The solitude of an academic in the world of Italian politics

Prof. Mario Monti was nominated senator for life in late 2011 by the Italian president Giorgio Napolitano. This move allowed our president to assign to Prof. Monti the task to establish a new government after the resignation of Silvio Berlusconi at the time when Italy was on the brink of default (October 2011).

Prof. Monti’s government was nicknamed the ‘professors’ government‘ because it was lead by a known academic and it included (I go by memory) five or six academics over a total of thirteen ministers. The other ministries were all known experts in their respective areas. It was a technical government put in place to solve the financial crisis problem and which did not include known politicians or MPs. It enjoyed the support of a large part of the parliament from right to left.

Prof. Monti’s government represented in a sense a victory of knowledge, research and expertise over politics. Even though it required the support parties and the vote from politicians to function, it included experts and was as close as knowledge and research can get to influencing policy making.

Why has this been possible?

Now that we are one and half month away from the a new parliamentary elections, after the party of Silvio Berlusconi withdrew its support to the government last December, it is clear that the ‘professors’ were put in charge of the dirty work: increasing revenues to reduce the burden of the debt on GDP. They increased taxes (mainly on middle income families and households), increase VAT, reintroduced a tax on homes, did some marginal liberalizations. Importantly, Prof. Monti managed to restore a trust and reputation in Europe which was at a record low during the government led by Berlusconi. There has been criticism directed to Monti’s government. Its interventions brought authority and did not help to kick start growth, failed to tax high incomes more that middle incomes. Form some side it was said that Monti represented the ‘poteri forti’, the strong economic powers linked the associations of business owners and the banking sector. Overall, however, Italian bonds sell now at a lower interest rate saving billions of Euro of public money every year in interest, Italy can speak again within Europe, and while growth has not yet started and the economy is still in recession, the work of Monti’s government has showed what needs to be done and the though decision that lie ahead.

I found Monti’s end of the year meeting with the press in December 2012 (only in Italian sorry) very interesting. He choose not to speak of what the government had achieved, but spoke of the difficulties of governing and the political barrier that needs to be overcome and that most of the time are too string to overcome. There is  a telling moment ion his speech when he refer to an article he read in the Economist last August and which described the need in the future for progressive and liberal governments which do not overlook   is and fairness an redistribution of wealth. This is something his predecessor would have never done. He also spoke of the costs of political decisions like the ones his government has had to make and the often overlooked higher costs of the decisions politics does not take (and in the case of Monti’s government asked experts and academics to take).

He is no foreign to politics. He has been European commissioner for two terms, a politically appointed role. But his speech seemed to me to highlight all the barriers that research and knowledge face when trying influencing policy and politics. When that occurs is the results of often a casual combination of circumstances as the international financial crisis and the almost default of Italy in October 2011. It seems that when politicians find themselves in a mess they turn to academics and professors, ask them to design and implement the politically costly intervention and then push them aside as soon as things are looking slightly better.  I am not advocating for a Plato-type of Republic led by highly educated technocrats, but the example of Italy illustrates in my opinion the arrogance of the political system, the pull of political power, and reaffirms that the influence of knowledge and research on politics and policy (in Italian they are the same word) is like walking on a thin layer of ice on a frozen lake. You see the water beneath the icy surface, the bubble of air trapped in the layer of ice, you hear cracks and have to stop cannot walk on a straight line, the move on and hope that the ice layer will just hold for long enough.

Prof. Monti in the end decided to enter politics and run in the next election. Since he is not a member of any party and he has presented an ‘agenda of ideas’ and said that he would give his name only to a coalition of parties willing to pursue those ideas. This is a very new approach in Italian politics and has so far brought together small parties from the liberal middle which are unlikely to win many votes in the next election. He has become the enemy of the alliance lead by Silvio Berlusconi. While the left is going on their own and distances from the image of the Professor as an austerity man.

It reminds me about the solitude of an academic in the world of politics, the same isolation that one must feel when walking on a frozen lake trying to make it to the other side. Something to consider in our work on evidence based policy making.

1 thought on “The solitude of an academic in the world of Italian politics”

  1. Nice thoughtful post and I take my hat off to Professor Monti and wish him the best against that unbelievable politician who is Berlusconi. Italy deserves whatever it votes for!

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