It’s the Government, Stupid: Why Politics is to Blame for Italy’s Economy

Time has just published my article on Italy’s S&P downgrade.

There’s nothing wrong with the Italian economy that can’t be fixed. That was the judgment delivered by the ratings agency Standard and Poor’s on Tuesday, even as it cut the country’s credit rating from A+ to A and slapped it with a negative outlook. The problem, S&P explained in its report, is that it’s unlikely the country’s politicians have what it takes to provide the overhaul the economy needs.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was quick to dismiss the downgrade as “influenced by political considerations.” And in at least one sense of the phrase, he was right. The ratings agency described Italy as having “a diversified economy and few external imbalances,” one in which “both household and corporate balance sheets” were “relatively strong.” The country’s heavy government debt should be manageable, if not for an entrenched ecosystem of competing economic interests that have become so entangled they not only strangle the country’s growth, they cut off any efforts at reform. “Even under pressure, Italian political institutions, incumbent monopolies, public-sector workers, and public- and private-sector unions impede the government’s ability to respond decisively to challenging economic conditions,” the report concluded. “With elections due in 2013, and the government’s parliamentary position tenuous, it is unclear what can be done to break the deadlock between these political institutions and the government.”

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Could the Vatican Go to Court for Human-Rights Abuses?

Time has just published my article on the effort to take the Pope before the ICC.

When a group of victims of pedophile priests announced on Sept. 13 that they would ask the International Criminal Court (ICC) to try the Pope on charges of crimes against humanity, the Vatican was quick to dismiss the petition as a “ludicrous publicity stunt.” After all, prosecutors would have to prove that Pope Benedict XVI, in allegedly neglecting to address pervasive sex abuse in the Catholic Church, belongs in the company of Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic, Liberia’s Charles Taylor and the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide.

And yet, while few experts give the case much of a chance of success — or even believe it will make it before the judge — the fact that it’s even up for discussion is testament to the success that victims groups have had in bringing their cause against the church before the law. “This is a further escalation of cases that have been going on for some time,” says Jo-Renee Formicola, a professor of political science at New Jersey’s Seton Hall University, who studies the Vatican’s legal travails. “If [the ICC] decides to hear this case, it sets a new bar. And even if it doesn’t, it’s an important move forward in raising awareness. If the church is put in a position where it has to defend itself, in the court of law or the court of public opinion, it’s going to be quite significant.”

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Building a Better Bug

The Atlantic has just published my piece on how scientists are planning to use genetically modified mosquitoes to fight malaria.

Ridding a region of malaria is, in theory at least, fairly simple. Female mosquitoes transmit the disease when they make a meal of infected blood, gestate the malaria-causing parasites (called sporozoites), and then inject them into the bloodstream of another victim at a later feeding. Break any part of that cycle, and the parasite can’t reproduce; keep up that effort, and you can halt any malaria epidemic. In practice, however, breaking the malaria cycle takes a lot of work. Italy and the American South have all but eradicated the disease by draining swamps, spraying insecticides, improving medication, and introducing air conditioners, screen doors, and mosquito nets. But for many places—including most of Africa—the resources for a broad, sustained effort are out of reach.

Which is why I found myself in a basement laboratory in central Italy last spring, peering into a cage of mosquitoes. The scientist in charge of the lab, Andrea Crisanti, a parasitologist and microbiologist at Imperial College London, has developed a technique that can spread a genetic modification through generations of the insects. “In one or two seasons, you can thoroughly attack an entire wild population at a chosen site,” he says.

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The Beginning of the End For Italy’s Pampered Politicians?

My piece on Italy’s privileged parliamentarians has just been published in Time.

It’s been a hot summer for Italy’s politicians. First, many of them had to postpone their holidays to try to calm a skittish bond market with a €50 billion ($70 billion) austerity plan. Then the markets continued to buck and kick, forcing the government to propose ever more controversial cuts and taxes. And on top of all that, somebody leaked the menu from the senate restaurant.

Suddenly on the nation’s front pages, slashes in government spending were juxtaposed with taxpayer-subsidized meals served on white tablecloths by men in livery: risotto with turbot and zucchini flowers for €3.34 ($4.70); grilled swordfish at €3.55 ($4.99); a choice of dessert, €2.45 ($3.45). The cut-rate prices, coming at a time when the cost of a meal in Italy has climbed to unprecedented levels, infuriated a public already fed up with the disproportionate compensation enjoyed by its ruling elite. “In this time of crisis, when we are asking sacrifices of Italian citizens, politicians need to exhibit a bit of sobriety,” says Carlo Monai, the opposition parliamentarian who leaked the menu.

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Harvesting Trees Sustainably in Liberia

Time has just published my story on Liberia’s surprisingly sustainable logging industry.

Liberia, a country that for much of its recent history has been engaged in bloody wars, was once the last place on earth you’d expect to find a showcase for sustainable logging. As recently as 2003, before the country’s timber industry was slapped with U.N. sanctions, revenues from the sale of lumber were being used to fund a brutal uprising in Sierra Leone next door. Timber companies maintained private militias, accused by human-rights groups of rape and torture. Logging vessels arrived at port laden with weapons.

And yet today the country is on the path to becoming a model for sustainable timber. Ever since the U.N. sanctions were lifted after democratic elections in 2006, Liberia has been working on a painstaking reboot of the industry. With help from the U.S. and the European Union, the country is seeking to position itself as a guilt-free source of timber. “Liberia is different from other countries because of its history,” says Catherine Ray, a spokesperson for the E.U.’s commissioner for development. “They really want to avoid going back to where they were 20 years ago,” when the timber industry was rife with corruption and violence.

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Heading for the Hills: Spanish Winemakers Adapt to Global Warming

My piece on how some winemakers are preparing for a warmer future was just published in Time.

When the Spanish winemaker Miguel Torres was a young man, his father sent him to Chile. It was 1979, and the South American country was years away from being recognized for the quality of its wine. But the elder Torres was thinking about the future. He had not forgotten the chaos of the Spanish Civil War, when he twice faced death and the family winery was seized by one side, then bombed by the other. Torres’ father reasoned that a landholding in the New World that was climatically suitable for growing wine would hedge against instability at home.

Spain never did slide back into civil war, but the investment in Chile turned out to be valuable nonetheless. The vast bulk of the family’s wine production remains in Spain, but its vineyards in South America are producing high-quality vintages that, along with the company’s properties at home and in California, make the Bodegas Torres wine company one of the major labels in the industry. Now 69 years old, Miguel Torres oversees sales of more than 42 million bottles a year in more than 140 countries.

Today, Torres is preparing once again for an uncertain future, not because of war but because of global warming, which is threatening his industry. This time, the investment isn’t across the ocean. It’s up the hill — a two-hour drive from the company’s headquarters in Vilafranca del Penedès, near Barcelona, into the foothills of the Pyrenees. There, on a high bluff brushed with pines and peppered with wild rosemary and thyme, swatches of ripening vineyards take advantage of the cool mountain air to produce grapes that would wilt under the Mediterranean heat of the lowlands. “We’re buying land even higher, in areas that are still too cold to plant,” says Torres.

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