A blog on the political, economic and social causes and implications of the crisis in the Southern periphery of the Eurozone.

I'm a political scientist working on political parties and elections, social and economic policy and political corruption, with a particular focus on Italy and Spain. For more details on my work, see CV here, and LSE homepage here. For media or consultancy enquiries, please email J.R.Hopkin@lse.ac.uk.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Grillo ergo sum

So in reply to Monti's Agenda, Beppe Grillo has decided he also ought to come up with a programme. Grillo's '16 points' is a pretty depressing read, confirming the total lack of any innovative thinking on the Italian political scene at the moment. Grillo's party basically represents the traditional 'antipolitica' - populist, pseudo-Poujadiste hatred of the political class - which has long been a powerful force in Italy, coexisting oddly with what has actually been a very stable party system for a most of the post-war period.

Italians have comparatively very low levels of trust in their political leaders, yet take a very long time to replace them. The last big political earthquake was in 1992-94, when the post-war political elite revolving around Giulio Andreotti and the slightly younger cohort of Bettino Craxi and Arnaldo Forlani was swept away by the Tangentopoli revelations of entrenched and often spectacular corruption. After the 1994 elections, a new elite based around Berlusconi's dominance of the right (alongside the former Fascist Gianfranco Fini and the Northern separatist Umberto Bossi), former Christian Democrats Romano Prodi and Pierferdinando Casini in the centre and the d'Alema generation of ex-communists on the left, took control and remained at the commands until now. A TV news programme in the UK in 1994 would have featured figures such as John Major, Michael Heseltine, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Italian telegiornali still revolve around Berlusconi, Fini, and Casini on the centre-right, and Bersani was already a minister in the first Prodi government elected in 1996.

The forthcoming elections look likely to change all this, with Bossi now off the scene (largely due to illness)) and Berlusconi fighting a last battle to remain relevant. But the novelties on the political scene - Grillo and Monti - seem themselves to be fighting the battles of the past. Monti, himself just short of 70, represents the generation of Eurocrats responsible for designing European Monetary Union, determined to apply the orthodox medicine of austerity to reassure the markets and senior European partners that Italy will keep its side of the eurodeal. Grillo, a comparatively youthful 64, proclaims a sweeping condemnation of the entire Italian political class, and offers a programme in which 10 of the 16 points are focused on reducing the financial costs of professional politicians and eliminating political parties from the decision-making process. On the economy, Grillo suggests a referendum on the euro, a guaranteed minimum income (in which currency?), a stop to big infrastructure projects and a vaguely defined programme to help small and medium-sized businesses. As an economic programme, this could have come straight out of the vague autogestionaire thinking of 1970s eurocommunism.

Faced with this choice, emigration looks the best bet for Italians who have not yet claimed their pensions. Torn between a dour and self-interested technocracy and an opportunistic and ignorant populism, the only viable choice is Bersani's stale recipe of timid liberalization and maintenance of a notoriously unjust and unbalanced welfare state. More than ever, Italy is suffering from its failure to develop a mainstream, social democratic, egalitarian and pro-market party on the left. The PD is trying to become this, but remains trapped by its conservative Catholic wing on the right and its traditional communist wing on the left, neither of whom seem to understand how markets need to be regulated in the modern age.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Privatize and be damned

The Italian elections are looming, and amidst the chaos of elite manoeuvrings there is the glimmering of a policy debate (a bit of a rarity in Italian election campaigns). Mario Monti, despite announcing he would not personally stand in the elections (being a life senator, he will be in parliament anyway) has nailed his colours to the mast publishing an 'agenda' (basically a manifesto) and inviting party lists to commit to electing him Prime Minister once the new parliament is formed.

Interestingly, Monti's programme has already been condemned as 'statist' by Alberto Alesina and Francesco Giavazzi, the economist duo that have spent the last few years vainly demanding liberalization and reform of the Italian economy. Alesina and Giavazzi's argument is that the Italian state acts as a break on economic activity, and a large-scale programme of privatization is needed to liberate Italians from one of the heaviest tax-burdens in the OECD. Rather than taxing the income of productive sectors and then giving them free services, for A % G richer citizens should be offered lower tax rates and invited to take out private insurance policies for healthcare and pay market-based fees for school and university. Mmm, it would be fascinating if that had ever been tried somewhere - then we could maybe get to see what would happen! Of course we have the natural experiment of the US, whose healthcare system is the most expensive and almost certainly the least efficient of any advanced nation. And sure, it has great universities, but I can't remember any studies showing US private high schools as being better than the largely state-funded systems in Europe.

But actually it's even worse than that. Privatization can be at best a modest improvement (for instance, airlines in the 1980s and telecoms, for the most part), a lot of the time, pretty disappointing (utilities without adequate regulation), and sometimes, totally catastrophic (UK railways, Russian... well, just about everything). The point being that even if you believe the market is likely to perform better than the state, privatization isn't enough on its own - it needs to be done properly. And the institutions that determine whether or not a privatization is done properly are precisely the same ones that determine whether or not a state company will fail. So privatization and liberalization in themselves don't solve anything, unless you manage to solve the original problem which is the failure of the political system to nationalize or privatize, regulate or liberalize, efficiently.

So to take an example, cited in the comments to A & G's article, car insurance in Italy before 1994 was a cartel regulated by the state, which fixed prices and allowed insurance companies to enjoy profits without competitive pressure. Then, liberalisation came along with the removal of price controls, and hoopla! Italian car insurance prices increased by 464% in less than two decades. The reason presumably being that the state failed to regulate competition properly in the market, and therefore the removal of price ceilings left the insurance companies free to fix prices at a higher level.

What makes Alesina and Giavazzi sure that privatization in Italy would not be just as bad as statism? No idea. But the fact is that wholesale privatisation - especially of delicate sectors like healthcare and education - would be an accident waiting to happen unless Italy manages to reform its politics. And pushing hard for American-style solutions, precisely when the US is in almost as bad a mess as Italy, doesn't seem politically smart to me.