A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum
As a kid, did you ever dream of an extra tap in the kitchen that dispensed endless lashings of Coca Cola and Strawberry Milkshake? Or what about being let loose for an afternoon inside a locked, and deserted, sweet shop? Well, the not-so-juvenile tax practitioners of Bungabungaland woke up on November 21 to a dream come true. A new programme was launched a day earlier which, similar to the speed trap warning programmes marketed by mobile phone companies, tells you how much you need to report to the Bungabungaland tax authorities in order to avoid suspicion. In a country where tax evasion is part of the national culture, the idea that you could key in your assets and expenditure and be told how much taxable income to declare, is truly amazing. What is more incredible, and could only happen in Bungabungaland or its neighbour across the Ionian Sea, is that the programme is on the Italian Tax Authority’s’ website.
The truth is that the idea is ingenious, if impractical. In a country where nobody wants to tell the truth about their taxes (morality has been outsourced to the Vatican for centuries ), why not let people feel they are deceiving the authorities by tweaking the edges of the programme, while they end up paying substantially more tax than they otherwise would have done?
But, philosophy aside (and philosophy is an absolute aside when it comes to taxation), what is really so strange about all this in a country that is capable of producing a leading politician who is a stand-up comedian?
At the end of October second place in the Sicilian Regional Election was taken by Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement. Grillo, a former accountant and banned TV comedian, was previously best known for organizing V day celebrations in which he outed Italian politicians convicted of serious crimes. The V was short-hand for a two finger salute which, in turn, was short-hand for something often spelt with a surfeit of asterisks.
His party’s political success – it is currently running second in some polls for the upcoming General Election – is a sign of how bad things have become since Bunga Bunga. Of course it is not the first time the Italian electorate have done strange things – an Italian colleague reminded me yesterday that porn star La Cicciolina was elected to parliament for five years in the late 1980s on a platform of environmentalism and free love and, if we really want to go back, Caligula proposed making his horse a Senator.
Meanwhile, reading Grillo’s famous blog (there are Italian and English versions) he does appear to talk quite a lot of sense – including insistence that taxes are a good thing as long as they are not used for the things they are used for now.
In point of fact, a stand-up comedian going into politics is not as custard-pie-in-your-face laughable as it sounds. While Italian politics has, for much of the last 20 years, been a hotbed of slapstick comedy, the dry interregnum of Mario Monti is providing an incubator for the resurgence of satire. Stand-up comedians are at centre stage in modern satire, the successors to Voltaire, Thackeray, Wilde and Dorothy Parker. In amplifying the ridiculous or unacceptable in everyday life they are one step ahead of their audience in consciousness of what is really going on around them. You laugh at a stand-up comic because he hits you with scenes that you realize are obvious but about which you have never gathered your thoughts (or thought that nobody else would consider them as important).
A political leader in a modern democracy should be someone who has the perception and ability to articulate what society is groping for but is not collectively able to express, and then make it come true. That goes one step further than a stand-up comedian’s CV, but that may not be important for Grillo. As one who exposes the negatives of society, a stand-up comedian may not be well placed to go the extra mile with positive action- which is crucial to leadership. However, Grillo has stated categorically that he will not join in coalition with another party. What that means, in a system that inevitably produces coalitions, is that he is running for the post of Leader of the Opposition. For that he is perfectly qualified. The only question is whether Italy would be better off having him outside parliament protecting democracy as part of the Media Fourth Estate or, inside, protected by parliamentary immunity.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world has been enjoying the quiet studiousness of Mario Monti and his cabinet. That is not to say that there have been no moments of humour. Almost a year ago, according to the BBC, a Deputy in the Italian Parliament challenged that, with austerity biting and Bunga Bunga still banging on the frontal lobes of the entire population, the new Prime Minister had held a lavish Christmas party in his official residence at the taxpayer’s expense. In reply to the accusation, Mr Monti, explained that he and his wife had, indeed, held a party – for their children and grandchildren. Mrs Monti had gone shopping herself for the food at her own expense and had cooked and served the meal herself. Mr Monti did point out that she had indeed used the gas stove in the official residence, the gas being paid for from the public purse. He hoped, however, that he and Mrs Monti would be forgiven this extravagance bearing in mind that, on assuming the premiership, he had refused a salary and was working for nothing.