The Economics of a Bella Vita

Lo Sciopero and Other Calamities

Last week in Rome there was a “sciopero,” or general transportation strike.  This is a fairly common occurrence in Italy, but for the uninformed American it can be a difficult thing to wrap your mind around.  In a nutshell, it is a day when all public transportation is suspended—BUT the buses, trains, and metros still run during peak rush hour, so that normal working people at least have a fighting chance to get to work.  Even more confounding is that these strikes are scheduled well ahead of time, making them seem more like standard operating procedure rather than a passionate outcry against some perceived injustice. Since they occur about every three or four weeks and almost always on a Friday or Monday,  to a foreigner it may seem like little more than an excuse for a three-day weekend.

Sciopero–it can really spoil your mood.

However the chaos that these strikes wreak on the general population is significant.  Those who don’t own a car have trouble getting to work since the window of opportunity for the public transportation is so compressed; and people who do have cars experience twice the normal traffic (which is already horrible).  For many, it often means an unpaid day off, like it or not.

Usually I can manage to get around this discomfort, as most Italians do.  I leave an hour or so earlier than I normally would in the morning, and then do my best to figure out a way home at night.  Bum a ride from a student, for example.  Sometimes I pay for a taxi.  I have, more than once, walked two or three miles at the end of the workday.  And if the weather is nice (which it often is here in Rome) I choose to view the circumstance as a serendipitous opportunity to discover more of the magnificent history surrounding me.  What can I say?  You just need to stay positive and flexible.  There are many such inconveniences of living in Rome.  But in the end, it’s up to you how you choose to view them.

The Economics of a Bella Vita

That’s my personal experience and how I deal with it–I gladly accept these difficulties in exchange for all the miracles, big and small, that I encounter in this fascinating city.  The greater socio-economic discussion, however,  is much more complicated. I began an interesting conversation on this topic with one of my LinkedIn contacts last week after he had read my article about “La Pausa.”  My question was: how can an economy expect to grow and recover when daily commerce is constantly interrupted by deeply ingrained cultural phenomenon such as la pausa, the sciopero, and a generous slew of Church and State holidays—the so-called “red calendar days,” usually further stretched by the beloved ponte?  What’s more, the entire country basically shuts down for the month of August, but employees often expect to be paid for 13 or 14 months of work while only working 11.

And so now everybody is protesting the austerity measures and Mario Monti is suddenly the villain when it was the generations of politicians before him (as well as the current ones) that created the bloated government which he’s earnestly trying to cut down to size and restore to respectability within the European Community.  Italy’s debt to GDP ratio is the third worst on the planet, second only to Greece and Japan.  How can this possibly be corrected without austerity?  It’s human nature, of course—nobody wants to see benefits and services cut while paying more in taxes.  But the reality is that the balance sheet was artificially skewed for so long that everyone has come to believe that it was right and normal; instead, it’s these corrections that are being imposed by the current government that are attempting to restore a true sense of “normal” based on real economic data, instead of propagating the mirage of prosperity.

I’ve read an awful lot about various groups of people complaining and dissenting but I’ve yet to read about any public figure other than Monti offering legitimate solutions that would make Italian citizens, the E.U., and the global markets happy.  He’s attempting to tread a very fine line, seemingly indifferent to the personal attacks.  Meanwhile, 1,000 of Italy’s mayors have marched in Milan threatening to resign over these austerity measures. Here’s the article in Reuters:

Italy’s Mayors Protest Austerity

I’ve got to believe that there’s at least one smart person in that bunch who can offer something other than, “I quit,” but of course that would be politically risky.  According to the article, they are specifically protesting “cuts in local authority funding,” which to me sounds like a synonym for mayors’ salaries.  I’m being sarcastic, of course; they claim that they’re protesting general funding cuts for things like local schools, which at least presents a veneer of nobility. And it’s not just Italy, it’s the same everywhere (including the U.S.).  Unfortunately, the math just doesn’t work…but maybe that’s the problem in the West: we’ve made so many cuts in education that we’re hard-pressed to find someone who can still add and subtract.

We can’t have it all.  Austerity is a dirty word, but what will happen when the money is no longer there to pay out the pensions while at the same time foreign investors refuse to buy Italian bonds or invest in Italian businesses?  Sooner or later, the equation must balance.  It WILL eventually balance either by careful, thoughtful adjusting (i.e. Monti’s austerity) or by collapse.  We’re already seeing it happen in Greece where responsible governing arrived much too late.

The Economist:

Italian politics: So, what next?

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Living in the Caput Mundi and trying to decipher Italian culture for the English speaking world.

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