(Rome) I just finished a perfectly-prepared sardine antipasti, caprese salad, and a plate of grilled calamari. The wine was a Pinot Grigio from the area. Nice. It’s hot as hell here, but a breeze is blowing off Palatine Hill, where Romulus and Remus suckled the she-wolf. When I close my eyes I can almost hear the ancient Romans in the Coliseum cheering as a Christian is eaten by lions. But the only thing being devoured around here these days is the country of Italy itself, in an economic free fall, its middle class chewed up like prosciutto on a dry panini and its hope for the future spoiling like tiramisu in the sun. I’ve been talking to people all over, gondoliers, bartenders, street barkers, nuns. I don’t speak Italian but I find if I talk loud and use a fake Italian accent they understand me perfectly. I keep telling these poor uneducated bastards what we in America have learned from the Tea Party. A country, I explain, is just like a family sitting around the dinner table figuring out its household budget. If the family is spending more than it’s taking in then it’s time for some good, old-fashioned belt-tightening. I tell them, stop being such whiners and get behind the ECB-IMF-Merkel-Tea Party solution of austerity, structural adjustment, and “internal devaluation.” My words are often received with a rousing cheer of, “bafangool!” which means “thank you for the wisdom!”
Italy’s debt is 120 percent of G.D.P., its government spends 16 percent of its budget just on interest payments which continue to rise due to investor fears, their 800 billon euros of debt is more than that of Greece, Ireland and Portugal combined, and they’ve been mired in recession for the past seven months.
The prime minister, technocrat Mario Monte, has begun a bold plan of raising taxes, raising the retirement age, killing thousands of government jobs, and proposing a 30% wage cut in both the public and private sector to make Italy “more competitive.” Gone are the Silvio Berlusconi days of chasing teenage ass, bribing witnesses, and throwing bunga bunga parties. The mood in Italy has changed. Austerity means that Italian women no longer go topless at the beach and their sunglasses cover 25% more of their faces. The other day, however, Berlusconi announced that he’ll run for prime minister again! The most serious challenger emerging is a washed-up comedian named Beppa Grillo. It’d be too weird even for Fellini.
While the nation is sinking in financial ruin, opportunities appear everywhere to the entrepreneurial American eye. At the basilica of St. Peter there are so many tourists that they almost ran out of the scratchy blankets they use to cover up women who come dressed as whores. Those blankets could be an income generator. In the train station they charge one euro to use the bathroom. Why not raise it to five euros and charge it wherever an Italian needs to relieve him or herself? Peeing on a monument could be double.
The leaders of the EU are on the right track: decades of cuts, austerity and falling living standards in order to keep the Euro propped up for Germany. We’ve got a similar thing going in the United States. Meanwhile, all the world can do is wait until bankers and speculators inflate another ginormous bubble (tulips, yo-yos, magic carpets, who knows what it will be this time?) something, anything so that we can get drunk on money again and be happy.