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Don't Laugh at Italy's Elections Don't Laugh at Italy's Elections

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Don't Laugh at Italy's Elections

They're dealing with austerity – with less whining than we are over the sequester.


Former Premier Silvio Berlusconi casts his ballot in Milan, Italy, Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

It’s easy to laugh at Italy, what with another government falling. The nation's respectable, bespectacled prime minister, Mario Monti, an economist lauded by the Germans and others for his austerity policies, failed to put together enough votes for a government. In fact his party came in fourth in this week's elections. Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of the bunga bunga party might be able to form one. The highest vote getters, the new Five-Star Party — led by a real-life comedian, Beppe Grillo — came in first. It’s about the equivalent of Donald Trump, Newt Gingrich, and Jimmy Kimmel jockeying for the presidency.

Grillo’s campaign was Web driven and against austerity — part Occupy Wall Street and part street theater. He built on a base he began in 2007 when he launched anticorruption demonstrations, knwon as V-Days. The V stood for vaffanculo — Italian vernacular for "f--- off." He’s also been found guilty of manslaughter in a car accident and had a libel suit thrown at him by a 94-year-old Nobel winner he called an old whore. He wants a referendum on staying in NATO, is a bit of a vaccine truther, and an anti-Dreamer, not wanting the kids of illegal immigrants to get citizenship. It's a left/right mashup, mostly built around sticking it to the Davos austerity crowd.


This is funnier than Allen West, for sure, the ousted tea-party congressman with a McCarthyite penchant for having lists of unnamed communists. But can we really be surprised that the Italians have rejected austerity? Not while we piss and moan about the sequester. It’s like a patient who cries when he gets a shot who has the audacity to mock an amputee.

Monti passed serious spending cuts and tax hikes. The value-added tax was increased, property sales taxes got a boost, the retirement age was raised, and so was the state pension age. Even cash transactions over 1,000 euros were outlawed to discourage tax evasion. It's what Simpson and Bowles must dream about at night. 

Leave aside the merits of whether the U.S. and Italy should even be engaged in a round of budget cuts. Paul Krugman famously argues that this is nuts when our economies are still in a post-recession daze. But if you assume budget cutting here and in Rome is a good thing, it shouldn’t be surprising that Italy is balking at much larger cuts than we’re set to endure. Yes, Italy has a larger welfare state with more social services to cut, but its debt-to-GDP ratio isn’t much different than ours — about 105 percent of GDP for us and 120 percent for them — and their budget deficit to GDP ratio is now lower than ours, around 3 percent versus 8 percent.

Countless stories have been posted about our political woes and whether you attribute the dysfunctional Congress to GOP intransigence, promiscuous use of the filibuster, redistricting, outside money, members of Congress not living and socializing in D.C., the death of Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan, or any combination of the above. We’ve obviously reached a point where the government doesn’t work. Our political system more closely resembles Italy’s than we’d like to admit. Their parliamentary coalitions may shift with comic frequency, but budgets get passed and things get done in a way that Congress might have reason to applaud. They got their first round of austerity cuts passed. There’s much to commend an American-style Constitution over a parliamentary system and two parties over a cacophony of power centers. We have no Jimmy Kimmel-led party although that's sounding increasingly appealing. But at the moment our system, for whatever reason you want to attribute, isn’t working to produce things as basic as agriculture policy. David Rogers at Politico wisely notes that everyone saw that treacly “God made a farmer” commercial during the Super Bowl, but we’re incapable of passing a farm bill.

Our economy is not the Italian one. The differences between our economic woes and Italy’s are myriad and we’re in much better shape in everything from borrowing costs — their bonds are pushing 5 percent — to GDP to dynamism as a culture and economy, not to mention the fact that our currency isn’t tethered to the complex euro.

We’re different, yes, but with no right to throw stones at Italian houses.

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