Italian politics is a lot more interesting than the American version. Just last week we had two criminal cases with political angles: six scientists were convicted of giving “false assurances” about the likelihood of an earthquake and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was convicted of tax evasion. My Italian friends doubt anyone involved will serve time in jail, but the cases give us some perspective on Italian politics and justice.
Berlusconi has been an endless source of embarrassment or entertainment, depending on your point of view. You have to be an insider to understand all this, and I’m not. But if you’re keeping score, he’s been accused of tax and accounting fraud, giving false testimony, bribery, conflict of interest, and having sex with an under-age prostitute. If you have a few minutes, Jon Stewart has a wonderful summary, including this memorable line: “I apologize to Rod Blogojevich.” The Economist, once sued by Berlusconi for libel, put his picture on the cover last summer under the headline: “The man who screwed an entire country.”
Keep in mind: this man was elected Prime Minister three times and threatens to run again.
That brings us to the scientists. The case is like an Aurelio Zen mystery, it gets more complex the more you dig into it. We may never know the whole truth, but it seems as if some scientists got caught in the middle of a plan to downplay the likelihood of a major earthquake. The politics is murky, but the best guess is that arresting them was cover for the politicians who would otherwise be blamed. I’m told this is a reasonably accurate account of how it’s been described in the Italian press, but the truth — who knows. See also this set of links.
This passes for entertainment in a world where high-end television revolves around meth cooks and serial killers — and good entertainment it is. But it’s also one of the reasons the Italian economy isn’t more productive. It’s no wonder that Italy ranks 73rd (of 185 countries) in the latest Doing Business survey from the World Bank and 69th (of 182) in Transparency International’s (control of) corruption index, ahead of Argentina, on par with Ghana, and well behind Rwanda. Surely the home of Giuseppi Verdi, Italo Calvino, and Andrea Camilleri can do better.
Update (Dec 12): Great video on Berlusconi from the Daily Show.