Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Economic Woes For 'Good Italy' And 'Bad Italy'


It has become increasing clear that the economies of Europe and the United States are closely linked in ways that have not been especially comfortable lately. Anxiety over Greece has dominated the conversation, but there's also considerable anxiety over Spain and Italy. We're going to talk now with the author of a new book provocatively called, "Good Italy, Bad Italy," which explains why Italy is in such difficulties.

The author is Bill Emmott, formerly the editor in chief of The Economist. He's a regular columnist now for The Times of London and he joins us from his home in Somerset in Southwest England. Mr. Emmott, welcome to the program.

BILL EMMOTT: Good to be with you.

WERTHEIMER: One of the many interesting things about your book is your reliance on the most famous work of Italian literature, "The Divine Comedy," Dante's journey into hell and matching that with Italy's journey.

EMMOTT: Well, I think that Dante is a remarkably inspiring poet. The way he analyzes Italy's problems of the then 14th, 13th centuries into the different sins, the different vices and then the sources of salvation are, I think, in a very poetic way are sort of inspiration for how to analyze ourselves and to how to think about our countries these days.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now very early in the book, page 4, in fact, you introduce the great Satan of your analysis, Berlusconi.

EMMOTT: Well, Silvio Berlusconi and I go back awhile because in 2001 when I was at The Economist, we published a cover just before Italian elections called "Why Silvio Berlusconi is Unfit to Lead Italy," declaring against him and he responded by pointing out the well-known fact that The Economist is a communist publication. And one of his newspapers proved this by putting my picture on the front page and pointing out that I look like Lenin.

WERTHEIMER: Well, there you go.

EMMOTT: It's almost the only thing he got right.

WERTHEIMER: You suggest that Berlusconi is basically to blame for 10 lost years in which Italy might have made all sorts of economic progress and did not, and in fact it was much worse than that, that his self-dealing and his cronyism brought Italy down to a lower level than it had been before.

EMMOTT: Yes, I think that that's a good way to put it. Italy was the dynamic, most emerging economy of Europe in the 1950s and 1960s and even into the 1970s. It was the Mediterranean tiger, as we might have called it. But then it built up huge public debts, ground to a halt partly because of political violence, partly because of corruption, had a financial crisis in the early 1990s and had a chance to reform itself.

But in fact thanks to Silvio Berlusconi and to people like him, it wasted the crisis. What was amazing about his time in government was how little he did, except to further his own interests.

WERTHEIMER: One of the most interesting things, I think, about the way you set out the tension between the ideas of good Italy and bad Italy is that both good and bad are exemplified by one of the great traditions of Italy: the large, close family.

EMMOTT: Yes, I think that a characteristic of Italy that goes back centuries is a lack of trust generated substantially by the fact that the country's been invaded so often. The Austrians, the Spanish, the French have taken over parts of the country. This has produced a legacy of mistrust in which the only people you really trust are your family, and that can be a powerful positive but can also produce a kind of clannish, closed mentality.

Organized crime families are perhaps the, you know, the most powerful form of the strong family values in Italy. That sort of crony capitalist networks that Silvio Berlusconi's been part of; those similarly were not directly blood relations are a similar clannishness.

WERTHEIMER: You point out that this sort of guiding principle of taking care of your own is one of the things that drives the idea that it's better to hang onto what you have.

EMMOTT: Yes, and here is where one of the great contradictions of Italy comes in. You hang on to what you've got, you don't trust other people, you're insecure. They also are the sort of characteristics that inspire entrepreneurs. Why does a Steve Jobs, why does a Bill Gates, why does Larry Page and Sergey Brin, why do they start companies? Well, they want to create their own reality. They want to create their own world rather than working for IBM or for someone else.

That in Italy produced some terrific companies. Luxottica is a great example. They are the sunglass kings, they own Ray-Ban, they own other brands from around the world. They've bought retail chains. They flout many Italian traditional assumptions, namely that Italian companies can't expand around the world, can't make acquisitions.

WERTHEIMER: As much as you clearly love Italy, and as much as you compliment Italy on its beauty and every wonderful thing that it does, you don't sound very hopeful about Italy.

EMMOTT: I'm not hopeful about Italy at present because I think the resistance to change is so great, and I feel frustrated for all my Italian friends because I can also see Italy's potential. I think that Italy should be the dreamland of Adam Smith. It should be a great poster-child for free market economics, and yet it's in deep trouble.

WERTHEIMER: Bill Emmott's book is called "Good Italy, Bad Italy." Mr. Emmott, thank you very much.

EMMOTT: Great pleasure, thank you.


WERTHEIMER: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.