The Corner

Beppe Grillo (2)

The Economist is (reasonably enough) skeptical:

But the tomfoolery that endlessly surrounds Mr Berlusconi was overshadowed this time by something even more attention-grabbing: the climatic rally of the campaign mounted by Beppe Grillo, the ex-comedian who is the face and voice of the Five Star Movement (M5S). He filled one of Rome’s biggest piazzas. There were certainly several hundred thousand people there. Mr Grillo claimed there were 800,000….

… One way of looking at Mr Grillo is as trenchant and necessary critic of Italy’s current, woeful situation. He is particularly incisive with respect to Italy’s political parties: grotesquely over-funded by the taxpayer; seemingly incapable of generational rejuvenation, and corrupt in many areas and at many levels. Seen in this light, Mr Grillo is a man who has supplied a democratic, and so far, peaceful outlet for the frustration of millions of Italians who feel themselves to have been betrayed by a bankrupt political system.

Yet while his criticisms are often accurate, Mr Grillo’s remedies are either non-existent, simplistic or utopian. The programme of his movement contains nothing on foreign policy, for example, and precious little on how it would get Italy out of its dire economic straits. Selected in an on-line poll, his parliamentary candidates have no previous experience of either legislation or government…

But there is another dimension to Mr Grillo’s apparent breakthrough that could weigh even more heavily on the rest of the euro zone. If it occurs, it will show that far too many Italians fail to understand the seriousness of their economic situation, let alone the complexity of the policies required to solve it.

They will have allowed themselves once again to have been seduced by a purveyor of macro-economic snake oil; someone who claims to be able to dispel their problems as if by magic. Italy has been here before, in 2001 when Mr Berlusconi promised them a ‘new economic miracle’. In the 10 years that followed Italy’s economy hardly grew, stagnated or shrank.

Oh come on. Let’s look at those ten years. Since 2008 Italy has been enmeshed in the twin financial and euro zone crises. Berlusconi can hardly be blamed for those. Between April 2006 and May 2008, Italy was run, not by Berlusconi but by a center-left government led by Romano Prodi, a former Brussels oligarch, something that The Economist, oddly, chooses not to mention. So that leaves 2001-06. Is it true that Berlusconi failed to deliver on promised structural reform? And is it true that sensible structural reform ought to deliver a real boost to Italy’s economy. Yes and yes. But it is also true that Berlusconi’s task was bedeviled by tensions within his coalition (as, uh, The Economist noted as early as 2003, and those tensions only got worse), as well as by the threat of violence that carries terrifying force in a country still scarred by memories of the anni di piombo.

It is also worth noting that while Italy’s accumulated level of public debt was far too high, the country largely managed to avoid the binge-spending seen elsewhere during the early years of monetary union. Even now, the country’s debt would be manageable without too much drama (Italy has a huge stock of private savings) were it not for the fact that it is all denominated in what is (effectively) a foreign currency, that same euro that has done so much to sink Italian competitiveness, that same euro that was the most poisonous “macro-economic snake oil” of all, and which was peddled by the likes of the current prime minister, Mario Monti, another former Brussels oligarch, and someone for whom, interestingly, The Economist has rather a liking. 

How strange. 

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