Emmott, a former editor-in-chief of The Economist, is, as he himself puts it, an old Asia hand, with eight books on Japan. His interest in Italy started with a sweeping investigation by Economist reporters into Silvio Berlusconi’s shady business empire and multiple conflicts of interest. The year was 2001, and the magazine cover read: “Why Silvio Berlusconi is unfit to lead Italy.” It earned Emmott the full attention of Il Giornale, an Italian daily owned by the Berlusconi family, which pointedly—and rather pointlessly—insisted on highlighting a certain physical resemblance between the Economist chief and Lenin. It also embroiled the magazine in a draining legal battle with Berlusconi, then prime minister of Italy, whose defamation claims took seven years to be rejected by a Milan court.
Luckily, though, Emmott’s Good Italy Bad Italy isn’t another book about Berlusconi. Rather, it is a comprehensive exposé of how Italy came to be “the world’s most dangerous economy,” as Time magazine called it. The author’s gaze spans further and wider than Berlusconi’s disgraceful nine years in power. Italy’s fiscal woes started in the 1970s, when the welfare state became impossibly generous and public budgets started swelling. Politics was endemically corrupt well before Berlusconi came around; the media never really acted as truly independent watchdogs; and a widespread undergrowth of small privileges, protections and special interests, each with beneficiaries hell-bent on defending them, is still obstructing change now that the king of Bunga Bunga is gone.
The central chapters display the rigorous research, clear-sighted analysis, and engaging, concise writing of an Economist article—minus the God-like narrative voice, which is a bonus. Emmott is clearly a sympathetic observer who still sees potential in a nation that was once one of the world’s emerging economies. Good Italy Bad Italy is a must-read for anyone—including Italians—wishing to understand why this beautiful country is what it is today.