Italians Rail Against a High-Speed Train Project

My piece on Italy’s No TAV movement has just been published by Businessweek.

On a day in late winter in a valley in the Italian Alps, about a hundred people set off on a walk. Their path took them by steeply terraced vineyards, through a small village, and over the crest of a hill to where the riot police were waiting for them. The officers stood in small knots, behind a fence topped with razor wire, spread out across a patch of cleared land where the government plans to break ground on an €8.2 billion ($10.8 billion) project to connect Italy and France by high-speed rail. Soldiers clustered nearby. A camouflage-painted Lince—Italy’s answer to a Humvee—moved in a lazy patrol. A medic’s jeep squatted under a concrete overpass.

The protesters had come to this part of the Val di Susa to make sure the project never gets off the ground. As part of a two-decade battle to impede the construction of a new train tunnel through the Alps, they have at times walked the roads of the valley in thousands, and sometimes tens of thousands. The No TAV movement (named for the Italian initials for high-speed train) has invaded construction sites, blocked highways, and battled police. “Our objective is to let them know we’re here,” says Alberto Perino, the movement’s longtime leader. “And that we plan to keep on coming.”

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Grounds Zero: A Starbucks-Free Italy

Businessweek has just published a story I’ve long wanted to do: on why Starbucks has never come to Italy.

If it weren’t for Italy, Starbucks might not exist. After all, it was on a business trip to Milan in 1983 that Howard Schultz had the revelation on which he built his global empire. At the time, Starbucks was a coffee roaster—it didn’t own a single cafe—and Schultz was its marketing director. In a book published after the company had become an international behemoth, Schultz described how he set out one morning, sipping espressos at the cafes near his hotel. By afternoon he had sampled his way to the Piazza del Duomo, home to Milan’s famous Gothic cathedral. The large square was “almost literally lined” with coffee shops, he wrote. The air was alive with the sound of opera and the smell of roasting chestnuts. Schultz noted “the light banter of political debate and the chatter of kids in school uniforms” and watched as retirees and mothers with children made small talk with the baristas behind the counters.

It was at this point that Schultz, no doubt heavily caffeinated, was seized by inspiration. Most Americans were still drinking their coffee at diners, in restaurants, or at the kitchen table; Italians had made cafes part of their community. Coffee didn’t have to be just a drink, he realized. It could be an experience. The opportunity was enormous, and Starbucks, by limiting itself to roasting, was in danger of missing it. “It was like an epiphany,” Schultz recalled in his book. “It was so immediate and physical that I was shaking.”

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The Church of Internet Piracy

I recently went to Sweden for Businessweek to find out more about the new church of Internet piracy. The article has just been published:

Sweden’s newest religion may be the only faith that was born out of an insult. The idea to form a church promoting Internet piracy first came to an activist named Peter Sunde “four or five years ago” when he saw a comment by one of the lawyers seeking his prosecution for facilitating copyright infringement. Asked in an interview for her opinion of enthusiasts such as Sunde, at the time the spokesman for the popular file-sharing site Pirate Bay, the lawyer replied: “They’re a cult.” The slur provided a new direction for Sweden’s vibrant anti-copyright community to explore. “We have this history that every time somebody calls us something negative, we just take the name and make it ours,” Sunde says. “We were called pirates, so we said, ‘Let’s make pirates cool.’ O.K., so now, we’re a cult. Let’s make that fun as well.”

Thus was born the Missionary Church of Kopimism. Sunde never took action on his idea, but he mentioned it to his fellow activists and mused openly about it on the Internet. Soon enough a group had gathered that held sacred the act of copying information. The group adopted the keyboard shortcuts for copy and paste, ctrl-C and ctrl-V, as holy symbols—the church has no formal doctrine regarding ctrl-X—and began to develop a theology.

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Why Would Anyone Want to Kill Pietro Ichino?

My story on Pietro Ichino, an Italian professor forced to live under armed guard for his views on labor reform, has just been published in Businessweek.

In just about any other country in the world, Pietro Ichino’s biggest career liability would be finding himself alone in a corner at cocktail parties. Ichino is a professor of labor law. In Italy, that means his life is under threat. For the past 10 years, the academic and parliamentarian has lived under armed escort, traveling exclusively by armored car, and almost never without the company of two plainclothes policemen. The protection is provided by the Italian government, which has reason to believe that people want to murder Ichino for his views.

Ichino had just gotten off the plane when I met him at the airport in Rome, and he was already accompanied by his detail: two unsmiling men in jeans and black jackets and those overshined street shoes that only cops out of uniform seem to wear. Ichino wore a suit and eyeglasses. He is tall and wiry, with a thin face and a prominent nose. If a cartoonist were to draw him as an animal, he probably would choose a bird of prey. Without a word to his bodyguards, Ichino walked into an Alitalia first class lounge and let the sliding glass doors close behind us.

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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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