequence of a Greek victory. No, a victory wouldn’t have paid back billions of euros of debt, but it might have reaffirmed the possibility of achievement for a people decimated by a burdensome fiscal situation. It may have at least modeled the idea of earned happiness for a society that today knows more about learned dependency.

Who knows, maybe that dream still exists for one of Europe’s debt-ridden nations. Germany’s next opponent? Italy. Squaring off on the other side of the bracket? Portugal and Spain. Soccer fans and the globally-concerned can at least speculate about the cultural implications of the coming week of soccer, and what it has to say to Europe’s present economic context. Vamos!

How about a tax on fires?

On National Review Online, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg examines the push for a “transaction tax” to solve some of the fiscal problems in the European Union. The move would, Gregg explains, “levy a tax on any transaction on financial instruments (securities, loans, deposits, derivatives, and various asset classes) between banks, hedge funds, insurance businesses, investment companies, and other financial organizations whenever one contracting party is located in the EU.” That may not sound like much, but would apply to literally millions of financial transactions daily. The scheme has drawn the support of “EU apparatchiks” but the opposition of the British who see the tax proposal as a threat to London’s financial competitiveness. Gregg sees what’s behind it:

In short, the EU’s transactions-tax scheme reflects a long-standing desire to “throw sand” in the wheels of financial globalization. Its origins lie in what’s called the “Tobin tax,” named after the American economist James Tobin, who argued in 1972 for the levying of a 0.5 percent tax on all spot-currency conversions. The point, for Tobin, was to discourage “speculators” who “invest their money in foreign exchange on a very short-term basis.”

Unfortunately for its advocates, there’s considerable evidence that Tobin-like taxes on financial transactions don’t reduce volatility. In the midst of financial crises, long-term and short-term investors behave in very much the same way — they get out, and transaction taxes don’t prevent them from abandoning ship. Greece, for example, currently applies a transaction tax to the sale of Greek-listed shares. That, however, isn’t doing much to prevent the present exodus of capital from Greece.

Taking the broader view, it’s hard to avoid concluding this latest EU harmonization boondoggle is about two things. First, it’s a way for EU officials and governments to appear to be punishing European financial institutions for their contributions to Europe’s economic crisis. Second, it reflects the general European failure to come to grips with some of the deeper problems contributing to Europe’s debt crisis.

Read “Financial Fiddling while the Euro Burns” by Samuel Gregg on NRO.

Kishore Jayabalan, the Acton Institute’s Rome office director, was interviewed by the Zenit news agency in an article titled, “Is Taxing the Church a Real Solution for Italy?” In the article, Jayabalan discusses the history of the Italian state and its imposition of property taxes on the Roman Catholic Church’s land holdings, residences and non-profit businesses.

Sometimes in the past, particularly under Napoleonic rule and before the Lateran Pacts, the institution of property tax was often a subject of state persecution of the Church in economic terms. Mr. Jayabalan answers critical questions about the reasons behind Italy’s evolving (or rather “revolving”) fiscal policies and historic land expropriations to the Church’s detriment.

The Church has traditionally been exempt from paying ICI [property tax] on non-commercial entities because they serve a social purpose. The old law actually exempted entitles that were ‘predominantly’ non-commercial. The new law exempts simply non-commercial entities, so there will be some re-defining of what is non-commercial or not by the Italian Ministry of the Economy. Jewish, Muslim, and other religious, and for that matter secular, non-profits were also ICI-exempt, so this was not a case of special pleading for the Catholic Church in Italy, even though Catholic institutions dwarf the others numerically…

Of course this is not the first time the Church has been muscled out of land. Napoleon’s massive cash taxes upon his conquest of Italy were designed to force noble families (generally with very close ties to the Church) out of their lands and titles. Napoleon spared the Church the niceties of taxes, choosing to simply expropriate the property. The unification of Italy as well saw Church lands, art and lives lost as the new nation was formed. But even this was nothing new. After all Nero had blamed the Christians for a fire he set to clear some land in downtown Rome, so in the end Sts. Peter and Paul and 900 other Christians were killed for a real estate deal.

To read Jayabalan’s full interview, go here.

A week ago, Dr. Samuel Gregg addressed an audience here at Acton’s Grand Rapids, Michigan office on the topic of “Europe: A Continent in Economic and Cultural Crisis.” If you weren’t able to attend, we’re pleased to present the video of Dr. Gregg’s presentation below.

Protesters outside parliament on May 5 in Athens, Greece.

On the blog of The American Spectator, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg looks at how Europe refuses to address the root causes of its unending crisis:

Most of us have now lost count of how many times Europe’s political leaders have announced they’ve arrived at a “fundamental” agreement which “decisively” resolves the eurozone’s almost three-year old financial crisis. As recently as late October, we were told the EU had forged an agreement that would contain Greece’s debt problems — only to see the deal suddenly thrown into question by internal Greek political turmoil, which was itself quickly overshadowed by Italy’s sudden descent into high financial farce.

No doubt many of these dramas reflect commonplace problems such as governments having difficulty reconciling promises made in international settings with domestic political demands. The apparently unending character of Europe’s crisis, however, is also being driven by another element: the unwillingness of most of Europe’s political establishment to acknowledge the root causes of Europe’s present mess.

One such mega-reality is the unsustainability of the pattern of low-growth, big public sectors, heavy regulation, large welfare states, aging populations, and below-replacement birthrates that characterizes much of the eurozone. Even now, it’s difficult to find mainstream EU politicians who openly concede the high economic price of these arrangements.

Read “Can’t Face Economic Reality” on The American Spectator.

An Italian friend of mine recently complained to me while painfully witnessing the climax of the Italian debt crisis: “Cosi Berlusconi, cosi l’Italia!” (As with Berlusconi, so too with Italy!).

My friend’s comment was an allusion to the Italian Prime Minister’s personal responsibility in dragging the entire Italian nation down with him. News broke late on Wednesday that Berlusconi had agreed to step down from office, as he effectively admitted his 17 years of political power had done nothing more to fix a broken system and as more members of his loose PDL coalition defected to centrist parties.

Even with the likely passing of the European Union fiscal reform measures designed to control Italy’s reckless public spending, it all seems too little too late.

With Berlusconi’s suprise announcement and Italy teetering on national debt default, the European stock markets tumbled late Wednesday. Logically, my friend then said, “Vedi? E cosi anche l’Europa” (See? And so too with Europe).

The domino effect is becoming a real potential. It is frightening. It is downright disturbing for anyone living and trying to survive in Europe. Still, we have to be careful of where we start pointing fingers.

My friend’s Berlusconi = Italy = Europe linear equation is not necessarily totally inaccurate.

The Italian Premier actually deserves some of the blame. For instance his center-right coalition government did recently raise capital gains taxes (from 10 to 20%!) along with corporate, personal income and VAT. This has further scared off the few serious local and foreign investors left in Italy and has sparked greater passion for the national pastime: tax evasion. This is the worst time to be raising taxes when economic growth is so wobbly at home. Berlusconi is an entrepreneur himself. He should know better. It is a total mystery why his business-friendly government is caving into Keyensian economic rebuilding.

All said, Italy and Europe is not a one-man disaster. Nor even a one-party disaster.

Italy’s national debt crisis is, above all, a crisis of national character – an Italian character that has become softened while shedding off its once great virtues of resilience, fortitude, integrity, self-reliance and innovation, just as we have seen in a paradigmatic shift in character with the rise of the modern Western European welfare states (watch Acton Media Director Michael Miller’s Acton Lecture – The Victory of Socialism, where he explains why socialism counts on citizens’ progressive external dependency on institutions and a loss of personal virtue).

France, Spain, Britain Germany Greece, Portugal, Belgium, Denmark. Take your pick: all have lost many of these same virtues of character in varying degrees. The Great Generation of post-World War II Europe is now too old to play the part of come-back hero.

No matter how great a vision or “business plan” the entrepreneurial Berlusconi had for Italy since the mid-1990s, no amount of collective cultural effort was ever possible when his country and Continent has lost its spirit of freedom and independence from big government and generous public programs.

National debt, while symptomatic of unsuccessful political regimes, is more the result of a national deficit of values and virtue.