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Evidence gone missing in the Italian election campaign show


Paul Krugman has written in his End This Depression Now!

‘In normal times, the latest academic research plays a very small role in real-world policy debates, which is arguably how it should be – in the heat of the political moment, how many policy makers are truly equipped to evaluate the quality of a professor’s statistical analysis? Better to leave time for the usual process of academic debate and scrutiny to sort out the solid from the spurious.’

I agree with what Krugman says but would expand his point arguing that not only research, evidence and analysis have a hard time in the heat of the political moment, but they disappear completely during election campaigns such as the ones that is underway in Italy and which is leading to the general election of the 24.-25. February.  In other words, evidence and analysis have a very hard time during elections time in influencing the political debate and informing (undecided) voters.

Here is an example. The last weekend has been dominated by the promise made by the former prime minister Berlusconi that, if elected, his coalition will not only scrap the recently re-introduced (by Mario Monti’s government) property tax, but also pay back what the Italians have paid this year either in cash or to their bank accounts on their properties (often their home).

This news captured the attention of all media and forced the candidate of other parties and coalitions running in this election into self-defense and damage limitation mode to counteract a promise which has no basis in evidence and analysis.

Why did the Monti government re-introduced a tax that the Berlusconi government had abolished earlier on? Because his government had to find funds to respond to the debt and financial crisis that had engulfed Italy and send a reassuring signal to investors in Italian bonds. The tax has received criticism from many sides because it includes the taxation of the first home but has brought 23,4Bl Euro in the state coffers which were very much needed. Moreover, the evidence shows that Italy is the only country in the western world where a property owner did not pay the tax on the property itself (Libertà e Giustizia).

But what about evidence and analytical data? The question winch has been immediately posed to Berlusconi has been: if he scraps a tax that has produced 23,4Bl Euro, where will his coalition government find alternative sources of income?

The answer was that his coalition government will finalize a bilateral agreement which has been under discussion for a couple of years already with the government of Switzerland to tax funds that have (in most cases) illegally left Italy and been deposited in Swiss banks.  That can be done in few months, he confirmed in a recent TV interview (Ballarò), and can bring back to Italy about 20Bl Euro. Newspapers have immediately checked with Swiss authority the status of the agreement between the two countries. They confirmed that it can take years to reach a final agreements as the one that Germany and Britain have signed with Switzerland.

Evidence is gone missing in this election campaign. A campaign which more than by evidence and facts may be influenced more by the transfer of Mario Balotelli from Manchester City to A.C. Milan for more that 20ml Euro and worth an estimated 400.000 votes for the center right (Economist).

You may say, so what? All elections are like this. Everywhere. The problem, from the point of view of the use of research, evidence and analysis in policymaking, is that in today multi media world we are more or less in a permanent campaign.  The technocratic government led by Mario Monti was a parenthesis. Now we are back to business as usual. Not a good news for the use of evidence.

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