Declining Italy

Italy is romance.  Caruso's ghost sings in the corridors of narrow streets.  Each meal is an adventure for the palate.  Tourists travel the seven seas to recapture the past of Michelangelo, Leonardo, Signorile, Bernini.  Italy is the reservoir of Western culture.  

That said, Italy is declining – like the Colossus of Rhodes, it is sinking into the Mediterranean.  The tourists come in droves, and like locusts, they can cover a city.  But the tourists and natives only look through the rearview mirror.  Contemporary Italy is bankrupt and kept afloat by the panjandrums at the E.U.  The northern half of the country works; the southern half lives on the dole.  Sardinia is an island comprising retirees with only one manufacturing plant on it.  

Five Star, the movement to withdraw from the E.U., is led by a comedian – some would say a perfect example of Italian politics.  The growing migrant population is another issue.  North Africans have poured into the country at an unprecedented rate.  No one could tell me how many reside in the country because residency is based on obtaining records, an often impossible task.

So Italian hip-hoppers, supported by government largess, wearing Michael Jordan tee-shirts, enjoy the benefits of the country but give little in return.  It is the anti-migrant sentiment that fuels an exit from the E.U.           

The once majestic Italian family sitting around a dining table with Grandma and Grandpa is nonexistent.  Italians have one of the lowest birth rates in the world, and 85 percent of them who have children have "only children."  Italy is on the path to demographic suicide.

Still, the charm of yesteryear remains as a form of faded glory.  On a recent trip to Amalfi, I went to the world-famous Lunar hotel.  In its time, dignitaries from around the globe visited.  Mussolini stayed there, as did Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, and Richard Wagner.  Humphrey Bogart and Gina Lollabridgida filmed Beat the Devil on the premises.  The courtyard offers bowls of flowers and memories of the past.  But this is not a 21st-century hotel like those in Singapore.  The plumbing is failing and the paint peeling.  Rooms are large but dank.  In so many ways, the Lunar hotel captures Italy.  Breathtaking, and nostalgic, a time-goes-by classic.

How Italy rights the ship of state is not clear.  It doesn't produce the products that satisfy global demands.  Unemployment for the 20-to-40 set is near Depression levels.  Young college graduates with ambition head for London, Paris, or New York.  There are civil service positions and opportunities in the tourist trade, but government work does nothing for economic growth, and tourist jobs pay poorly.  There are those who contend that Italy could make it if a secessionist movement had the north break with the south.  Politically, this is a nonstarter.    

So Italy will limp along, an album of civilizational glory, until it cannot walk at all.  For the West, that will be a moment of despair.  For those with a memory, Italy will survive; for the existentialists, it will be a myth – the story of a place long ago.

Herbert London is president of the London Center for Policy Research.