It's Lonely At the Top

Italy’s problem isn’t Silvio Berlusconi – it’s the lack of young, competent politicians. The decline of the Italian middle class has silenced two generations of potential leaders.

Why is Italy not able to select political leaders like the rest of the Western world? As I’m writing these lines, Italians are going to the polls to chose a leader from a ballot that includes a 76-year old media tycoon (Silvio Berlusconi); a talented but media-shy 62-year old politician from the “old Left” (Pierluigi Bersani); a populist and former stand-up comedian (Beppe Grillo); and a 70-year old economics professor who left academic tenure to guide the ship of state and introduced “technical reforms” after political stalemate (Mario Monti).

The cast would be perfect for a reality TV show about politics, like an electoral version of “Wacky Races.” But the candidates are old, even for Italian standards. The average age of the candidates is 68, 25 years above the average age of the Italian population. The line-up features a comedian-turned-politician (Beppe Grillo) and a politician-turned-comedian (you know who).

Still, there is no reason to worry. The candidates are a perfect representation of Italian leadership. This election simply demonstrates that Italy has lost a whole generation or two. In most industrialized countries, political leaders are products of the bourgeoisie unless some extremist coup is attempted (as in Russia in 1917 or in Iran in 1979). The bourgeoisie, in turn, relies on economic growth. In Italy, the rising middle class born in the years of the postwar boom of the 1950s and 1960s has been severely hit by the current crisis and by twenty years of economic stagnation. In the 1990s, Italian GDP grew 15 percent over the course of the decade. In the 2000s, the situation was even worse: 1 percent total growth over a ten-year period. That’s stagnation. In the “crazy teens” that followed, the economy has shrunk. But no wealth means no middle class. And no middle class means no good leaders.

In Italy, the dynamics that usually fuel the rise of political leaders from the ranks of the middle class have been severely harmed. A staggering 69 percent tax rate on commercial profits (and an overall tax rate of 55 percent) has prevented the rise of new businesses. Italy has wandered through the years of the “new economy” blindfolded, and it’s still common to hear talk about the glorious past of industrial production and extinct companies like Olivetti. While foreigners rejoice at the mention of companies like Ferrari or Vespa, few realize that those companies are many decades old. Virtually no new industrial sectors have emerged in Italy in the last fifty years, and most of the largest Italian companies are either state-owned, formerly state-owned, or part of the financial sector. The average age of Italian managers is 48 – the highest of any European country.

Berlusconi has been an exception to the rule. He managed to build up a private media empire and reach a position of political influence. Berlusconi is not the problem per se – but the fact that he has faced little competition. Almost no other business leaders have managed to foray into politics. In the US, it’s quite normal that people move into public service after successful careers at private companies. Italy’s problem of the last twenty years has been that there was no Berlusconi doppelganger to oppose the original Berlusconi, but only old-fashioned politicians. Accept it or not, Berlusconi still is “the new one.”

Academia might provide another potential pool for political leadership. But universities have been neutralized as political forces. Post-docs receive scholarships that rarely reach 800 euros per month. The average age at which academics ascend to the rank of full professor is almost 60. That’s understandable, given that Italian post-docs are 36 years old on average. Only five percent of associate professors in Italy are younger than 41. In a nutshell: if you want to forge a career in academia and then enter politics, make sure to exercise regularly and avoid junk food. A long life is key. Academic leaders seem to emerge almost by natural selection.

And here’s another piece of information that might be even more astounding: People under the age of 30 with a college degree are more likely to be unemployed than their peers without college degrees. Those who “invest” in a good education do not get jobs in the economy, let alone leadership roles.

The only way to restart the country’s economy is to allow for a rebirth of the middle class. This requires lower taxes and possibly a reduction of state influence in various economic sectors. Eventually, the process of privatization that was launched in the 1990s with companies like Eni, Enel, and Finmeccanica, has to be completed. It has been left in limbo thus far. Also, universities have to be reformed, and privatization might offer the only possible solution. A private Frankenstein is better than a public corpse.

But where are the leaders that are capable of pushing for change?

Read more in this column Stefano Casertano: Steady as she goes

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