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.
The big Italian story this week is that one of the country’s most prestigious banks, indeed its first bank, the Monte dei Paschi di Siena, was raided by the Feds because it turns out that they overpaid for an acquisition a few year ago. Why did it take so long to be noticed? Good question. Probably both the sin and the delayed response are part of the corrupt system that is inevitably created when so much power is left in the state’s greedy hands (it alo explains the central government’s reflex of raising taxes while pretending to shrink its activities). The bank was very much part of the system, being part of the municipal government, etcetera, etcetera, and so forth…
Some folks will go to jail in a few years, after the slow judicial process unfolds, but the basic problem is unlikely to be addressed. And that’s a great pity, because some of the explosive forces at work over here are very healty, and in some ways even magical. If you get the chance, go to the little city of Cortona and visit the museum oppoite its fabulous Gothic cathedral. In that museum you will find a fresco by Fra Angelico that looks to have been painted a few hour ago, full of blazing reds and golds, vibrating with deep faith and true genius. It’s amazing.
That sort of creativity is still alive here, but it’s been suffocated for generations. I hope the Europeans manage to open pathways for creative energy rather than asking the pols to solve all their problems. It’s tough, and there are some dark sides to the enterprise. The Neapolitans largely ignore their governors and find amazing way to beat the system. But one of the most successful of those amazing ways is to resort to organized crime…which indeed creates “jobs,” generates enormous wealth, but…destroys any hope of law and order.
Stay tuned. It’s fascinating. And while you watch and listen, remind yourself that this is what Obama Inc. is trying to build in America. We don’t want that, and we’re frighteningly close to it.