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Italy’s most vulgar politician undone (or so it appears) by scandal PDF Print E-mail
Apr 14, 2012 at 12:21 AM
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Umberto Bossi in his favorite attire
Umberto Bossi, the (to my mind, despicable) founder and leader of the often xenophobic and autonomist Northern League, resigned from his post as party leader last weekend following the publication of wiretaps implicating members of his immediate family in the misuse of public funds. The recent allegations are part of an ongoing investigation into the activities of the Northern League's former treasurer, Francesco Belsito, who is believed to have used party funds (most of which come from electoral subsidies) to carry out laundering activities for the Calabrian Mafia, the ‘Ndrangheta.

Bossi, a former cabinet minister, gained influence back in the late 1980's in part because of his anti-corruption stance ("Roma ladrona", Rome, a nest of thieves, was one of his favorite slogans). Subsequently, his federalist, anti-immigration platform won him enough votes to allow him to become the principal ally - for almost 18 years - of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

As is well known, Berlusconi resigned late last fall to make way for a "technicians" government capable of dealing with the current economic and financial crisis. He had gradually been weakened by the cumulative affect of scandals and tax evasion, bribery and corruption charges. But Bossi's disgrace is due to even more petty allegations. Party money reportedly was used to renovate the family villa, to buy an unearned university degree for his son Renzo, ridiculously nicknamed "the trout", to provide the latter with spending money and cars, and to help finance a private kindergarten run by Umberto Bossi's wife, Manuela.

Yesterday, the ruling council of the Northern League party expelled both Belsito and a close Bossi ally, union organizer Rosy Mauro, another extremely vulgar character who somehow has ended up as deputy speaker of the Italian Senate. She, too, is alleged to have used party funds to pay for doctors' bills and also, for university degrees for both herself and her singer boyfriend whose most popular song is Kooly Noody which when pronounced sounds the same as the words in Italian for "bare asses". Very refined.

The scandal, which appears likely to sharply weaken the Northen League at this May's local elections, has set off a renewed debate (nothing in Italian politics is ever really new) about whether or not political parties should receive public funding and whether, since they do, whether there should be more control of how that money is spent.

But aside from the enormous embarrassment of the League's other leaders (the next party secretary is expected to be the far more respectable former interior minister, Roberto Maroni), the latest developments make it crystal clear (although we all knew this) that 20 years after the massive Tangentopoli scandal that saw hundreds jailed for corruption, caused the suicides of several major business leaders and led to the self-exile of former Sociaist prime miniter Bettino Craxi, absolutely nothing has changed. Corruption is so widespread here that most people simply take it for granted.

Miracles DO happen PDF Print E-mail
Mar 01, 2012 at 10:44 PM
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All this and MUCH MUCH more
Yes, Virginia, there can be a genuinely Italian secular government.  In an unusual and unprecedented move, the technocratic government headed by economist Mario Monti announced last week that it plans to change the law in a way that would require the Catholic Church here to pay taxes on real estate property that is used for commercial purposes. This would efectively put an end to decades of across-the-board tax exemptions for church property and make Italy more progressive than our own country where, surprsingly enough, most church property is generally tax exempt, some sources claiming that the value of untaxed church property in the U.S. may amount to as much as $100 billion dollars.

The new regulation, onced passed by Parliament, will mean that for the first time, the extensive properties owned by the Vatican in Rome or by the CEI, the Italian Bishops, Conference, throughout Italy  - and which include hotels, pensions, restaurants, shops, hostels, convents that accept paying guests and so on- will no longer be exempt from taxes. Previously, this was the case just so long as one part of  a Church-owned building had a religious function. In other words, set aside a room for a chapel, and there you are, ipso facto, not exempt from taxation. Churches, themselves, will not be affected if they are used exclusively for religious purposes and private Catholic schools, the existence of which is said by some to save the Italian State close to five billion euros a year, will also be exempt as long as any profits they accrue are poured back into the institution's didactic activities.

The change in the law was called for by the European Commission which in 2010 charged that tax exemption for the church could be considered  illegal state aid that could skewer competition. Interetingly enough, when Monti was a European Commissioner  from 1995 to 2005,  he was in charge of anti-trust issues. Estimates say that the new taxes could bring in revenues of  as much as $2.5 billion annually. The problem now is exactly to whom these monies will be given. A previous real estate tax known as ICI (from which most Church properties were exempt)  went to municipalities. The proceeds of the latest version of ICI, which is called IMU, will be divided between a municipality and the national govenment. The Monti government has apparently registered the degreeto which most Italians, now facing growing unemployment, and higher taxes, are increasingly fed up with privileges, of any sort, by politicians and prelates alike. In December, 130,000 people signed an online petition calling on the government to revoke the church's tax-exempt status.

 

"Take the bus", Italian government tells officials PDF Print E-mail
Jan 16, 2012 at 01:10 PM
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And what with the price of gas...

The new Italian government headed by economist Mario Monti is training its sights on one of Italians' major pet peeves, the dark-blue state-owned sedans -many of which have been bullet-proofed -- that are a (costly) sign of prestige for all top Italian public-sector bigwigs. The so-called "auto blu" are estimated to number between 50,000 andd 70,000 if all levels of government -- central government, regions, provinces and municipalities - are included and come complete with salaried drivers who often alternate in shifts. A decree-law presented by Filippo Patroni-Griffi, the current minister of the Public Function (that is, the civil service) says that wherever possible, government functionaries should use public transport, which ostensibly could include taxis.

The decree says that when used government limousines - generally large, luxury sedans - it should be because it is a necessity and not to confer prestige. In other words, except for the highest-level officials, the cars should no longer be assigned to a particular person but to an office. All too often, politicians or sometimes other officials have been known to use these cars for private use, such as taking their wives shopping or getting to the stadium on time.

A census is now underway and if data is not yet complete, so far it would appear that the two regions with the highest number of "auto-blu" are Liguria and Tuscany (both traditionally governed by the moralizing center-left. On the central level, the cars are generally bought by individual ministries or other state offices. The ministry of Defence is reported to have had a "parco macchine" - a fleet - of around 1700 cars but recently purchased 4000 Maserati luxury sedans. I don't know how many the Interior (police) ministry has, but it should be remembered that hundreds of Italian officials have been assigned police escorts that generally include at least two cars, both of which probably bullet-proofed.

One can only imagine the expense involved, collectively, in running all these cars. But if savings would account for only a small percentage of Italy's mammoth debt, limiting their use would send an important signal to a population being called upon to pay more and higher taxes.

Italians angered by political pay scales PDF Print E-mail
Jan 08, 2012 at 04:58 PM

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Senate personnel is very highly paid

It's hard to gauge exactly what kind of approval rating the new Italian government has, but it seems obvious that its popularity (or lack thereof) among ordinary Italians may depend on whether or not it is prepare to challenge some of the country's powerful lobbies, including Italy's overpaid MPs and the people who work for them. At a time when people here are going to have to pay higher real estate taxes, receive lower pensions or be forced to continue working for more years than he or she thought, there is a great desire to see cuts imposed on the pay checks, indemnities, and privileges enjoyed by those working - in one capacity or another - in the political sector. And I believe that if this government can create a groundswell of popular support behind it, that it will be difficult for Italy's parties to unseat it before regularly scheduled elections in spring, 2013. Otherwise, they may get antsy at being left on the outside.


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Italian tax cheaters: watch out!!! PDF Print E-mail
Dec 20, 2011 at 01:37 PM
Image Earlier this year the New York Times wrote a story which referred to tax evasion as the "Italian national sport". I thought that was pretty stupid, banal and hardly original, as it has been said (stupidly) before. There are several reasons why so many people in Italy cheat on their taxes, and while they are often inter-related, none of those even remotely resemble a game.

In any event, the figures are HORRIFIC and it is understandable that the Monti government - which was appointed to get  Italy's accounts into order - has seemingly serious plans to really crack down on cheaters. Statistics published in major Italian newspapers in recent weeks give a good idea of just how serious is the problem. Mind you, these figures have been published many times, before, every time some politician or analyst starts wringing his or her hands over a situation about which nothing is ever done. This time, hopefully, things will be different since Attilio Befera, currently the head of the Agenzia delle Entrate (the Italian IRS) estimates that every year Italians fail to pay €120 BILLION in taxes owed, that's $156 BILLION).


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The Italian austerity plan; a work in progress PDF Print E-mail
Dec 12, 2011 at 06:13 PM

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Aaaaah. No Silvio here!

A week ago, Italy's new prime minister Mario Monti, announced the "Save-Italy" emergency austerity package designed to save some 30 billion euro in 2012 and to set in motion some virtuous tax and reform that hopefully will put this economically and financially-troubled country back on track. But the last word has yet to be said.
The austerity package was passed as what the Italians call a "decree-law", a temporary decree which then has to be voted into law by parliament and the legislature is now examining the more than 800 amendments that have been tabled.

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Italian pols to have pensions trimmed PDF Print E-mail
Dec 04, 2011 at 11:08 PM

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Incredible but true. The Italian parliament has decided to prove to the country that its members are as willing as the next Italian to make sacrifices to deal with the ongoing financial crisis. And so, earlier this week, the speakers of both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate agreed that starting immediately MPs would no longer enjoy the right to getting a lifetime pension starting from their 50th birthdays even when they have served in parliament for only a single term.

At the moment, there are 1,377 ex deputies and 861 ex senators (along with a certain number of widows and widowers) who for years have been getting monthly checks for amounts ranging from €3108 (in the case of someone who served only one term) to €9947 in the case of a senator who served 32 years before retiring.

Starting on January 1, pensions for legislators will be calculated as they are now for younger Italians (and will soon  be for all Italian workers) on the basis of a contributory plan where one's pension depends on how much has been put in by employee and employer and does not reflect the length of service or the level of salary. In other words, their pensions will be significantly smaller than they are today. Furthermore, strating next year the pensions  will only be paid out when a retired legislator has hit the age of 60.

In the United Statesm  Members of Congress are also eligible for a pensionat the age of 50, but only if they've completed 20 years of service. Members are eligible at any age after completing 25 years of service or after they reach the age of 62.

Previously, ex-legislators qualified for a life-time pension (starting at age 50) at the same rate as their salary even if they served in parliament only for a single, five-year term, that is for about 35 months (considering vacations etc) whereas almost everyone else here has to work for 35 years before getting a pension. This is just one of the perks that legislators enjoy and which have so irritated ordinary Italians who would like to see the costs of politics sharply curtailed. Many are hoping that measures passed by the new Monti government will include those of cutting the number of MPs and Senators in half from the present number of 1000, eliminating some levels of government, like Italy' 88 provinces, and eliminating electoral subsidies to the country's myriad parties.

In the meantime, here's a quick look at why members of parliament are so resented: Their basic salary is about 10,000 euros a month amounting to a total of €144,000 per year. They also have expense stipends, for office help, that many simply pocket, reimbursement for rentals for the three nights a week (on average) they are in Rome (and even those who live in Rome get this), binging the total amount paid them monthly to 19,150 euros a month, rougly $25,700, compared to the . The also get free cell phone service, movie and theatre tickets, bus and subway tickets (although it is doubtful they ever use public transport) domestic air and rail tickets, highway tolls, accident and life insurance, museum tickets and so on. They are the best paid in Europe (where the average pay is abut 50% of the Italian legislator's salary) and total salaries paid out to Senators and MPs amount to roughly 1.7 billion euros a year. Given the average Italian salary, which is probably less than €1500 a month, it really is appalling.

Mario Monti gets down to work - but as recession looms it won't be easy. PDF Print E-mail
Nov 30, 2011 at 10:18 PM

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Italy's new prime minister, economist Mario Monti, is burning the midnight oil, scurrying back and forth between meetings with European and EU leaders in Brussels and elsewhere cabinet meetings in Rome where he is putting together what is expected to be a 20 million euro austerity package that will be including important structural reforms. The plan is also supposed to include some economic stimuli to ward off the recession that the Paris-based OECD predicted this week for Italy in 2012.

OECD said in report that next year Italian GDP will contract by 0.5%, that overall unemployment will rise from 8.1% to 8.3% (and to 8.6% in 2013), but that prices will rise by only 1.6% compared to 2.7% this year.

The most important of the expected structural reforms is that of pension reform; something that has been talked about for years here but which previous governments have shied away from because of possible political repercussions. This week Italian newspapers predicted that the Monti government of technocrats and other experts would be raising the number of years of work needed to retire from 40, as of now, to 41 or 42. The unions have already said this was unacceptable but it is unclear at this stage if they can be persuaded to go along with the government's plan. It is also being said that the new minister of Welfare, Elsa Fornero, is planning to greatly speed up the Berlusconi government's plan to bring the retirement age for women up to 65, the same as for men.

Strangely enough, for the time being Italy's major political parties, including both Berlusconi's PdL and the left of center PD, seem to be carrying through on their pledge to support the Monti emergency cabinet. Berlusconi has repeatedly said he would oppose any plans for a "wealth tax" (the current talk is of a special levy on annual incomes of over one million euros). But generally speaking he continues to praise Monti, saying he is "working well". The former prime minister, relieved of his government duties, has been spending his time attending court sessions of some of the trials he is involved in; after all, he can no longer claim immunity as head of government. All in all, he has been keeping a low profile which is, most agree, a considerable change for the better, a real relief.

Also striking, and I myself am most surprised by this, the parties seem to agree that the Monti government need not be short-lived, as originally imagined, but could last until the regularly-scheduled elections of spring, 2013. The new premier, however, has reportedly agreed not to get involved in very political questions like a new electoral law. But who knows. The parties may decide that it might not be such a bad idea after all, especially if they can reach an agreement behind the scenes that would avoid the public bickering that has led many Italians to become really turned off.

Berlusconi resigns! PDF Print E-mail
Nov 12, 2011 at 10:33 PM

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Berlusconi opponents exult (Corriere della Sera photo)

Silvio Berlusconi is no longer the prime minister of Italy. As promised, the 75-year old controversial, conservative politician resigned his office tonight just a few hours after a majority in the Italian parliament approved a promised austerity package, although it is no secret that stronger and harsher measures will have to follow if Italian finances are to be set right. 

Immediately after Berlusconi's, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano officially announced a schedule for the meetings with former Italian presidents and Italy's major political leaders that by law and custom must precede the formation of a new government. The 86-year-old Napolitano, who has been working ceaselessly to find a political solution to break the current stalemate that has put Italy in its most serious financial plight since 1992, is set to ask respected economist Mario Monti to try and form a new government.

Berlusconi, who has dominated Italian politics for the last 17 years and served three terms as head of government, two of which were the longest in Itaian history, agreed earlier this week to leave office when it became clear that by remaining in power Italy's finances - a spiralling public debt that the country could find itself unable to finance - would only worsen.  He promised Giorgio Napolitano, the country's 86-year old Italian president, he would resign as soon as the parliament passed the so-called Stability Law,
A series of emergency measures that his government had put together in recent weeks to try and start a process or structural reform requested by both the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

And he has kept his word, reportedly also trying to convince the recalcitrant inside his own party that they should support Monti and a largely technical government that would remain in power until additional austerity measures - higher taxes, a wealth tax, a pension reform are just a few of the steps that will have to be taken - are adopted. After which, new elections would be held. Berlusconi's party reportedly has also set other conditions. One is said to be that after enacting the austerity measures, Monti not remain in power and second, the presence in the government as deputy premier of Gianni Letta, a  long-time but fairly respected Berlusconi advisor, but this latter demand, it seems to me, will be totally unacceptable to everyone else.

Some here are still hopeful that the new government could be a national unity coalition bringing  the Berlusconi right and the left-leaning opposition together to act in the country's interest. But there is so much political tension here that such a solution is highly unlikely.

ImageCrowds of several hundred Berlusconi opponents gathered outside  Palazzo Grazioli, Berlusconi's private residence two blocks from Palazzo Chigi, the seat of government, and also outside the Quirinale Palace, whistling (whistles are a sign of disapproval in Italy) catcalling, waving signs reading phrases like "Finally!", "Liberation!", "Today is our Independence Day", singing the "Hallelujah" and shouting insults such "buffoon" and "whoremaster" .

Wire services reported that Berlusconi said he was aggrieved by the degree of hostility of the crowds - and I have to admit I myself found it a bit overdone, especially because he has behaved so honourably in the last few days. But although it is hard to measure exactly what proportion of the population actually is fed up with Berlusconi (let's not forget that for years he had a huge following), there is no doubt that now he is despised by thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands. I personally do not know anyone who admits to wanting him to stay in power. And I am talking about people from every social class and walk of life and, in addition, not just leftists.

Ironically, then, it wasn't the years of corruption charges (and several trials), sex scandals and what many people (including me) think of as inappropriate behaviour - stupid jokes etc - on the international scene, to lead him to go. Berlusconi has been brought down not by his unhealthy obsession with young women (his now estranged wife said two years ago that he was a very sick man), but by his failure to govern incisively and effectively and by his refusal to look Italy's economic and financial problems in the eye before things precipitated to their current state.


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