Despite its latest political drama, the country gets some important things right
The thing about historic preservation in Rome is that it is one of a very few cities that actually is constrained by archaeology that is worth preserving. Not many cities are both that old and that continuously built upon that there are just endless layers atop each other. The centre of Chinese power moved around too much for one city to build up quite so many layers. Osaka is like Rome, and there's Istanbul. The Greek cities don't have the medieval/Renaissance layers that Rome does. Even in Egypt, Cairo isn't all that crowded with archaeology (Alexandria is, though). Jerusalem is like this, so is Damascus. Baghdad has several thousand years less history. I'm sure I'm missing a couple, but we really are talking about a problem that applies to a single-digit number of cities in the world.
I have heard several stories about archaeologists working in Rome. One of the best was someone studying Roman altars, which you get at by ringing the bell of a stranger's apartment and saying: “Hello! I’m an archaeologist, and according to this list there’s a Roman sacrificial altar here?”. On one occasion, the response was "yes, it's in the basement behind the washing machine. Can you wait until my laundry finishes?". Resulting in the archaeologist having what she later described as one of the best coffees she had ever tasted while chatting with the local waiting for the washing machine to finish.
>>>It’s maybe a consequence of the country’s architectural legacy lasting for thousands of years that while you do see massive investment in preserving old things, you don’t have hangups about the fact that the buildings across the street from the Colosseum don’t match the “neighborhood context” of the Flavian era.<<<
I never got this about the city design aesthetic in the US. And Matt's probably right: the Italians were building new styles on top of one another for centuries (or actually millennia) long before anybody ever heard of Robert Moses *or* Jane Jacobs. So they just got accustomed to an eclectic mix. It probably never occurred to them this might not be desirable, because that's the way it had always been.
Lack of eclectic mix—sameness—is bland. And yet in the States this blandness is not only tolerated but often *insisted* upon. Crazy.
Wait, am I the first commenter?!? I need to think of something profound to say -- I never thought this day would come! *Ahem* Matt, this was a great piece with a lot of insight on a country that gets very little coverage in mainstream US media (in fact, I think US media coverage of Italy has actually gotten markedly worse over the last 25 years). It would be terrific if you developed this kind of "country profile" as a series similarly covering other less-widely-covered nations (see, e.g. Portugal).
I'm increasingly coming around to the idea that one of the US' major issues is adversarial legalism where it isn't appropriate. It's definitely appropriate in lots of cases like business contract enforcement, as Matt notes! But just as even economists are willing to admit 'market failures' that should be carved out from laissez-faire rules, I think we should admit 'adversarial legalism failures' where the system doesn't work:
• We should join all the other developed countries in having 'loser pays legal fees' being normal, to discourage vexatious litigation where it's cheaper to settle than to fight. (I always think it's funny how people recommend doing that for patent & defamation lawsuits- two high-profile areas of legal abuse- but don't note that every other 1st world countries does this for *every* lawsuit)
• Prevent an individual federal judge from issuing nationwide injunctions. They can issue an injunction in their little county or whatever, sure. An appeals court can do a nationwide injunction. But not a random judge stopping the entire country from doing x based on a Fox News-level legal analysis. There are almost 1800 judges nationally, right now any one can literally commandeer the entire federal government on any topic if they want!
• Strip any party that regularly abuses vexatious litigation of its ability to do so (NIMBY homeowners being the most prominent example here). Zoning decisions should be left up a zoning board and not the court system
I wish Matt would give up on the "tripling the US population would be great" hobby horse. In particular, the argument that we'd just be getting the density of France, and France is great, is getting tedious. Huge tracts of the US are basically prairie. Most people don't want to live there, and even if they did, there's not enough water.
The rest of the article was great - and props for the closer: "If Italy needs to learn how to make better courts, we need to learn how to carve out more space for democratic decision-making rather than post hoc litigation."
I got to live in Italy for a few months, so I have few additional points to add.
Things Wrong with Italy
1. pizza (US improved it significantly)
2. trying to find lunch in the middle of the day when everything is shut
Things right with Italy
3. hot women
4. beer (I like Italian beer)
Also, does anyone notice that one of the photos appears to show a leaning apartment!!!
I'm in Chile right now, and it reminds me of Italy even more than Argentina, though the Argentinians have a bigger Italian diaspora.
Also... I am jealous of the concept of Italians just shutting down business for a month or two in the summer to go on Holiday.
I've never been Rome however, and am planning on taking the wife there next year. Heard its awesome.
I was waiting for Matt to point out that one line on the Naples metro goes in a loop: it crosses itself! When I was there I tried to think of some theoretical reason that could be efficient, but mainly I wondered which mafia personality got the contract for the line.
I'm sorry that I can't resist bringing everything back to Afghanistan but it's worth pointing out that during the occupation, different NATO countries were assigned responsibility for different aspects of public sector reform. The Afghan judicial system went to Italy, and I'd like to know whose idea that was. If they'd been given public transportation instead, maybe there would be some.
"If Italy needs to learn how to make better courts, we need to learn how to carve out more space for democratic decision-making...."
This struck me as a major non sequitur.
You did not show us that Italy's successes stem from democratic decision-making. Instead, you showed us that its successes stem from nepotism and clientelism. Of course you're not going to tell us to adopt nepotism and clientelism. But why think that democratic decision-making will do for us what nepotism and clientelism does for Italy?
I'm familiar with -- and agree with -- your longstanding animus against excessive legal reviews that slow down public works projects. But aren't democratic processes just as much to blame? Neighborhood councils, elected aldermen, advocacy groups, pressure groups -- these are all democratic, and all slow down development.
The cheerleading for democracy in the last line just seems non-responsive to what came before.
(And I like democracy! But I like coherent arguments, too.)
Is Matt able to write off some of the costs of this trip now? He was reporting!
You cite Italy's high debt service costs, noting that this is largely a function of poor economic growth. Which is true, but the real problem is that the country has operated under a regime of fiscal austerity, imposed by the technocrats of Brussels (of which Draghi is a handmaiden), which has crushed the economy. The result? Years of subpar growth, which has exacerbated the debt problem and now, outright stagflation
The latest European Commission macroeconomic forecast predicted that Italy will experience the slowest economic growth in the bloc next year, at just 0.9%, owing to a decline in consumer spending due to rising prices and lower business investment — a result of rising borrowing and energy costs, as well as disruptions in the supply of Russian gas.
Italy is also experiencing one of the fastest-growing inflation rates in Europe — which is currently at 8.6%, the highest level in more than three decades. Interest rates on Italian government bonds have also been steadily climbing ever since Draghi came to power, rising four-fold under his watch; today they stand at the highest level in almost a decade.
And this “polycrisis” has taken its toll on Italian society: 5.6 million Italians — almost 10% of the population, including 1.4 million minors — currently live in absolute poverty, the highest level on record. Many of these are in work, and that number is bound to increase as real wages in Italy continue to fall at the highest pace in the bloc. Meanwhile, almost 100,000 small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are at risk of insolvency — a 2% increase compared to last year.
Multiple crises and Draghi has played a key role in creating this state if affairs. I fully expect yet another Euro crisis in the months ahead.
How much poverty does Italy have? How does poverty manifest itself there? What kinds of programs combat poverty and how effective are they?
I'm speaking simply from anecdotal evidence, but I get the impression that the treatment of women in Italy is a bigger deal than you let on. Seems like Italian cultural norms are somewhat similar to Japan in terms of women working and women's place in the family, and that has (partially) led to low population growth. I don't have any actual research or links on this at my fingertips though, so I'm happy to be refuted here (or supported!).
Italy’s ability to build transit at a decent cost is even more impressive if you take into account the fact that the country is an earthquake zone so it has to be engineered to survive decent sized earthquakes. Yet another reason the transit agencies here on the east coast should hire out their experts.
Not critical but are the changes in the post timing temporary? I preferred the early posting more I have to say.
Thanks a lot
I think the North/South divide is a bigger deal than the economic data suggest. I mean, Italy hasn't even really been a country for all that long (in absolute and relative terms) and I think that may be more deeply ingrained in the culture than Americans appreciate. Like, we have regional accents in the US, but the Southern dialect my family speaks is borderline unintelligible in Rome—at least no one there seemed to understand my relatives (I don't speak any kind of Italian). And traveling North-South in Italy feels more like going between countries than going from one end of France to the other. (Or East-West in Sicily, where even the architecture changes dramatically.)
Throw all those disparate people in a parliament together and you end up with a weird grab-bag of parties, petty regional issues snowballing (what what is, a trash incinerator that catalysed Draghi's resignation?) and regular ousting of the leadership. I quite often hear that Italian politics is like looking into America's future. It's not hard to see how a country in which geographical regions are indifferent toward or even disdainful of each other can become sufficiently dysfunctional that it stops growing.
Should cities start using in-house talent to save money on street redesign?
A major street redesign is happening in our neighborhood. Being on the community council, I was invited to a “Brainstorm Workshop” yesterday which had 6-8 consultants (including 1-2 from a boutique place-making consultancy).
They had fancy table mock-ups, where we could mix and match Lego-like pieces to play with different street designs. All very slick, but it felt like a waste of money unless it was purely to make locals feel engaged. This project is $12-13m and the city transpo dept has 10-12 Transportation Planners and Transportation Engineers. Should they bring design in house instead of hiring consultants for every project?