Enlightened at the Economics Festival in Trento

Piazza Duomo in Trento during the Festival di Economia. May 31, 2013

Dear Blog Readers,

This weekend I was invited to the Festival of Economia in Trento, Italy to moderate a talk with one of Italy’s most prominent journalists and writers, Federico Rampini, currently US Bureau Chief for the Italian daily “La Repubblica.”  Stepping back from the daily grind of personal and professional responsibilities was an unexpectedly refreshing and enlightening experience.

Piazza Duomo in Trento during the Festical di Economia, May 31, 2013. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Trento is one of Italy’s many hidden jewels, a tiny town nestled in a valley in the Italian alps with a quaint city center with a fork-wielding Neptune fountain, cobblestone streets, fresco-painted buildings with views off to the nearby snow-peaked mountains.  It has the perfect combination of charm and northern-Italian (nearly Swiss) efficiency.  After the anarchy of Rome with its traffic, smog, litter, cigarette butts, dog poop, and increasingly rude citizens, it felt like a breath of fresh air.  Indeed there was no traffic, no smog, no litter, no cigarette butts, lots of dogs– but no poop in sight, and the people were friendly and kind.

My speaker's badge and program for the Festival di Economia in Trento, Italy. June 1, 2013. Photo by Trisha Thomas

The theme of the Festival this year is “Sovereignty in Conflict” — which I quickly learned can be interpreted in lots of different ways — the sovereignty of a European country in conflict with European-wide decision-making, the power of big banks over small sovereign states, the influence of international institutions such as the UN or NATO over a sovereign nation.

When I arrived in Trento I was surprised to see a huge banner with Federico Rampini’s picture hanging over the main street.  I suddenly realized I would be moderating a discussion with one of the stars of the annual festival.  The talk was held in the “Teatro Sociale” a theater packed with hundreds of people and TV cameras sending our event out to large screens in the central piazza.  As I took my place in one of the two capacious black arm-chairs on the stage–unglamorously pulling scraps of paper with notes, articles by Rampini, pens and press passes out of my bag–  I was wishing I could pull a “Charlie Rose” hat out making me smooth and erudite rather than my usual frantic, racing, list-making, find-a-way-to-get-it-done “Mozzarella Mamma” self.  How nice it would be to be calm, cool, elegant and collected, contemplating the world’s big questions above the daily fray.   But there was no need to worry, Rampini is a natural showman for intellectuals and could have easily carried it off whether I was frenetic or erudite.  Without a note, or paper or pen he calmly delivered his complete interpretation of the “Obama Doctrine”.

A Banner with a photo of Italian journalist and writer Federico Rampini hangs above the street in Trento. (note: It wouldn't be a proper Italian town if there were not the two nuns strolling past). May 31, 2013. Photo by Trisha Thomas

One interesting little aside,  I used the “tu” in Italian with Federico and he used the “tu” with me instead of the formal “Lei”.  Shortly into the event, Federico said something along the lines of “let me explain why we are using the “tu” — we are both journalists and among colleagues, we always use the “tu”.  I suddenly realized, I had once again, after 20 years in Italy, made another one of my American gaffes.  We don’t have a formal form for “you” in English and I have never been comfortable with the Italian “Lei”, but in certain places it is pro forma.  Presenting a prominent figure on a public stage, I should have used the “Lei”.   (See my Blog Post on LEI-Language Confusion). Charlie Rose would never have made that error.

Rampini has worked for years in the United States, spent five years as bureau chief in Beijing, and has covered economics and politics in Europe from Brussels, Milan and Paris.  His work makes him uniquely qualified to analyze Obama’s economic policy in the light of globalization, and I was amazed at his conclusion.  Rampini said that Obama has always had a clear doctrine for globalization that is falling into place and proving effective.  According to Rampini, Obama came into the Oval Office in the midst of the biggest economic crisis since the depression.  He did not hesitate to continue what the Bush administration had already begun — bail out Wall Street.  That policy paid off because the big banks have paid back nearly all their loans and were given enough of a cushion to be able to help Main Street recover.

Rampini said Obama laid out his view at the G20 in Pittsburgh in 2009.  There Obama said the financial crisis was born in the United States because the US and Americans were living and spending beyond their means.  He said the US needed to do their part, but other countries, particularly China and Germany were living below their means, too much saving and frugality and not spending enough, particularly on imports.   Rampini said China took Obama’s message to heart and changed course, German Chancellor Angela Merkel chose to ignore it.

The second part of the Obama globalization strategy, according to Rampini, is free trade with a social card — protection of workers and the environment.  Rampini gave as an example the recent free-trade agreement with Colombia (some more details on that agreement here), and the Obama administration’s goal of a free-trade agreement with Europe that could give the west more negotiating power with China.  Rampini pointed out that Obama has his first Summit with new Chinese leader Xi Jinping on the 7th and 8th of June at the Sunnyland Estates in California.

The third part of the Obama strategy is to turn-around the trend of exporting jobs and bring manufacturing back to the US, in other words, the re-industrialization of the United States.  Here Rampini moved slightly off the subject of Obama and onto the capacity of Americans to work together to make a better future and suggested that Italy should learn this lesson. He recounted the extraordinary story of Rochester, New York, home to the Kodak Company.  Rampini said he recently visited Rochester, which is apparently thriving economically despite the fact that the Kodak Company, once employing 65,000 people in the area, went bankrupt in 2012.  He said the city, the company and the University of Rochester worked together on top of the “cadaver of the Kodak dinosaur” to reinvent Rochester as the center of optics– now companies in Rochester do everything from building IMAX theaters to making optical systems for 3D film productions for Hollywood. Rampini suggested that Italy should heed the lesson of working together for the benefit of the community — Turin could become a center of auto design, and Olivetti could transform itself into a Silicon Valley style company.

In this third prong of the Obama strategy, Rampini noted that Obama entered office with the worse economic crisis since the depression but is now in the fortunate position to be President when America is seeing a “magical moment” of becoming energy self-sufficient.  He said the US now produces more natural gas than Russia, and no longer imports a drop of oil from the Persian Gulf. (I am not sure that is 100 percent correct, I have seen reports to the contrary, nevertheless, all agree that with the arrival of Shale Gas and fracking, the US is becoming energy independent.  Imagine how that will change US Foreign Policy in the next decade!)

Rampini concluded noting that Obama recognized the US responsibility in starting the economic crisis but Obama blames Europe for continuing it, and Obama continues to believe that Merkel’s austerity policies are dangerous for all.

As an American, I was interested to hear Rampini say that he thinks Obama will go down in history as the second greatest President of the past 100 years after Franklin Delano Roosevelt for four reasons — being the first black President (who also served two terms), pulling the US out of the economic crisis, getting the US out of two wars, and for the changes in health-care policy.

Trisha Thomas with Federico Rampini at Festival di Economia, Trento, Italy. May 31, 2013. Photo by Gianna Fratta

As Rampini spoke, I went from being a small spot in my black armchair to a great-big figure.  I ended up feeling so puffed-up and proud to be an American, from a country where people can work together to solve problems, and where we have a President with a vision. I said that to the audience who found it amusing.  Italians don’t usually see either Americans or our presidents in such a positive light.

Following the presentation with Rampini I was able to get a seat to hear Laura Boldrini — the new President of the Italian Parliament (or Speaker of the House to Americans).  I mentioned her in my last post on “Femicide in Italy“.  Boldrini is dynamite and I was blown away by the power and passion of her speech.

Boldrini’s topic was “Sovereignty and Individual Dignity”.  She dug deep into her experiences working for 24 years for the UN, 15 as spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees — helping refugees in some of the worst conflicts and crises of our generation — Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Pakistan the Balkans, and Rwanda to name a few.

President of the Italian Parliament, Laura Boldrini

Boldrini was crystal clear.  She said, “When it comes to the mortification of human dignity, there exists a right and responsibility to intervene in internal affairs.  But with two conditions.  First, that one decides scrupulously applying international law and not unilaterally or with extemporaneous coalitions.  Secondly, that intervention does not necessarily signify armed intervention.”

Boldrini was also clear on the question of Europe’s economic difficulties, noting, “In the opinion of the public today, Europe is only imposing on itself austerity measures, respect for budget policies and requiring countries in debt to implement new cuts to social systems that are already fragile and tested to their limits by the crisis.  To sum up, just more sacrifice.  The Europe of human rights and liberty has given in all too often to that of finance and technocrats…..I would like to see a Europe that is stronger, more united and more equitable”

I was particularly interested in Boldrini’s concluding comment in which she lashed out at journalists saying, “they become passionate about the latest political soundbite, losing sight of the big questions about the future of the world — climate change, migrations of populations, sources of energy, and scientific endeavors.  These are not abstractions, to the contrary, thinking about the global picture is the only realistic way possible, because today no social phenomenon that influences the life of people and nations is born or dies within the borders of just one country.”

Boldrini is right, sometimes we journalists do get caught up in the latest soundbite, the last tweet, the most astounding piece of video and we forget to step back and look at the bigger picture.  I am happy this weekend in Trento has allowed me to do just that.

10 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Carina
    2013/06/01

    His “second greatest president of this century” comment made me laugh — I’d think there have only been two, and Obama would be remembered as the better of the two. ;) Sounds like you had an amazing opportunity in a lovely city that I’d someday like to see.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2013/06/03

      Carina — you and my mother both caught me on that error, and I am glad it made you laugh. Indeed, there have only been two presidents in this century, and I would agree that of those two, Obama is the best. I have corrected that to be the best President of the last 100 years. And yes, you must see Trento, it is a lovely city.

      Reply
  2. Avatar
    Alan
    2013/06/02

    . . that Rampini believes that Obama has a policy of ‘free trade with a social card’ (an oxymoron if ever there was) or a policy to keep jobs at home destroyed any credibility for me. Capital is in the business of maximising profit and social cards like eco cards cost money. Capital produces where labour costs are cheapest and it is certainly cheaper to buy off presidents than to compromise. Profits are privatised whilst costs are socialised wherever possible.
    The US economy is most certainly not out of trouble and Obama has done nothing that was constructive other than to transfer unprecedented amounts of money into private bankers’ hands – the US currency is a bubble waiting to burst and when it does the only dam against massive social upheaval will be gone.
    As for Obama going down as the second greatest president in US history I would suggest that Rampini needs to do some research or (not the best option) read a newspaper.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2013/06/03

      I just love getting feedback from all you readers. My impression is that Barbara Landi who commented above is coming at the debate from the right and can’t stand Obama, and you are coming at the debate from the left and can’t stand Obama, and all I will say is I will listen to all of you and try to learn more because you are all clearly smart people.

      Reply
  3. Avatar
    Gwen Thomas
    2013/06/02

    Sounds like a great experience and it is so American not to use the formal. You are still the Charlina Rose in my book. Where was Gustavo in all this? Was he taking the economic pulse of other talks?

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2013/06/03

      Yes, it is very American to use the informal. Gustavo was at home with the kids. He was not invited. It was a strange role reversal, and very refreshing for me.

      Reply
  4. Avatar
    Barbara Landi
    2013/06/03

    Rampini is either lying or incredibly misinformed. The US is LIGHT YEARS from being energy independent! Well it COULD be, but the current regime will NEVER permit that. We must continue to be dependent on countries that hate us like the entire middle east, Venezuela and Brazil.
    Furthermore, the Obama regime took on a poor economy and proceeded to make it 100 times worse. NO it is NOT improving. There is no increase in jobs. Healthcare is on the road to the disaster of increased bureaucracy. There is no change. People STILL have to pay for health care unless they are poor. For the rich it doesn’t matter. Poor people always had free healthcare before anyway.
    Obama is an inexperienced, unqualified “empty suit.” He is the emperor with no clothes. I am sorry for our children and grandchildren.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2013/06/03

      Thanks for your comment Barbara. I won’t comment on your comment because the truth is, I am not covering the US or Obama so I don’t feel qualified….
      I will say the whole question of being energy-independent whether it is sooner or later is fascinating. There are just so many ramifications for the future of our foreign policy.

      Reply
  5. Avatar
    Nancy Rockwell
    2013/06/04

    I loved this post, and learned a lot from Rampini and from you, Trisha, as you synthesized his remarks and made them intelligible to non-economists like me. I agree with him about Obama, have for a few years now thought he is the greatest President in my lifetime (I was born just after FDR), and though the Great Depression was more dramatic in human suffering, I think this one was more complex in its roots. FDR solved that Depression with war production, this one was war-ridden and war is the great over-spending item in the US economy.
    I am not a fan of fracking or shale oil, am persuaded by Bill McKibben (look him up if the name is unfamiliar) and am pleased that Obama is also listening and considering his call for stopping the pipe-line from Canada and fracking here. But it is important for the US to stop importing oil, and turn to alternate energies, and Obama has been working to develop these as production opportunities here.
    Despite unrelenting conservative bellyaching about the economic ruin, statistics are proving that we are in recovery.
    Never has a President been subjected to such abuse by opponents, and I do believe that race is part of the intensity of this. The old white guys are not gracious about change, and do think they have God-like prescience.
    Terrific column, Trisha, I am cheering!!!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2013/06/05

      Thanks Nancy — for starters, I will have to look up Bill Mckibben. I felt like I learned a lot from Rampini and others at the Economic Festival although I am holding off on forming any complete opinions on the topic because I have found my blog readers are not convinced whether they are coming at the topic from the right or the left. I need to read and investigate more. I do agree with you about a certain intensity of hatred towards Obama based on the color of his skin and that is not acceptable.

      Reply

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