Thursday, August 04, 2011

Zen: Italian style and US style

On several late nights I have watched (on PBS television) the BBC-originated series "Zen." This has nothing to do with the venerable Sino-Japanese religious philosophy, but focuses on a contemporary Italian detective named Aurelio Zen. Zen is an old Venetian surname, but its Venetian scion Aurelio is posted to the prosecutor’s office in Rome.

With English actor Rufus Sewell in the title role, the television series is based on a series of novels by the late British crime writer Michael Dibdin. Cynical, devious, and shrewd, Aurelio Zen is a kind of Lt. Columbo without the mumbling. The TV series features numerous moody views of Rome at night, evocative of the early Federico Fellini. What the series is best at, though, is in revealing the labyrinth of the Italian bureaucracy, with its many links to crime, big business, and who knows what other centers of power. There are only three 90-minute episodes so far, but more may be coming.

During my years in Rome, some fifty years ago, I was fortunate not to have too many run-ins with the bureaucracy. Friends assured me that conflicts could usually be resolved with a discrete bribe. While I was there, though, I heard an interesting story. In the late 1930s Mussolini’s regime planned for a World’s Fair to take place in Rome in 1942. Of course World War II interrupted this implementation of this scheme, though a new residential quarter, the EUR, arose at the site in the southwestern part of the city.

Reports had it that the Commission to plan the 1942 event continued to meet well into the 1960s, and perhaps beyond. After all, the commissioners reasoned, why should a good thing be abandoned just because its original purpose has lapsed?

Frauds of this kind lie at the heart of Italy’s problems today. For a while the inertia and nepotism hobbling the government could be counterbalanced by the dynamism of the business sector. Public squalor was held in check by private efficiency. But no longer,it seems. Hence the fate of that unhappy country, whose troubles are unlikely to cease with the departure of the buffoonish Berlusconi.

Are we in these states, though, in a position to throw stones? I thought of the 1942 commission when I heard of the tenacious survival of the comically misnamed “Essential Air Service” program, which maintains passenger service at a series of small airports that are completely unnecessary--except of course that they lie within the districts of powerful Congressmembers. On an average Monday at the Bradford Regional Airport in rural northwestern Pennsylvania, six passengers are flying in on each of the three Continental Connection flights. In the airports overall, it is estimated that it requires $3700 in subsidy for each departure.

As part of the current FAA wrangle, the House of Representatives voted to dismantle this absurdity. Yet until recently the Senate refused to go along. Now apparently, Senate majority leader Harry Reid has agreed to the dismantling--provided that the service be immediately restored by Cabinet order. Dracula lives!

The amount of money is small, but when one multiplies such idiocy by a hundred-fold (probably much more) the situation is much more serious. It seems that there is no such thing as a sunset law; these things will go on forever.

This is how empires stumble towards their end.



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