Barbara and I have spent most of the last six weeks in Italy, our adopted second home. We met in Rome in 1973, got married five months later in the big synagogue on the banks of the Tiber, lived there for several years, and have managed to get back every year for varying lengths of time. This trip has been almost all in places most tourists don’t get to see, like rural Tuscany and Naples, and Campagna, and right now we are in Sorrento, looking across the bay at Naples and Vesuvius, which, as the vulcanologists will tell you, is overdue for its next eruption, which will devastate the whole region…so far, no sign of it this week though.
Naples is a doomed city, which mightily contributes to the unique creativity of its citizens, about which you’ve undoubtedly read by now in my Virgil’s Golden Egg and Other Neapolitan Miracles. The image of people living at the foot of a great volcano can be applied to Italy in general nowadays, and indeed to Europe as a whole. The European ecoomy is famously gasping for energy — with productive niches in Holland and Germany — and explosive forces are bubbling through the crust of the self-satisfied welfare state that’s been happily and irresponsibly taking care of Europeans’ every desire for decades. Now that they’ve been caught spending much more than they ever had (and having most of their military needs covered by Uncle Sam), and suddenly being told to get serious, they’re blowing a lot of political steam. Thus, the Greek riots. Thus, the sprint to socialist fantasies in France. Thus, the recent bombs set off at Italian welfare offices, and the kneecaping of a welfare official.
The “technicians” in charge of the Italian government nowadays started by cutting government spending and raising taxes. I have long believed that it’s incoherent to raise taxes during a recession, and indeed the Italians are now talking about ways to stimulate “growth.” But, rather like our own deep thinkers in Washington, the stimulation they’re talking about is all supposed to come from on high, from the state. Which of course is the root cause of the crisis in the first place. But the Europeans made a Faustian deal with their politicians–I’ll leave you alone if you take good care of me, and I’ll just indulge myself–and it’s hard for them to ask their failed leaders to get out of the way and let the people work their way out of the mess.