Catholic Tastes: The Vatican Enters the World of Contemporary Art

Time has just published my story on the Vatican’s moves into contemporary art.

It wasn’t the type of gift you would normally think of for an 84-year-old Pope best known for conservative theology and critiques of secular culture. And indeed, as Benedict XVI moved through the exhibition of contemporary art that had been installed in his honor — one work for each of the 60 years he has been a priest — there were times when he looked more than a little bemused: pausing, say, in front of a flat blue canvas broken by a raised geometric pattern, or staring up at a metal etching of a face with a thin tree branch sprouting from between its eyes.

And yet, the Pope was clearly pleased with the project — the first incarnation of an effort he has championed to reconnect the Catholic Church with the world of art. It was a realm the Vatican once dominated, but one in which it has had little presence for more than a century. “Make the truth shine in your works — never separate artistic creation from truth and charity,” Benedict urged the assembled artists, who had joined him at the show’s opening in Rome in early July. They ranged from Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui to American painter Max Cole.

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Italy’s Labor Pains

Businessweek has just published my essay on Italy’s tortured labor market.

If you want to know which of Italy’s many problems is the most daunting, look no further than the first sentence of its constitution, written in 1947, which describes the country as “a democratic republic, founded on labor.” That foundation has begun to crumble. Italy’s economy can no longer afford the generous benefits it showered on its workers in the 1960s, when the country grew 5 percent to 6 percent a year. Measures put in place years ago to protect workers aren’t just slowing down the economy now, they’re perversely hurting the very workers they’re meant to protect.

How serious is the labor issue? Start with the country’s 2,700 pages of opaque and capricious labor laws. The laws are so unclear that many dismissals of workers end up in the country’s dysfunctional court system, where if a judge decides a worker was let go unfairly, he will likely rule that the employer has to reinstate him with back pay for the time he was gone. “When an investor asks about severance costs, all the other countries can provide an answer,” says Pietro Ichino, an Italian senator and professor of labor law at the University of Milan. “Italy can’t.” Duccio Astaldi, president of Condotte, one of Italy’s largest construction companies, says the difficulty of firing often prevents him from hiring when times are good. “It’s easier for me to get rid of my wife than to fire an employee,” he says.

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Fear of Markets: How Monti May Get His Way With the Politicians

Time has just published my story on the source of Mario Monti’s power:

The job that Italy’s Prime-Minister-in-waiting, Mario Monti, has been asked to do would be much easier if the country’s politicians were committed to instituting the reforms they say the country needs. On the other hand, if that were the case, the 68-year-old technocrat wouldn’t have the job at all.

Monti was called in from his sinecure at Milan’s Bocconi University precisely because the markets lost faith in the ability and willingness of Italy’s political class to institute the tax hikes, spending cuts and structural reforms needed to prop up the country’s financial foundations. “This is the major problem of any technical government,” says Giovanni Orsina, an expert in European politics at Rome’s LUISS University. “The reforms are too painful, so no one is ready to do them. But the technical government still needs votes in parliament and those voters are from political parties.”

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Monti to the Rescue: But Is the Technocrat Italian Enough to Save Italy?

Time has just published my story on the resignation of Silvio Berlusconi and the rise of Mario Monti.

Silvio Berlusconi’s last public act as prime minister of Italy was to drive through a crowd of protesters who were yelling “buffoon” and “shame” at him. The streets outside the presidential palace pulsated with chanting demonstrators, waving Italian flags and popping champagne bottles as the 75-year-old media tycoon met with Italy’s president to tender his resignation. In one corner, a choir sang “Hallelujah,” accompanied by an impromptu orchestra. In another, celebrants formed a conga line. Cars honked their horns and pedestrians broke into song. That night, to avoid being mobbed, the politician who so loved the spotlight was forced to leave by the side door.

Scandal-ridden, populist, extravagant, Berlusconi is expected to be replaced by a man who couldn’t be more dissimilar. Mario Monti, 68, a neo-liberal economist and former commissioner at the European Union, is the ultimate technocrat, calm, elegant, even a little boring. “The man is the most un-Berlusconiesque person you can think of,” says Beppe Severgnini, author of Mamma Mia!: Berlusconi’s Italy Explained to Posterity and Friends Abroad. “He’s like clean water after you’ve been drinking too much.”

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Regime Change in Europe: Do Greece and Italy Amount to a Bankers’ Coup?

Time has just published my piece on the changes in Italy and Greece.

The voice of the people isn’t something the markets seem to want to hear these days. First there was Greece, the cradle of democracy itself, where early this month, the merest mention of a referendum offering its citizens a say in a series of severe austerity measures was enough to send the markets into a tailspin. The ultimate result: the collapse of Prime Minister George Papandreou’s ruling coalition, the rejection of any notion of bringing the proposal before the people, and the installation of a caretaker government under the leadership of Lucas Papademos, a former vice president of the European Central Bank and, until earlier this week, a visiting professor at Harvard.

Then came Italy. As Athens threatened to go under, Rome found itself under pressure not so much for its level of debt — which though high is generally considered within the limits of sustainability — as much as for the erratic behavior of its flamboyant prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. On Monday, investors seemed to make the collective decision that he could no longer be trusted at the helm of the euro zone’s third largest economy and sent Italy’s cost of borrowing up towards crisis levels. By the end of the week, not only was Berlusconi finished, so was the very idea of holding a vote to replace him. The markets had spoken, and they didn’t like the idea of going to the electorate. “The country needs reforms, not elections,” said Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council on a visit to Rome Friday.

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Berlusconi Says He’s Leaving: Is This the End of Italy’s Politics of Burlesque?

Time has just published my story on Berlusconi’s resignation announcement:

There’s a certain poetry to the fact that it was economics and not politics that spelled the beginning of the end for Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The flamboyant politician is Italy’s richest citizen, the founder and owner of one of the world’s largest media company, and — for many Italians — the man responsible for making their largely peripheral economy synonymous with end-of-empire decadence.

And there he sat, Tuesday afternoon, clench-jawed at the result of a vote that exposed the depth of his political weakness. The 308 parliamentarians who voted in favor of the routine budget bill were enough to ensure its passage. But the real significance was in the 322, including many from his own party, who declined their support. By evening, Berlusconi had met with Italy’s President Giorgio Napolitano, agreeing to tender his resignation as soon his government passed a series of planned economic reforms, with a vote perhaps scheduled as early as next week.

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