Global Agenda: The long run has arrived

As their debts mount, their promise to repay becomes a lie and their loans become implicit robbery.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini)
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini)
Let’s move away from the daily hurly-burly of the hyper-volatile financial markets and the equally wild ups and downs of European politics. Let’s move as far away as possible and consider the very long-term processes that are at work – far beneath the surface and far removed from the noise that passes for news in the mainstream media.
The entire European sovereign-debt crisis has to be seen in the light of long-term trends in a range of areas – from economics and finance, through politics and administration, to social mores and personal morality. This is in contrast to the accepted way of looking at the crisis, which is exemplified in this week’s obsessive coverage of whether and when the prime ministers of Greece and Italy had, would or might resign and who would replace them if and when they did.
Underlying the idea that the departure or removal of, say, Berlusconi would represent a significant move forward and might open the way to a “resolution of the crisis” are a number of assumptions, all of which are either wrong or stupid, or both. One is that Berlusconi is responsible for the current mess, which in turn assumes that the mess was created on his watch. However, while it is undoubtedly true that Berlusconi contributed significantly to Italy’s problems over the period of his premiership, it is also true that they predate him by far.
A better argument is that he should have done more to address the problems – and, implicitly, the assumption here is that someone else would have done so and his successor will do so. In fact, no one would have and no one will, unless the Germans and the European Union, or the Americans and the Chinese via the International Monetary Fund, force them to.
These fallacious assumptions about who is responsible draw us much nearer to the heart of the issue. After all, Berlusconi did not seize power. Whatever his (numerous) failings, he is not a Saddam-like tyrant who rules through fear and terror. He was elected in what is, despite everything, a highly democratic system. Yes, he is rich and ruthless, and he employed these assets to the full in obtaining election and reelection – and in avoiding being tried and jailed on any of a range of alleged crimes. But this was not a secret. Everything relevant was known – not the details, perhaps, but more than enough to persuade the man (and certainly the woman) on the Italian street to vote against him.
That they voted for him, repeatedly, is thus a massive indictment of the Italian people. The defense arguments, that it was ever thus, that that’s how the system works, that “what can you do” are all, on closer examination, additional items on the charge sheet against the Italian people.
In general, and certainly in a democracy, you get the leaders you deserve. And the Italians richly deserved Berlusconi, who, arguably, was not worse than some of the country’s previous premiers, with their Mafia connections et al.
If you have a system in which lying and cheating is the norm (older readers may perhaps recall the revelations regarding the Italian welfare system in the early 1990s, including such gems as the man recognized as blind by the national insurance institute and compensated accordingly, while he continued to work as a bus driver) you will end up with Berlusconis as premiers. If paying taxes and even being registered in the system is regard as a mug’s game, then society is sanctioning systematic stealing from your neighbor – not by taking his goods, but by making him pay your share of the common burden. In a system with those mores and morals, the government will eventually go bust.
And if people in a country consistently work less – in terms of hours per day, days per month and weeks per year – than those in other countries, they will fall steadily further behind. But if they still, despite their institutionalized sloth, demand a high standard of living, they will have to borrow from others to pay for it. And as their debts mount, their promise to repay becomes a lie and their loans become implicit robbery.
However, these amorphous concepts – “productivity” in the economic sphere and, more fundamentally, “morality” in the personal sphere – are easily explained or excused away or, better still, ignored. The daily rush allows them no time, and they lapse from ignored to forgotten to, ultimately, unknown. When they then reemerge, in the wake of some “sudden crisis,” which has actually been brewing all the time like an earthquake on a fault line, they have to be rediscovered, relearned and reapplied.
That, too, will happen, in due course as part of the same long-term process that brought the crisis. Although in the case of Italy, which has become so self-absorbed it has given up having children, there may no longer be a long term.
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