April 16, 2012

Silvio Berlusconi

Silvio Berlusconi

There are 435 Congressmen in America (population 311 million) and 100 Senators; their gross basic salary is $174,000. There are 630 Deputati, as members of the Lower House are called in Italy (population 60 million) and 315 Senatori. Average salary is around 200,000 euro ($261,000) according to a recent survey of European politicians”€™ incomes.

This spectacular sum includes upfront payments for certain expenses, but by no means all. And it makes Italy’s politicians the highest-paid in Europe. A poor old British Member of Parliament, for example, gets a piffling gross basic salary of only 64,766 euro ($85,000).

Italian politicians usually have second jobs, because let’s face it: They have a lot of time on their hands. I know one of them: He is a newspaper columnist with whom I am coauthoring a book on Benito Mussolini. My coauthor declared earnings for 2011, I noted recently with a great deal of irritation, of 340,000 euro ($444,000). Certainly he does not make that kind of money doing books with me.

What gets me feeling really violent, though, are the self-righteous attempts of these so-called onorevoli (honorable gentlemen) to persuade Italians that they are not licensed thieves and somehow deserve all this money”€”as well as all the free extras they also trouser. After three years on the job, for example, they are entitled to a fat inflation-proof pension when they reach 60 (which most of them already are). Planes, trains, stamps, gym, cinema, theater, life and personal-injury insurance, hairdresser, tennis, and English lessons”€”you name it, they get it free.

Obviously, they also get free private health and dental care for themselves and their families. A couple of months ago, I and many others received a chain email on leaked details of an alleged tab run up by the 630 Deputati (not the Senatori) in 2010: It was more than 10 million euro ($13.2 million) in total, of which $4 million went on teeth, $659,000 on glasses, and $340,000 on psychotherapy.

Mario Monti”€”nicknamed the “€œSober Professor”€”€”became prime minister to introduce a tough austerity program as part of eurozone countries”€™ doomed attempt to save the euro. But he could hardly impose all those austere taxes on the Italians and do nothing about the scandalous pay and perks of Italy’s politicians.

So he ordered an inquiry whose mission was to determine what Italian politicians get paid compared to politicians in other eurozone countries. But after a couple of months looking into the matter, the man in charge”€”the chairman of ISTAT, the government statistical department”€”threw in the towel. A day on the Internet would have no doubt sufficed, but he claimed he had been unable to come up with any precise figures. And naturally, there is no chance whatsoever that the politicians themselves will cut their own salaries and perks.

You might have thought that being the world’s highest earning politicians would act as a deterrent to corruption. Not here, not in Italy. Yet another big political corruption storm is brewing, this one concerning the disappearance, into those very large trousers of the politicians, of huge amounts of the public money they get to finance, in theory at least, not themselves but Italy’s 50 odd political parties. And this storm, still in its early stages, now looks set to be as destructive as the one that led to the demise of the previous generation of Italian politicians in the early 1990s but which of course only changed the players not the game.

“€œWhat is it with you Italians?”€ I keep asking them. I get no plausible answer.

Much more of this and there will be blood, much blood, spilled in Italy and elsewhere in Europe.


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