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It's the Economy, Stupido
Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi and his coalition finally take a stand where it counts - in people's pocketbooks
JANUARY 28, 2007 - Money might actually start to circulate in Italy. Liberalization of the economy might finally be upon us after years of trailing the rest of Europe. We can't count our uovi yet, but Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi's center-left coalition is taking up the task of abolishing red tape, rules that establish a non-competitive marketplace where monopolies can easily form, and other laws that interfere with productivity. If a freer marketplace actually becomes a reality in Italy, it will be good news for Italians and anyone who has any money or property invested in Italy, which includes many Italian Americans, Italian Canadians, Italian Argentines, Italian Australians, etc. In other words, this bit o' news could very well personally affect you.
The European Union had harsh criticism for Italy early last week for its soaring government debt and shrinking economy, according to the Associated Press. The EU insisted that Italy stick closely to its budget plans and avoid another increase to the deficit, which rose to 5.7 in 2006. Although the deficit should fall to 2.8 percent in 2007, according to the AP, the debt will rise because economic growth will slow from 1.6 percent to 1.3 percent. As most of us know by now, Italy's economy stalled in 2005 and is way behind the rest of the EU. Recent high-profile business scandals (think Parmalat and Serie A soccer) have not helped matters.
Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, although a successful businessperson, had trouble handling his own affairs with legal battles that included a hearing about bribery, questions about his monopoly on the media, etc. The world also confronted the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, which sent the global economy into a tailspin. The news in the Boot was bad for a while.
The dawn of a new day is arriving. What kind of reforms is the Italian government considering and how will it affect your bottom line? First, one set of legislation put forth by Economic Development Minister Pierluigi Bersani will have the government ridding of antiquated measures that kept hair salons closed on Mondays, prohibited petrol from being sold all night and in big outlets, reserved over-the-counter medication for pharmacies only, and required businesses like retail stores and movie theaters maintain a certain distance from competitors in the same industry.
Basically, Italy is considering eliminating much of what prohibits progress. I couldn't imagine anyone would be in favor of prohibiting or even limiting progress. But the current gas stations are up in arms about the possibility of bigger outlets competing with them, so they might hold a two-day sciopero or strike next week. Strikes are an unalienable right for Italian workers, and I'm sure these reforms will never change that. Taking away an Italian's right to strike would be like telling an American he no longer had freedom of speech.
Indeed, Italians have a difficult time with change. Bersani's plans aren't the only ones getting noticed. His colleague and fellow Prodi party-member Francesco Rutelli, a deputy prime minister, is aiming to bust up monopolies, especially among gas and rail networks, according to The Economist. His bill would lift restrictions on airport retail services and allow homeowners to seek and change mortgage lenders, according to the same report.
It's no secret that the Italian economy has had its problems for some time now. Since unification, the rich north has blamed the poorer south for some of these troubles, which is the subject of many debates and more books than I care to count. Then, the world wars took their toll. In fact, that's what drove many of us hyphenated Italians to our current destinations. (My own family moved from southern Italy to the United States in the 1950s and 1960s in search of opportunities and a steady income after poverty and a slow comeback during and after World War II.)
Still, since then, Italy has made a name for itself. On the one hand, it has grown from an economy practically solely reliant on agriculture to a full-fledged industrialized nation among the G-8. It's well known for importing its food, furniture, clothes, and entire culture to other parts of the world. Until recently, it was home to one of the richest soccer organizations in the sporting universe.
But all the success is still not enough for a country that wants to be taken seriously in the EU, that wants a voice, that wants financial power. I realized this as soon as I started traveling often to Italy and my Italian friends started visiting me in the States. I couldn't believe the prices I had to pay for fruits and vegetables or milk in Italy. Gas costs were abominable. Everyone I knew bartered or had a "friend" who could hook them up, so they rarely paid for goods or services. Meals at restaurants would sometimes be up to half off or $0 if you knew the owner. How can an economy survive? How can the people survive? Money needs to move.
The Italians noticed the differences in their travels, too. When my Italian friends entered a pharmacy or supermarket in the United States, they would want to spend hours scouring the aisles in awe. It was unbelievable to them that a pharmacy could sell you medication, greeting cards, cosmetics, newspapers, and magazines - and sometimes even a gallon of milk and potato chips. "Che bello!" they would shout. No special discounts for pals, but everyone had the chance to partake in frequent sales and use coupons and special offers. Frequent, equal-opportunity discounts are what make capitalism thrive. The money moves from one hand to another - and many people have the opportunity to succeed.
I long to see the same in Italy. A country that is as inventive, creative, stylish, smart and dedicated to craftsmanship as Italy should be thriving in this day and age. What other country can boast responsibility for prosciutto, pasta, pizza, Dolce & Gabbana, Versace, Armani, Lamborghini, Ferrari, Vespa, Sophia Loren, Fellini, much of the world's subway cars, handmade furniture and ceramics that people kill for, and a slew of innovations? They've earned the right to earn some dough, not just the kind for pizza. I can't wait to walk into a farmacia in Italy and pick up a prescription, some lipstick, a copy of Il Corriere della Sera, and Coca-Cola. The euro is burning a hole in my pocket right now. Burn bambino burn!
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