I bought the book expecting it to read like one of those pull-outs from the middle of the Economist.
This is a series of profiles of thriving Italian companies, institutions and initiatives. Large multinationals like Luxottica who sell every pair of premium sunglasses you've ever owned, less well-known successes such as Planeta wines who are transforming agriculture in Sicily, anti-mafia initiatives such as Addio Pizzo who are standing up to entrenched interests and the Egyptian museum in Turin that show us Italian institutions need not remain ossified. There are tens of institutions profiled here.
The twist is that the profiles are there with a purpose: to prove that there is hope for a country that has been in political, social and economic decline. The author spends a good hundred pages going through what's wrong in Italy today. Not just the stuff we all read about in the papers such as the high debt, the corrupt politics or the mafia and the black economy, but more fundamental issues: a justice system that was designed to provide innocent people a fair hearing but gets twisted into allowing crooks to avoid punishment; an electoral system that was designed and re-designed to provide strong leadership but has only brought chaos; labor laws that were designed and re-designed to guarantee good working conditions but have limited the size of corporations and kept the young out of work in the past decade.
It is within this context that all the companies are looked at, and it is all extremely convincing and lovingly written. Also, the author seems to have interviewed pretty much every Italian citizen who matters. The acknowledgment section reads like the who-is-who of Italy, with the one notable exception of Silvio Berlusconi, who apparently has two lawsuits pending against the author's previous employers at the Economist.
The story that wants to come out of here is that we all know what the problems are and people on the ground are doing amazing things despite them, with many of them actually doing good work to stop the rot. With that said, the book also contains a stern warning. The time to act is now. Italy cannot afford another botched reform like the one that was undertaken ca. 1992. This time it has to stick.
Fingers crossed, then!
I was given this book as a gift by an Italian lady friend who said it would help me understand Italy's current dilemmas (she is a regular reader of the Economist magazine to which the author Bill Emmott contributed for many years). The lady has lived and worked in the UK for a long time and like many other Italian expatriates still loves Italy and visits there regularly but has despaired over recent decades with no current desire to ever permanently live there again.
So what does the book tell a UK reader? Firstly, while it is timely in terms of Berlusconi's recent resignation and the entry into power for a short period of the more technocratic and competent government of Monti to help address Italy's deep economic problems, many of the issues faced are older and largely post WWII in manifestation. One other reviewer has expounded these at length but the key message is that Italy despite its criminal economy image (especially in the South) was until the 1970s a real contender to match and overtake the UK economy. However the entrapments of an inefficient legal and political system; the self interests of labour and political cronyism; the failings of a higher eductaional system and poor investment in reserarch and development, have all conflated to deny the flexibility to make necessary changes and improvements versus other EU states and newer global competitors. The book has many examples and provides much data on the reasons but the history of Fiat mentioned throughout the book probably best typifies the main issue.
The poor government policies exercised at different points by Berlusconi in recent years have manifested into the disastrous scenario Italy now faces. However the obstacles outlined in detail across the book require deeper change than simply the removal of his party from power and this is where this book's main strength lies. Unlike many such books which go into great detail of what is wrong and the history of why (the Bad Italy), this book also spends a large part looking at posssible answers and solutions from all over Italy (the Good Italy). The author accepts some are still very embryonic and at a formative or local stage but the need for a good ten years period (given how long real major national change and improvement takes) to get these embedded as required across the whole of Italy is pretty clear by the last chapter of the book.
If the book has a major failing, it is that many of the solutions are covered in a very observational magazine writing style. While accepting full empirical evidence will not exist, this often leave the reader unclear on the full details on what is being done differently. The chapter on Turin and the many changes that have emanated there is the best case of this flaw.
As I write this review (end of 2012), Berloscuni has announced recently his intent to re-enter to try and win the next elections due in 2013. Based on the evidence outlined in this book one fears that unless the new party and policies put forward by Monti in the last 18 months are not victorious enough with the electorate in that election, then Italy's future is very dark.