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Friday, December 15, 2006

La Febbre

A couple of weeks back I had the pleasure of seeing Alessandro D'Alatri's recent film La Febbre (Fever). As the reviewer says (Italian link), this is a 'normal' (everyday) film, not a great one, even if it does include one or two memorable moments, like the scenes shot along the river bank, which were (and I imagine this is not entirely unintentional) rather reminiscent of some which are to be found in the unforgettable L'Albero Degli Zoccoli from that giant of Italian cinema Ermanno Olmi.

"La Febbre è il classico film italiano, che vuol raccontare una storia normale, di tutti i giorni, e che per farlo non trascende dai canoni della buona creanza del plot, e da quel pizzico di amara critica sociale che lo rende molto politically correct."

(La Febbre (the fever) is a typical Italian film, the kind of film which which tries to tell a simple, 'normal' story - an everyday one - and which in order to do this stays well within the bounds of what is normally thought to be an acceptable plot structure, and then, following the recipe, there is added just enough social criticism to make the film a highly politically correct one.)

My point of interest in this post, however, is not really the film itself, but rather the film as a reflection of something else: the disenchantment and frustration that many young Italians seem to feel with contemporary Italian society, and the impact that the evident failure of Italian civil society to adjust to Italy's contemporary social and demographic reality may have on the future evolution of Italian economy and society.

On the aesthetic level the film is in fact far from satisfactory, since D'Alatri seems at times unable to be able to make up his mind whether he wants to be Rosselini or Almodóvar but this is in many ways beside the point here.

At the end of the day the film wants to tell us the 'little story' of Mario Bettini:

La storia dell'impiegato Mario Bettini, geometra comunale come si definisce nel film, passa così tra luci e ombre attraverso gli amici, il sogno di aprire un locale, il posto fisso, la mamma e il fantasma del padre e il grande amore di una vita.

(This is the story of Mario Bettini, a municipal surveyor, as it appears in the film as a mixture of light and shadow as seen through the eyes of those around him: his friends, his dream of opening a bar, his steady-job down at the townhall, his mother, the ghost of his father, and, of course to cap it all, his 'sublime romance' with the love of his life).

Well, what with mummy and all, this would seem to be the most ordinary of stories in an Italian context, and so it would remain were it not for the one incident in the film that really caught my attention. And the point of interest here are not the chiaroscuros of Mario's personal life, but rather the depiction of Mario as a young man who wants to succeed (at times desperately so), and all of all the trials and tribulations which are thrown in his path by a system which doesn't appear understand him, and which seems happier to see him fail than to see him succeed. THIS, in my humble opinion, is one of the big problems facing Italy today. And it is this problem can be seen reflected in the large numbers of young qualified people who now feel the need to leave Italy every single year.

Now, as I say, there is one very memorable moment in the film, and it is the one where Mario actually gets to meet the Italian president. The scene in fact takes place in Mario's bar, the bar for which he finally manages to get that vital change-of-use certificate (he is up, you see, against the typical system of municipal bureaucracy and petty corruption) thanks to the fact that a fortuitous visit by THE President means the local mayor needs his help rather urgently. When the President arrives our hero Mario naturally offers him a drink, and asks him what his poison is (this president, remember, is not called Putin): "una birra" is the reply, "una birra Italiana, como è bella la birra Italiana". So Mario furnishes the man with his drink, and then proceeds to inform him that there is something else, apart from the drink, that he would like to give him. At this point out from his pocket he whips, what else, but his Italian passport: "here, this is for you, I don't need it or want it" he says(or words to that effect).

Now while all of this may be very much to to the point in terms of sentiments, there is one aspect to the situation that D'Alatri hasn't got quite right. You see the fact is there are currently an estimated 3.5 million Italians living and working outside Italy (to go by the official AIRE database), but one thing they do need to hang on to is their Italian pasport, since it is this document which enables them to move, indeed this is the exit ticket from Italy.

Now the point I would like to draw attention to here is the substantial loss of future human capital which Italy is experiencing at the present time. Back in 2002 the website Lavoce published an article on exactly this topic. As they say, throughout the 1990s a growing number of Italian graduates started leaving Italy:

La fuga dei laureati italiani all'estero è un fenomeno di cui spesso si discute senza l'appoggio di dati significativi. Analizzando i flussi di laureati italiani che vanno all'estero il fenomeno appare drammatico e in crescita. Mentre all'inizio degli anni '90 meno dell'1% dei nuovi laureati emigrava all'estero, alla fine degli anni '90 circa il 4% dei nuovi laureati lascia l'italia.

("The flight of Italian graduates is a phenomenon which is often debated but normally lacks the support of the appropriate data. Examining the flow of Italian graduates leaving for an external destination, the phenomenon clearly seems to be a dramatic one and on the increase. Whilst at the start of the 1990s less than 1% of new graduates were emigrating, by the end of the decade this had risen to over 4% of new graduates.")

Since 2002 the growing stream seems to have become something more akin to a river. Lavoce also publish comparative data for the contemporary migration of graduates into and out of a number of other EU countries. Unfortunately this data is rather old and it would be really interesting to see something from, say, 2005. My feeling is that the position has only deteriorated. Paola Silli, my 'aide' on the Italian Economy Watch blog, suggests the following:

It is difficult to differentiate between people who are first, second and third generation Italian. However, in terms of first generation Italians leaving the country: I found that since 1990 every year 4% of people who hold a bachelor's degree move out of the country to find job elsewhere; to this number you need to add some people who went to work elsewhere after high school, and MANY young people who did not register to AIRE (Association of Italians residing elsewhere) -therefore the government has no idea they are working somewhere else ... Could we estimate an average of 6% of the average yearly birth for people between the ave of 20 and 45 years old are leaving the country?

Now this state of affairs is a pretty significant one, especially in the light of the fact that Italy's population has not been replacing itself since the early 1990s (ISTAT, latest data, PDF link). There is only a continuing population increase in Italy these days as a result of inward migration. But, as the Lavoce article stresses, the balance in human capital terms is hugely negative here. That is to say, the inward-migration that is currently taking place in Italy is extremely important in labour force terms, but this added man- and womanpower can only serve to make the path of the Italian economy a sustainable one if at the same time young educated Italians stay and enter the labour force in much more productive, higher-value activities. And it is precisely here that the big problem exists (and please note: this is not only a problem for Italy, since as I explain in this post here, a similar phenomenon is making its presence felt in Germany. Of course, the point should not be missed here that Italy and Germany are the two European societies which currently have the highest median ages, something whose economic importance and relevance I try to explain here).

In conclusion, I am surely not the first to draw attention to this problem. Time magazine ran a feature on just this back in the spring of 2005, and economists Sascha Becker, Andrea Ichino and Giovanni Peri have attempted to assess the size of the human capital loss component, but what I am rather trying to do in this post here is to draw attention to the negative feedback element, in the context of the demographic processes which are taking place in Italy. At the end of the day it is far too simplistic to talk about Europe's Demographic Problem, there are problems and *problems* here, and there will be winners and losers, as some countries attract young talent to the evident detriment of others.

This is a modified version of a post which I originally put up on the Italian Economy Watch weblog, and if you want more examples from contemporary Italy about how the combination of power over petty regulations and local corruption can combine to bring unexpected results then you could try this post about Prato's new Chinese workforce.

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