I just got back from eight days in Italy, on a trip that featured a wonderful stay in Tuscany hosted by my friend John Mauldin, the world-famous market analyst. While there, I got to enjoy leisurely discussions of economics and history with a handful of eminent financial experts and political notables whom John manages to entice to his villa (among them, David Tice, Rob Arnott, and Newt Gingrich.) I brought along my daughter Giorgia, whose astounding fluency in Italian saved us all on more than one occasion. We saw several Euro 2012 soccer matches in village squares with large outdoor TV screens. Italy’s victory against Germany brought screams of joy. Italy’s crushing defeat against Spain brought groans and tears. Italian flags were hanging everywhere—soccer being perhaps the sole exception to the age-old rule that Italians would rather quarrel with each other than come together as a nation.
It has been some 35 years since I was last in Italy. This is obviously a much more educated and affluent country than the one I recall. The main “autoroutes,” for example, are vastly superior to those I drove on in the 1970s—with wonderful bridges and tunnels and high-speeded entrances and exits. Intercity trains are very fast and efficient. Poverty is much less visible. Yet there are signs of recent economic stress. Driving across the Apennines, from Siena to Ravenna, we saw construction projects halted before completion and large stretches of highway closed due to lack of maintenance.
The mix of traffic on Italian autoroutes is peculiar: It’s all either trucks or high-end cars like BMWs and Volvos. Because gas is heavily taxed and because the trains are so fast and inexpensive, the middle class doesn’t use the autoroutes. The resulting speed differential between the slowest truck and fastest Beemer is dangerously large, leading to deadly accidents when two vehicles collide. We witnessed the aftermath of one deadly accident only moments after it occurred.
As everyone knows, Italy has a large public debt and, even worse, a poorly performing economy that has not managed much growth over the past decade—putting it, along with Spain and Portugal, as one of the sick “Club Med” economies that worry Euro Zone leaders and traders. PM Mario Monti is trying to whip Italy back into shape by some well-time fiscal austerity measures. Against that backdrop, let me relate an astounding scene we witnessed while touring Florence. All of a sudden, just a block or two from the Duomo, we hear a roar of automobiles and then witness a parade of about 90 Ferraris come into town. After cruising in circles around the narrow streets for a half hour, they all then parked row by row in the middle of the Piazza della Signora, right next to the Medicis’ Palazzio Vecchio and the copy of Michelangelo’s David. All the drivers, dressed in beautiful Italian racing uniforms, then just hung out for a while in the local cafes.
Now think about this for a moment: Each of these Ferraris (depending on the model) cost about $175,000 to $390,000, so that the total value of that parked machinery was somewhere in the range of $20 to $30 million. Wow. Does this look like a nation that has no wealth? Or rather like nation whose elite still has lots of fancy toys to play with while its public sector cannot make ends meet. Most of Italy’s fiscal woes are due to an unsustainable growth in total government spending (now over 50 percent of GDP, including an amazing 15 percent of GDP just in public pensions). Yet some of these woes are also due to undertaxing—or at least Italy’s chronic failure to enforce tax laws, especially on capital and business income. (For the heavily taxed middle class, which pays through VATs and payroll taxes, compliance is not a problem.) PM Monti has started a campaign to stigmatize tax evasion. He has also authorized dragnets that stop drivers in fancy cars (like Ferraris) and check their records to find out if they are hiding income. Many of the southern European economies suffer from chronic underpayment of taxes. (Some of you may recall the recent scandal in Greece over its tax on swimming pools, which almost no one pays—even after a satellite image confirmed tens of thousands of pools within the Athens area alone!)
Is it quixotic ever to expect the Italian elite to pay their fair share? In a culture which historically winks (both on the right and the left) at the dandy or anarchist who cleverly manages to defy authority? We will see. Super Mario is trying his best to reconstruct this cultural heritage. Some Italians vigorously support him. Some despise him as the technocratic errand-boy sent by Angela Merkel to make Italy sober up, dry out, and do Germany’s bidding. (Good thing we beat them in soccer!) Still others support Beppe Grillo, now number one in some polls, the comedian-turned-politician who denounces all current parties in favor of something he calls “hyper democracy,” a regime of total accountability and disgust at corruption. Grillo’s Five-Star Movement has some striking parallels in Germany’s Pirate Party. Both, interestingly, are disproportionately popular among young Gen-X voters. In future posts, I hope to say more about this multi-national movement.
One thing is certain: The image of Ferrari drivers being required to stop at Italian roadblocks and answering awkward questions about their income is an apt image of the 4T coming to Europe. In the United States, we do not have the same problem with tax compliance (at least not to the same degree). But if we did, where would we place our roadblocks? Maybe on drivers of Land Rovers. Or on amazon purchasers or Bugaboo baby strollers. I’m just guessing here.
One last note. In the Tuscan countryside, one notices virtually no new construction. Occasionally, yes, one sees an old building being retro-fitted with new interiors and amenities. But taking new pristine woods or fields and cutting trees or bulldozing roads to build a new home? Nope. It just doesn’t happen. The reason: Iron-clad regulations against any new development. Now on the one hand, you can marvel at this regulatory regime as a guarantee of a verdant and pristine countryside for generations to come. Or you can reflect on how easy these regs are to implement in a low-fertility society whose working-age population (age 15 to 64) has just begun to enter negative growth, according to the UN official projections. This declining population trend is expected to accelerate in the decades to come. Unless Italy’s fertility rises again, Italy will lose roughly two-thirds of its current population by the year 2100. As western Europe discovered during late antiquity (from the fourth to eighth century), it’s easy to leave nature alone when your numbers are shrinking.