2009/01/03

Il ritorno di Don Camillo


Italy is as close to heaven as it gets. For living that is.. not for work..
Since the “mani puliti” action in the early 90’s the Italian economy has been declining. Government spending, incomprehensible inefficient business laws, a suffocating tax system and a banking climate from the Middle-Ages don’t seem to make Italy rise on the global competitiveness indices.. In fact in these areas Italy performs worse than, say, Guatemala.

This is the only rich country i know where it costs a hell of a lot of money in notary costs to go bankrupt.. but this is also the only rich country i know where effectively going bankrupt that doesn’t seem to matter. Time is something measured in eras here.. as if it is of vital importance for a country to have the legal documents of company formation and dissolvement stored in a huge safe inside one of the Alps.
Italians will say Italy is a special case.. that is so but it is just extremely protective of maintaining the status quo. And while doing so the administrators of the Imperium Romanum smother every innovation which is where the real power of Italy lies.
Whereas Italy is known for it’s corruption my experience does not correspond with that, on the contrary actually.. but maybe Italy still needs to learn the Northern-European practise of “if you can’t beat it, legalize it”. Maybe learn from Holland with it’s separate business and criminal law systems, where drugsdealers pay tax and bribes are tax deductable, and it isn’t even ‘corrupt’..
So, why the moderate rant.. i mean, Beppe Grillo does a much better job at ranting, and still it’s a pretty useless act without much action..
Well, after 4 years of trying to expand an international business based in Italy i have had more than enough. So i am moving my business to Switzerland to enjoy a business climate based on common sense, and taxation is about 1/3rd of Italy. The best of two worlds.. live in Italy, work from Switzerland. Then, maybe i can enjoy laughing about the joke of Italian politics, with currently the 62nd government since the World War II, just like all those tax evading Italians who are responsible for storing an estimated 65-70% of the nation’s capital in Switzerland.. which by many means should make Italy one of the richest countries in the world, no ?

As Dutch writer Gerard Reve once said concerning his view on politics; “It is better to have a government of thieves than a government of killers”. The following is taken from Catch 22, Joseph Heller:

"America," he said, "will lose the war. And Italy will win it"
"America is the strongest and most prosperous nation on earth," Nately informed him with lofty fervor and dignity. "And the American fighting man is second to none."
"Exactly," agreed the old man pleasantly, with a hint of taunting amusement. "Italy, on the other hand, is one of the least prosperous nations on earth. And the Italian fighting man is probably second to all. And that's exactly why my country is doing so well in this war while your country is doing so poorly."
Nately guffawed with surprise, then blushed apologetically for his impoliteness. "I'm sorry I laughed at you," he said sincerely, and he continued in a tone of respectful condescension. "But Italy was occupied by the Germans and is now being occupied by us. You don't call that doing very well, do you?"
"But of course I do," exclaimed the old man cheerfully. "The Germans are being driven out, and we are still here. In a few years you will be gone, too, and we will still be here. You see, Italy is really a very poor and weak country, and that's what makes us so strong. Italian soldiers are not dying any more. But American and German soldiers are. I call that doing extremely well. Yes, I am quite certain that Italy will survive this war and still be in existence long after your own country has been destroyed."
Nately could scarcely believe his ears. He had never heard such shocking blasphemies before, and he wondered with instinctive logic why G-men did not appear to lock the traitorous old man up. "America is not going to be destroyed " he shouted passionately.
"Never?" prodded the old man softly.
"Well..." Nately faltered.
The old man laughed indulgently, holding in check a deeper, more explosive delight. His goading remained gentle. "Rome was destroyed, Greece was destroyed, Persia was destroyed, Spain was destroyed. All great countries are destroyed. Why not yours? How much longer do you really think your own country will last? Forever? Keep in mind that the earth itself is destined to be destroyed by the sun in twenty-five million years or so."
Nately squirmed uncomfortably. "Well, forever is a long time, I guess."
"A million years?" persisted the jeering old man with keen, sadistic zest. "A half million? The frog is almost five hundred million years old. Could you really say with much certainty that America, with all its strength and prosperity, with its fighting man that is second to none, and with its standard of living that is the highest in the world, will last as long as... the frog?"
"Well, frankly, I don't know how long America is going to last," he proceeded dauntlessly. "I suppose we can't last forever if the world itself is going to be destroyed some day. But I do know that we're going to survive and triumph for a long, long time."
"For how long?" mocked the profane old man with a gleam of malicious elation. "Not even as long as the frog ?"
"Much longer than you or me," Nately blurted out lamely.
"Oh, is that all? That won't be very much longer then, considering that you're so gullible and brave and that I am already such an old, old man."
"How old are you ?" Nately asked, growing intrigued and charmed with the old man in spite of himself.
"A hundred and seven." The old man chuckled heartily at Nately's look of chagrin. "I see you don't believe that either."
"I don't believe anything you tell me," Nately replied, with a bashful mitigating smile. "The only thing I do believe is that America is going to win the war."
"You put so much stock in winning wars," the grubby iniquitous old man scoffed. "The real trick lies in losing wars, in knowing which wars can be lost, Italy has been losing wars for centuries, and just see how splendidly we've done nonetheless. France wins wars and is in a continual state of crisis. Germany loses and prospers. Look at our own recent history. Italy won a war in Ethiopia and promptly stumbled into serious trouble. Victory gave us such insane delusions of grandeur that we helped start a world war we hadn't a chance of winning. But now that we are losing again, everything has taken a turn for the better, and we will certainly come out on top again if we succeed in being defeated."
Nately gaped at him in undisguised befuddlement. "Now I really don't understand what you're saying. You talk like a madman."
"But I live like a sane one. I was a fascist when Mussolini was on top, and I am an antifascist now that he has been deposed. I was fanatically pro-German when the Germans were here to protect us against the Americans, and now that the Americans are here to protect us against the Germans I am fanatically pro-American. I can assure you, my outraged young friend"- the old man's knowing, disdainful eyes shone even more effervescently as Nately's stuttering dismay increased-"that you and your country will have a no more loyal partisan in Italy than me-but only as long as you remain in Italy. "
"But," lately cried out in disbelief, "you're a turncoat! A time-server! A shameful, unscrupulous opportunist!"
"I am a hundred and seven years old," the old man reminded him suavely.
"Don't you have any principles?"
"Of course not."
"No morality?"
"Oh, I am a very moral man," the villainous old man assured him with satiric seriousness, stroking the bare hip of a buxom black-haired girl with pretty dimples who had stretched herself out seductively on the other arm of his chair. He grinned at Nately sarcastically as he sat between both naked girls in smug and threadbare splendor, with a sovereign hand on each.
"I can't believe it," Nately remarked grudgingly, trying stubbornly not to watch him in relationship to the girls. "I simply can't believe it."
"But it's all perfectly true. When the Germans marched into the city, I danced in the streets like a youthful ballerina and shouted, 'Heil Hitler!' until my lungs were hoarse. I even waved a small Nazi flag that I had snatched away from a beautiful little girl while her mother was looking the other way. When the Germans left the city, I rushed out to welcome the Americans with a bottle of excellent brandy and a basket of flowers. The brandy was for myself, of course, and the flowers were to sprinkle upon our liberators. There was a very stiff and stuffy old major riding in the first car, and I bit him squarely in the eye with a red rose. A marvelous shot! You should have seen him wince."
Nately gasped and was on his feet with amazement, the blood draining from his cheeks. "Major - de Coverley!" he cried.
"Do you know him?" inquired the old man with delight. "What a charming coincidence !"
Nately was too astounded even to hear him. "So you' re the one who wounded Major - de Coverley!" he exclaimed in horrified indignation. "How could you do such a thing?"
The fiendish old man was unperturbed. "How could I resist, yon mean. You should have seen the arrogant old bore, sitting there so sternly in that car like the Almighty Himself, with his big, rigid head and his foolish, solemn face. What a tempting target he made! I got him in the eye with an American Beauty rose. I thought that was most appropriate. Don't you?"
"That was a terrible thing to do!" Nately shouted at him reproachfully. "A vicious and criminal thing! Major - de Coverley is our squadron executive officer!"
"Is he?" teased the unregenerate old man, pinching his pointy jaw gravely in a parody of repentance. "In that case, you must give me credit for being impartial. When the Germans rode in, I almost stabbed a robust young Oberleutnant to death with a sprig of edelweiss."
Nately was appalled and bewildered by the abominable old man's inability to perceive the enormity of his offense. "Don't you realize what you've done?" he scolded vehemently. "Major - de Coverley is a noble and wonderful person, and everyone admires him. "
"He's a silly old fool who really has no right acting like a silly young fool. Where is he today? Dead?"
Nately answered softly with somber awe. "Nobody knows. He seems to have disappeared."
"You see? Imagine a man his age risking what little life he has left for something so absurd as a country."
Nately was instantly up in arms again. "There is nothing so absurd about risking your life for your country!" he declared.
"Isn't there?" asked the old man. "What is a country? A country is a piece of land surrounded on all sides by boundaries, usually unnatural. Englishmen are dying for England, Americans are dying for America, Germans are dying for Germany, Russians are dying for Russia. There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely so many countries can't all be worth dying for."
"Anything worth living for," said Nately, "is worth dying for."
"And anything worth dying for," answered the sacrilegious old man, "is certainly worth living for. You know, you're such a pure and naive young man that I almost feel sorry for you. How old are you? Twenty-five? Twenty-six?"
"Nineteen," said Nately. "I'll be twenty in January."
"If you live." The old man shook his head, wearing, for a moment, the same touchy, meditating frown of the fretful and disapproving old woman. "They are going to kill you if you don't watch out, and I can see now that you are not going to watch out. Why don't you use some sense and try to be more like me? You might live to be a hundred and seven, too."
"Because it's better to die on one's feet than live on one's knees,"
Nately retorted with triumphant and lofty conviction. "I guess you've heard that saying before."
"Yes, I certainly have," mused the treacherous old man, smiling again. "But I'm afraid you have it backward. It is better to live on one's feet than die on one's knees. That is the way the saying goes."
"Are you sure?" Nately asked with sober confusion. "It seems to make more sense my way."
"No, it makes more sense my way. Ask your friends."

2 comments:

Maurizio said...

Ciao Paul,

Here are how things goes. Italy is a strange country, somehow difficult to understand also for us, the natives. Many Italians had and will move abroad to have a bit of success. The economy is quite close and it is hard to be successful in typical professions if you do not have a strong family support. Many professions and companies are actually inherited as starting from scratch is often too difficult from a business environment standpoint. Technology companies are somehow different, but A friend of mine, leading a small and smart web company, was complaining about the fact that most of the business is always going toward the usual big ones.

Then there are taxes and bureaucracy: I used to say we have the Swedish taxation with third-world services. And now we have the German currency (Euro) with third-world salaries.

I have been involved with several small to medium companies and also almost-bodyshoppers in the last few years. Sadly, in the land of quality, the only important thing in our ITC seems to be low rates, regardless of quality. While discussing with any IT manager the main subject has often been about rates. So, for a genetic force, systems integrators here are just fighting to offer the lowest possible rates: no meritocracy, no quality discussions, no possibility for young people to develop a technical career earning decent salaries.

Hopefully there are exceptions, as I and you have experimented sometime with some of our customers. But this country is facing the worst possible recession: the recession of hope.

On the other hand, as you wrote by citing that novel, the country has unpredictable resources, so especially in a cold business and financial climate I have no doubt we'll see some unexpected reactions, even if it will always be a fight with a government and taxation system which acts as an enemy instead of trying to develop its country.

kukan said...

Hey Maurizio,

Well, i do see some value in the protectionist tendencies. Just because the anglo-american worldview is currently dominating doesn't mean it's just. But then again, that also doesn't mean what the Italian status quo does is just..

Some examples.. in Holland when starting a company there are some tax benefits for the first 7 years or so, as it's difficult to start a company. In Italy, no such thing, and it is even so that the first year involves paying double taxes as tax is paid forward.
But also in Holland a nephew of my ex, he is from Rotterdam and should speak with the local dialect (wonderful singing Rotterdam accent), but he speaks with the dialect of the region where television programs are being made.. so even on a micro-scale like regions a rather stunning uniformity is taking hold.

i can understand why the Italian system locks into itself as a means to protect cultural values. Yet a government should be facilitating and not dominating, and since long it seems to have gone too far into a dead-end. Not that with the current law spaghetti the business landscape is an untraceable intermingled mess where not even the government knows a way out, but this is again protective of already existing companies and does not accomodate for anything new.
On the other hand, Italy's national identity is pretty young.. Garibaldi happened not too long ago historically speaking. The positive side to the nation-wide recession of hope is that it strengthens the national identity, which wasn't so apparent before.

Italy, with so much high-quality goods, companies, food, even the houses here are qualitativelly an order of magnitude better than what i'm used in Holland, but it also houses some of the worst companies around, such as Tiscali.. :-)
Where is that Italy that used to spread through Europe during the 70's and 80's ? Did 'mani puliti' cause such a turnaround in the way business is being done that the current situation is the best Italy can do ?

There is an enormous untapped potential pervading the Italian people, and i wonder what it takes for this to bubble up.. Maybe it's as simple as small to medium sized companies moving to Switzerland which is totally legitimate and easy to do considering non-resident possibilities. Then at least there will be more going on at the bottom and the economic climate can change from the inside out.
Then additionally, Italy can very well survive with a government 1/10th of it's current size, but how to get there when it would take a political career to establish that, and considering the nepotism and self-fulfilling career path in politics all ideals will be stripped one by one while reaching a position to enable such. Although a bureaucratic system is preferably leader-less, so how to sucessfully change the rules of the game ? Maybe...
But what does it take for the innate sense of quality and innovation to take over the gerontocratic smothering ?