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A producers’ pact and a serious rereading of Keynes against the government’s public welfare spending

A producers’ pact for the competitiveness of companies and work, against the government’s public spending, basic income, early pensions at “quota 100”, amnesties, perverse fantasies about dangerous anti-euro “mini-BOTs” and promises of general tax cuts. On the eve of a summer full of social tensions and difficult political games, starting with those with the EU, those who work daily to build wealth and well-being for the whole country express ever deeper unease at political decisions that reward a culture of welfare rather than production and work.

The picture of contemporary Italy sees squares full of striking metal workers (joint Fiom Cgil, Fim Cisl and Uilm demonstrations, the likes of which have not been seen since 2011) against the absence of government industrial policies. Meetings of entrepreneurs, from Milan to Treviso, from Bologna to Naples, from Pavia to Venice, agitated by very clear demands: clear choices from government and parliament to restart investments, support innovation and export, and favour job creation, especially for new generations. The sharp judgement of the young Confindustria entrepreneurs, gathered at their annual conference in Rapallo: “Patience has run out,” to use the rough words of their president, Alessio Rossi.

There are the producers, the entrepreneurs who still invest, innovate and export, believing in the qualities of the country, despite everything (as the Istat data on relocation proves: 700 companies left Italy between 2015 and 2017, just 3.3% of mid-sized and large companies, compared to 13.4% between 2001 and 2006), enabling Italy to sustain ever-difficult international competition. Then there are the workers, who prove to have a great sense of responsibility, sincere attachment to their activities and commitment to change a state of stagnation and of crisis.

They are the cornerstones of a “social pact” that links manufacturing, science, culture and the ability to “do and do well”. This deserves the attention of a government that is seriously interested in Italy’s destiny and not the demagogy of the “people”, to populism that conceals strange ideas of conflict with Europe and of “unhappy decline”. Vincenzo Boccia, president of Confindustria, argues: “If you want to create jobs, you need to reduce taxes and contributions on wages, introduce a tax reduction and a deduction on productivity bonuses, agree a great inclusion plan for young people,” starting “with manufacturing.” Annamaria Furlan, general secretary of the Cisl, agrees: “Involving companies and trade unions in a social pact for a new development model that aims to reduce the tax wedge and raise wages, encourage investments, introduce economic democracy in Italy with equity stakes for employees.” For her too, this is underpinned by “the excellence and quality of the manufacturing system”.

The basic idea: taxation that’s favourable to income and development. Carlo Bonomi, president of Assolombarda, summarises it well: “Before the flat tax, we have other structural problems that have been unresolved for twenty years. One of these is productivity, which I don’t believe can be improved by talking about flat tax. If we want to put more money in people’s pockets, we cut the tax wedge to benefit workers. I’m not asking anything for business, there are resources. Let’s take the €80 Renzi bonus, what’s left over from the quota 100 and basic income and put everything towards a tax wedge cut which only benefits employees. More money in more people’s pockets.”

Business associations and trade unions are worried: Italy’s economy is still not growing in 2019 (more or less zero growth, a fraction up, a fraction down) and industrial production is down (-0.7% on an annual basis), with alarming slowdowns in the key automotive and chemistry sectors. Investments have also slowed, due to the lack of business confidence in the Italian political situation, the disputes between the government and the EU (we are an exporting country and our most dynamic and competitive companies are strongly connected with the great European “value chains”) and around international trade tensions aggravated by the reckless policies of the sovereignists (from Trump to Putin, to the Italian leaders). In short, “Red Alert” for the economy, to use an effective title from Il Sole24Ore (15 June).

And the government? It hazards a vague “growth decree”, with a cut in the tax wedge but only from 2023, announces flat tax, insists on “mini-BOTs” (which are “useless or dangerous” for 6 out of 10 Italians, according to Ipsos research published by the Corriere della Sera on 15 June) and promises a minimum wage of 9 euros per hour for all workers (with an increase in costs for companies, which Istat has already quantified as 4.3 billion euros). Disorderly ideas, tools to “buy consensus” for a short time, a long way from a far-sighted development policy. The “producers” have good reason to protest.

Meanwhile, public debt continues to increase: in April, it was 14.8 billion more than in March, reaching a total of 2,373.3 billion, well over 130% of GDP. Consob Chairman, Paolo Savona, ventures to forecast that a public debt of 200% of GDP is sustainable. Producers’ concerns are growing.

In these conditions, it’s worth rereading John Maynard Keynes, the most original and innovative economist of the twentieth century, concerning these very issues of public debt, competitiveness and economic policies for development. This can be done by taking advantage of the republication of his texts, starting with the “General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money”, in Mondadori’s prestigious Meridiani series, edited by Giorgio La Malfa, with collaboration from Giovanni Farese. “Do sovereignists want to fix the economy? First let’s reread a bit of Keynes,” was La Stampa’s effective headline for a good review by Domenico Siniscalco (1 June).

Neither protectionism nor free market paradigms, but a responsible synergy between the state and the market. At the heart of Keynes’s theories, there are the ideas on “income policies” (a positive circuit of productivity, wages and corporate profits) and on the role of economic policy and public interventions, to achieve goals that the market can’t independently: work, well-being, safety. For Keynes, it’s not a question of overburdening the state with debts or indulging in welfare policies (as certain superficial and instrumental readings have affirmed in recent years), but of balancing budgets and stimulating investments that increase demand and employment. To borrow a succinct summary from Pierluigi Ciocca, former director of the Bank of Italy’s Research Department (Il Sole24Ore, 14 April): “Aiming to balance the public budget, with less waste, consumption, transfers, tax evasion and more investments. This is the Keynesian way, to return to growth with the urgency imposed by the recession.”

It is a serious lesson, of good economic policy, without illusionism, magical thinking or demagogy. A lesson that is still valid today.