Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Il Vecchio Glorioso Comunista

The re-election of Giorgio Napolitano on 20 April for a second seven-year term is an extraordinary event. Unprecedented in the Republic of Italy, not least because of a silent Constitution that neither prohibits nor specifically authorizes re-election (see Part II, Titolo II, art. 83-91). Most uncommon for a man of 88, one year older than the Queen of England and only junior - among Heads of State worldwide - to Robert Mugabe and Shimon Peres, and over six years older than the Italian male life expectancy at birth. Especially after so many previous, consistent and stern denials of such a prospect, labeled  by himself as "ridiculous". And accepting the post on the condition - not to be found in the Constitution, and requested only after re-election - that Parliament grants him effective Carte Blanche in the formation of the next Government. 

Admittedly any President can be better than no President, and financial markets (both the stock exchange and the market for government bonds) rejoiced at the news and the very prospect of a new government rather than none.  Whether initial market optimism was justified or groundless still remains to be seen.  For many Napolitano has been and is a Man of Providence, selfless and generous in the service of the country, an impartial custodian of the Constitution. But many others see him and his re-election at best as a mixed blessing, at worst as an unmitigated disaster.
On the one hand, Napolitano has the merits of being committed both to national unity and to Italy's European integration.  On the other hand, his understanding of such commitments is questionable.  For him, national unity is the avoidance of conflicts at any cost, and in particular the appeasement of Silvio Berlusconi, with the speedy presidential countersigning of ad personam laws favourable to him and his companies though subsequently declared unconstitutional, the postponement of a confidence vote in December 2010 that allowed Berlusconi time to illegally purchase additional parliamentary support, and the President's undue exhortations to magistrates to postpone Berlusconi's appearances in court and his sentencing in four open cases in the run up to the last elections.  While Napolitano's interpretation of Italy's interests in Europe is the total acquiescence to the obligations of EU and EMU, including the so-called Growth and Stability Pact that Romano Prodi at least had the courage to call "stupid", and the associated European austerity measures.

(In passing we might also mention Napolitano's political, outrageous use of pardon in the case of CIA agent Joseph Romano, convicted for Abu Omar's "military rendition" and torture, while pardon had been specifically restricted by the Constitutional Court to cases of compassion; his demand that phone tappings of four conversations of his with former Minister Mancino should be destroyed - as they were on the day of his re-election - regardless of their possible relevance to the investigation of State negotiations with the Mafia; and his continuous strong support for Italian military involvement in "peace-keeping" missions  in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Lebanon).
What is worse, in the name of such questionable interpretations of well-meaning commitments Giorgio Napolitano has been perfectly willing to sacrifice democracy and the very same Constitution which he has sworn to observe and to which he has always vigorously paid lip-service.  An authoritarian streak, typical of a glorious old Communist in the tradition of Togliatti and Amendola, used to sacrifice everything, including his own party, in the name of a cause, has led him to transform Italy into a semi-presidential republic.  (For a lucid assessment of Napolitano's first seven years, see Thomas Mackinson, Il Fatto Quotidiano, 18 aprile 2013.
Back in November 2011, when Berlusconi resigned the Premiership, Giorgio Napolitano could have dissolved Parliament and called new elections: Berlusconi would have been steamrolled and buried forever.  Instead of which Napolitano appointed Mario Monti as life senator and pieced together a so-called "technocratic" government under Monti's leadership, backed by a Grand Coalition of PdL, UDC and PD, that squeezed economic life out of the country and led GDP further down a recessionary path. Napolitano's pretext for a technocratic government (of which as recently as 2010 he had denied the very concept) was the fear that Italian debt might become unsustainable. The fear, that is, that the spread between interest on Italian debt renewal and that on German Bunds - that under Berlusconi had escalated to over 500 points (i.e. 5%) on ten year bonds - might rise further during the electoral campaign and after the election if Parliament had been dissolved. 
Monti's austerity policies, predictably, instead of reducing the Debt/GDP ratio raised it to 127% by the time of the recent elections, poised to rise over 130%; though initially they had a small net favourable effect on the spread due to financial markets taking note of a renewed Italian commitment to repay debt.  But the spread fell significantly only in the summer of 2012, not thanks to Monti but as a result of Mario Draghi's resolve to do "all that it takes" to save the euro, and of his Outright Monetary Purchases approaching an ECB role as Lender of Last Resort.  If Napolitano had called an election in November 2011, it would have been won hands down by the PD, and markets would have rejoiced just as they did immediately after the elections of 24-25 February 2013 when they believed early exit polls wrongly giving victory to the PD. But that was a cruel delusion, the Italian electorate split three ways into three parts defying governability.
The PD coalition, whose campaign ruled out an alliance with PdL, gained by a whisker an artificial majority in the lower Chamber (thanks to the majority premium of an indecent electoral law passed by Berlusconi) but only a useless relative majority in the Senate, and was unable to form a government even with the support of Monti's coalition that had barely cleared the 10% threshold for entering the lower Chamber. The PdL coalition gained almost a third of the vote in both Chambers, was open to an alliance with PD but ruled out a technical government.  Beppe Grillo's 5Star Movement (the largest single party if we exclude Italian voters abroad) obtained almost another third but ruled out participation in any government, not least with Bersani's PD.
Pierluigi Bersani, the un-charismatic leader of the PD, tainted by 15 months complicity with Monti's recessionary policies (like the PdL, which at least had provoked Monti's fall before the end of the legislature), handicapped by a lack-lustre electoral campaign without either a programme or alternative policies, had always excluded most vigorously the continuation of a Grand Coalition that included Berlusconi.  Napolitano gave him an "exploratory" mandate, conditional on his obtaining a clear majority on paper before allowing him to seek a confidence vote in both Chambers, and quickly withdrew it with dubious constitutionality, in spite of the precedents of unconditional mandates.   The M5S followed a deplorable , indeed unforgivable, and self-defeating un-cooperative strategy, refusing to support a government led by Bersani, who in truth had offered only a vague programme of 8 points imitating some M5S policies, without offering them ministerial posts or negotiations about the choice of the Premier. 

Napolitano should have allowed Bersani to seek a confidence vote, which he had a fighting chance to obtain; even if he had lost, at least his government would have taken the place of Monti's government, that Napolitano undemocratically left in charge in spite of Monti's spectacular electoral defeat. Napolitano should then have explored an alternative, or resigned at once long before his tenure's expiry in mid-May, so as to speed up his replacement by a new President who could then proceed to dissolve Parliament and call new elections or seek to construct a new government on the strength of such a threat.
Instead of which Giorgio Napolitano temporised, wasted time and pre-judged the subsequent course of events, by appointing an improvised "Commission of Ten Wise Men", with the ambiguous role as "facilitators", totally outside Constitutional procedures, with the task of producing a draft programme for the new government. The so-called Wise Men were indeed all men in their middle to old age, exclusively from the parties that would be included in the a potential Grand Coalition.  A most peculiar procedure, in the absence of a candidate Premier, however pre-judging the subsequent appointment of a Premier who would then be effectively bound to endorse a Grand Coalition to accompany that particular programme.
What is worse, many of the ten appointees, tipped as potential Ministers in the future government, as it actually happened to four of them  - another extra-constitutional feature - were rather controversial, notable not so much for their wisdom as much as their representation of party kakistocracy (i.e. power of the worst, to coin an expression). See Marco Travaglio at Servizio Pubblico of 4 April
 - Filippo Bubbico (PD) former President of the Basilicata region, had been indicted four times and was still subject to one indictment for abuse of office, the author of a hare-brained, expensive and failed scheme to promote employment in his region by subsidising silk worms cultivation (sic).  

- Giancarlo Giorgetti, a Lega MP close to Bossi who then switched to Maroni's support, well connected in banking circles (Fioroni and Fazio), notorious for having taken a €100,000 bribe delivered directly by Fioroni at Montecitorio, though he returned it the same day recommending a donation to a sport association instead; his wife indicted for fraud against the state
- Enrico Giovannini, President of the Statistical Office, undoubtedly a competent statistician but never speaking on policy issues; he had been asked by Monti to conduct an investigation on the costs of politics and the salary differentials between Italian MPs (the highest paid in Europe) and MPs in the rest of Europe,  but after six months research in the end had declined alleging the difficulties of the task.
- Mario Mauro, a close associate of the unspeakable ex-President of Lombardy Roberto Formigoni, had switched to Monti at the last minute.  
- Enzo Moavero Milanesi, a EU official,  Minister for European Affairs in Monti's government.
 - Valerio  Onida, ex-President of the Constitutional Court, was on record both for backing Napolitano in his quarrel against the Palermo magistrates investigating the negotiations between mafia and the State, about phone tappings involving former Minister Mancino; and as arguing that the 1957 Law named after Sturzo, often invoked to allege Berlusconi's ineligibility to Parliament, did not apply on the Jesuitical argument that Berlusconi was neither the direct holder of a state concession of TV channels nor the manager of the company that was granted the concessions - glossing over the fact that Berlusconi was indeed a major shareholder in that company, in a clear conflict of interest with the State. 
- Giovanni Petruzzelli, an associate of Senate ex-President Schifani, was President of the Anti-Trust Authority without being able to claim a specific competence, consultant and co-author of Totò Cuffaro, former President of Sicily currently serving a 7 year sentence for aiding the Mafia.  
- Gaetano Quagliariello, distinguished for his multiple moves from Radicals to the UDC, to PDL (as deputy head of the group), to Monti's group and back to the PDL, was the author and proposer of many of the initiatives introduced - and endorsed by Napolitano - to favour Berlusconi and his companies.  
- Salvatore Rossi, a Bank of Italy high official close to the centre-left.
- Last but not least, Luciano Violante (PD), a sycophant  ex-magistrate who in 1998 had proposed an amnesty for Berlusconi and in 2003 (immortalised by youtube on the web, http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=RHPRel7mpUM&amp) actually reminded an ungrateful Berlusconi in Parliament that the PD had guaranteed in 1994 not to interfere with his TV channels, and had set aside the pursuit of legislation on conflict of interest; he actually boasted that Mediaset turnover had increased 25-fold under their government.
In conclusion, not a bunch of Wise Men but - with a couple of exceptions - a gallery of partisan and biassed villains, at least in the eyes of many respectable observers.
When, after over 50 days of total inaction, parlamentarians and regional electors began the process of electing a new President, Pierluigi Bersani - no doubt under the influence of Napolitano - made a spectacular U-Turn from his "No alliance with Berlusconi in government" that had been the main line of his electoral campaign and his early exploration of forming a government, to opening to the Grand Coalition with Berlusconi through the proposal of a candidate agreeable to the PdL, Franco Marini, a respected Catholic trade unionist and former President of the Senate. Such an abrupt switch, to a diametrically opposite policy, predictably was not acceptable to a sufficient number of PD electors to miss the two third majority (required in the first three ballots) so that the candidate was sunk even with the support of most of the PdL.
At this point Bersani made a third spectacular U-Turn and proposed Romano Prodi, corresponding to what Berlusconi called a "declaration of war".  Bersani behaved as a kingmaker, rather than as a democratic leader, in proposing both Marini and Prodi, for neither was subjected to a vote together with other contestants or on his own; Prodi was approved by a dubious and opaque "acclamation" at a meeting of PD electors, instead of being subjected to a ballot, whether open or secret.  So Prodi, the PD founding father and truly independent candidate, also failed to be elected even by the simple majority required at that stage, missing as many as 101 votes that could have been commanded by the PD. 
All the time the M5S had put forward the candidature of Stefano Rodotà, a distinguished professor of Civil Law, who had served for two legislatures as an MP elected as an independent in the Communist Party, former president of PDS - an earlier incarnation of the PD - an ex-President of the Privacy Authority and a civil rights champion: an offer Bersani could not refuse, but did refuse to his eternal shame. Just like the M5S refused to vote for Prodi, also to Beppe Grillo's eternal shame.
This is when Napolitano was asked - again, after repeated earlier refusals  - to stand for re-election. On Bersani's part this was a third U-Turn, from Prodi's independent candidature to Napolitano's strong advocacy of the stitch-up between PD and PdL - or inciucio, in Neapolitan dialect. This is a derogatory term that Napolitano now asks to be banned in his version of political correctness and newspeak; equally banned are expressions playing down the importance of the new government as a "the President's government" or "limited purpose" or "low intensity", or "service government". The designation of the new Premier,  Enrico Letta, until the previous week Bersani's deputy and equally opposed to a Grand Coalition with PdL, made Berlusconi blissfully happy, laughing all the way to the bank (and to the Tribunal), not least because Enrico Letta is the nephew of Gianni Letta, a major advisor and a Minister of his (which makes the present "governo di servizio" a "governo di servi, zio..." in a cartoon in Il Fatto Quotidiano).
The government sworn in on 27 April could have been worse. Angelino Alfano as a deputy Premier and Minister of the Interior was a big price to pay, but at least the old party caryatids on both sides (including Berlusconi) were out - for the time being.  Ministerial average age of 54 years is 11 years lower than in Monti's government; there are only 21 Ministers of which one third are women, including the first black Minister ever in Italian government. Their vote of confidence - aided by a shooting incident in front of the government palace, Palazzo Chigi, immediately used unjustly to demonize M5S - was taken for granted, but its durability is not: the proof of the new pudding will be in the governing.
A Grand Coalition is being presented as a novelty but is nothing more nor less than the replication of the Monti government, with some involvement of politicians that Monti had sought and failed to obtain. It is hard to imagine that Letta might do much more than Monti, apart for the partial reversal of some of his austerity measures: already the two sides are quarrelling about the suspension versus the reimbursement of IMU, and it is not at all clear what government expenditures will have to be cut to make room for lower taxes. 
The centre left PD-SEL alliance is definitively broken; the PD itself has been cracked by Bersani's repeated U-Turns and the final betrayal of PD electoral commitments. Bersani has been scrapped at last; Matteo Renzi has been side-lined and - having always supported an alliance with Berlusconi - will not be able to re-unite the party. The millions who voted for the PD on the basis of its commitment not to ally with the PdL have been betrayed, yet paradoxically those MPs who would not give their confidence vote to Enrico Letta are the ones who have been threatened with expulsion, instead of the other way round. In the end, only one out of 293 PD members of parliament abstained: a "Bulgarian-style" party discipline that would have deserved a better cause. 
Neither Napolitano nor Letta, but Berlusconi is the only true and absolute winner of Italy's latest elections.  All he needs now is to be appointed as life senator by a benevolent Napolitano, and to walk into the posts of either Premier or President at the next round, especially if a French-style direct election of the President was introduced beforehand. Gaetano Quagliariello's appointment as Minister for Institutional Reform, and Berlusconi's bid to a candidature as President of the Committee for Reforms, if successful, might pave the way to such a formalisation of the extra-constitutional presidentialism ushered by Napolitano.  Nothing much can be done about everything else, as a fait accompli, but at least this final corruption of the Italian Constitution can and should be resisted, in order not to have Berlusconi for ever.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Iron Lady: Rust In Peace

Margaret Hilda Thatcher (1925-2013) once famously said, in an interview to Woman’s Own of 31 October 1987, that "There is no such a thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families”. Naturally she was often reviled for such a proposition, including by me as I repeatedly quoted her and criticised her vigorously for it in lectures and seminars.
Taken literally such a proposition is patently false. Clearly the collection of individuals and their families are interconnected in a vast and thick mesh of relationships – through economic, political and social institutions – known as “the fabric of society”. The total is infinitely larger than the sum of its individual parts.
But what Thatcher actually meant is that society is all of us, and is not an external entity distinct from the collection of all individuals and their families, so much so that she went on to say: "And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first.” A perfectly simple and innocent call for self-help, and for restraint in the reliance on government transfers from a budget to which in the end we all have to contribute. Sure, she was neglecting the fact that welfare transfers are not necessarily always a disincentive to create income and wealth, that they also represent a stimulation of demand and therefore may generate employment and income, and that a more equal and cohesive society may be worth attaining - at least up to a point - even if re-distribution had a net cost in terms of efficiency. But even these omissions and reservations are legitimate though possibly misguided opinions, for which Thatcher did not deserve to be reviled. Therefore belated but sincere apologies are due and are here unreservedly made.
Nevertheless, there are still many exceedingly serious reasons to revile her. The general principle, that one "not speak ill of the dead", does not apply to influential public figures (as we are reminded by Glenn Greenvald, Guardian 8 April): noblesse oblige. I lived in England throughout most of her political career, from 1962-1982, and intermittently until after her downfall in 1990, and disliked her passionately. Mrs Thatcher - for I could never bring myself to call her a Lady - to me was forever Thatcher-the-milk-snatcher (as in 1971, while Minister for Education in the Heath government, she abolished free milk for school children aged 7-11 years). Never mind the destruction of the British coalmining industry: coalmining is an attractive occupation and culture only in the morbid, romantic literary sickness à la D.H. Lawrence, and miners should have been retired gradually by Labour governments over the previous thirty years, instead of being kept employed artificially as a reserve army of Labour voters. But there was no reason to confront them as Thatcher did and unleash riot police on horseback assaulting them: she could have easily bribed them instead with the proceeds of North Sea Gas.
Nor was there any need to start a class war using a regressive and odious poll tax, or to deny Irish hunger strikers in the Maze prison their political status thus leading to their death. She lowered taxes and cut welfare expenditure and industrial subsidies, promoting de-industrialization and unemployment (that rose to a record of nearly 13 per cent under her watch); she privatized council houses without building new ones, and sold off all kinds of public assets, including public infrastructure (steel, airways, etc.) and utilities such as water, telecoms, gas and electricity, transferring massive public wealth to the private sector. She de-regulated economic activities, especially finance, and shrunk the size of the state. In doing this she somewhat revived competition - which she could have done if she had wanted to even without privatization - but did not promote economic growth in the UK, as she is widely credited to have done.
Thatcher never understood any macroeconomics - or she would not have written (in her Path To Power, 1995): "There is no better course for understanding free-market economics than life in a corner shop." With infinitely greater confidence than that applicable to her assertion about society, we could say that "There is no such a thing as a market system". For in order to substantiate the naïf, oversimplified market vision of her mentors (Milton Friedmann and Friederich von Hayek, Alan Walters and Keith Joseph and the whole of the Mount Pelerin Society) as a system of self regulating equilibria we would need a system of complete markets, i.e. of exclusive, spot and inter-temporal, instantaneous and non-sequential markets, for all dated and contingent goods and services. Instead of which we only have a relatively small number of spot markets, a handful of forward markets except for labour and mostly for homogeneous primary commodities as well as money, all sequential and rarely contingent on the states of the world. In the market system as we know it economic agents act on the basis of expectations as well as prices in a typical, incontrovertibly Keynesian world of inadequate and unstable effective demand and involuntary unemployment.  
Policies based on such hyper-liberal (then labelled monetarist) approach, which she shared with Ronald Reagan who gained power in 1980, had massive adverse consequences over time and space. They contaminated and corrupted the New Labour approach of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, they deeply affected the transition path of the Soviet Bloc from central planning to market economies and caused its immense unnecessary costs, and they paved the way for the global Great Recession of 2008 which is still causing our misery to date. 
Internationally, she strengthened her failing domestic support by declaring war on Argentina over Britain colonial possession of the Malvinas, instead of conducting political negotiations; her tears over the accompanying loss of lives, revealed by recently published War Cabinet papers, are only evidence of hypocrisy. She played a key role in bringing about the first Gulf War, and advocated the 2003 attack on Iraq. She denounced Nelson Mandela and the ANC as "terrorist", while she befriended dictators like Augusto Pinochet, Saddam Hussein and General Sukharto ("One of our very best and most valuable friends"). She opposed German re-unification and the euro but fortunately she was defeated by Germany and France trading one for the other.
For somebody so opposed to the state taking care of its citizens "from cradle to grave", it is ironical that she should be given a lavish “ceremonial funeral with military honours” yesterday in St. Paul’s Cathedral at an estimated cost of £10-12mn. It is only fair that Ken Loach should have suggested that her funeral should have been "privatized": "Put it out to competitive tender and accept the cheapest bid. It's what she would have wanted".