Tuesday, May 23, 2006

change at abc news: style or substance?

Although I don't watch network news much anymore, I felt a twinge of pain at the news that ABC has removed Elizabeth Vargas as its prime time anchor, replacing her with Charles Gibson who now does the network's morning show. The move was perhaps inevitable, given that Vargas is pregnant with her second child, ratings are down, and her broadcast partner Bob Woodruff was seriously injured in an Iraqi ambush and has not returned. Still, it leaves me with some regrets.

Whenever I saw Vargas, she seemed to me competent and professional, a serious newsperson with just the right amount of warmth for what is (let's face it) in part an entertainment program. That's not taking anything away from Gibson or for that matter Katie Couric, who I suspect will grow into the job despite suggestions that she is "soft" because of her Today show experience (Indira Gandhi was said to be a caretaker, also). But it would be nice to see the first woman anchor--actually, it would be nice to see ANY anchor, at this point--come from a hard news background rather than from a feature-oriented show. Perhaps Vargas will always be remembered with an asterisk--the first woman to head a network newscast except it doesn't really count because it happened by accident, because Katie Couric was more important, etc. Then again, perhaps she'll be back. Here's hoping.

Friday, May 19, 2006

a tale of two graduations

The Rutgers-Camden Law School held its graduation ceremony today, the speaker being Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga), a hero of the Civil Rights movement who gave an inspirational if somewhat surprisingly bland address. Mr. Lewis was received warmly by the crowd, regardless of their political affiliation, and treated with appropriate veneration at the pre-graduation lunch.

Up the turnpike at the New School, in New York, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a likely presidential candidate, was hissed and booed as he gave his speech at that school's graduation. With the courage that only a person who knows they are in the majority can muster, a student speaker announced that she had thrown away her prepared text to challenge the choice of McCain as the commencement speaker. (The choice was apparently made by the University's President, former Senator Bob Kerrey, who--like the Rutgers audience but apparently unlike the New School--was able to respect dissenting views without necessarily accepting them.) I am only 21 years old, the student said, but I know that pre-emptive war is a dangerous concept, adding somewhat incongruously that she was also frustrated that Osama Bin Laden had not yet been captured by Allied forces.

How a 21-year old is capable of evaluating the concept of preventive war better than (say) a 65-year old Senator with a distinguished military record--and why conservatives seem more able than liberals to respect divergent viewpoints--was not made clear. (Imagine if a Rutgers student speaker had attacked Lewis for supporting affirmative action or other liberal causes.) But the irony of the situation is profound. The New School was founded by refugees from Nazi Germany, largely although not exclusively Jewish, who sought a new venue to teach the things they could no longer teach in their home country. The isolationists of the 1930s, who made more or less the same arguments as today's student speaker, helped to delay the resistance to Hitler's Germany until it was too late to save millions of victims. Whether the speaker was aware of this history, or of anything that happened before 9-11, is unclear. Thatshe failed to learn any lessons from it is obvious.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

the new italian government: left-wing breakthrough or more of the same?

The new Italian Government, headed by Premier Romano Prodi, took office May 17 ending the long period of doubt following the hotly contested election in that country (see previous posts). Prodi was formally appointed Prime Minister by the new President, Giorgio Napolitano, a former member of the PCI (Italian Communist Party) who was himself chosen only last week, after a younger ex-communist, former Premier Massimo D'Alema, was judged too controversial for the theoretically ceremonial post. Outgoing Premier Silvio Berlusconi, while never quite accepting Napolitano (or for that matter Prodi himself), appears resigned to a long stay in opposition although promising the advent of a new Liberty Party that would unite the right-wing opposition in parliament by this Fall.

The new Government is something of a mixed bag. While attention has focused on the selection of Napolitano and other former PCI members D'Alema (who shares the vice premier position as well as heading the Foreign Ministry) and Fausto Bertinotti (an unreconstructed communist who serves as president of the Chamber of Deputies), many of the key positions are filled by relative moderates. These include the second vice premier, Francesco Rutelli, the leader of the moderate left Margherita (Daisy) Party; yet another former Prime Minister, Giuliano Amato, at the Interior Ministry (more important than it sounds because of the country's history of internal security problems); the Defense Minister, Arturo Parisi; and, most important of all for tax policy, the new Minister of Economy and Finance, Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa, a respected if left-leaning 66-year old economist. The allocation of ministries reflects an interesting and arguably (for the extreme left, anyway) disappointing shift of priorities: as in Israel, where Labor Party Leader Amir Peretz chose the Defense Ministry over more economically-oriented positions, several of the most prominent leftist leaders--most notably D'Alema--appear to have opted for positions with a higher national or international profile rather than those with direct implications for economic redistribution. Also notable is the paucity of women in top positions, outside of such traditional female domains as Health, Equal Opportunity, and so forth. An important exception is Emma Bonino of the aptly named Rosa nel Pugno (Rose in Fist) Party, who was denied the Defense Ministry but given the European Affairs portfolio (potentially significant as Prodi seeks to re-orient the country toward a more European and less pro-American role).

The effect on tax policy is difficult to discern. In an early speech Prodi listed his main priorities as withdrawing Italian troops for Iraq (but not yet Afghanistan); reinvigorating the economy; and restoring "serenity and tranquillity" to the judiciary, an thinly veiled reference to what were widely seen as efforts by the Berlusconi Government to intimidate the magistratura on politically sensitive issues. With respect to finances Prodi pledged to keep the deficit under 3 percent of GNP as required by international agreements and to intensify the fight against widespread tax evasion which he called "an ethical crisis." More specific decisions, including the fate of Prodi's campaign proposal for increased taxes on financial income, must apparently await consultations with his numerous coalition partners. A more assertive approach was demonstrated by the Region of Sardinia, one of Italy's poorest but paradoxically the preferred vacation destination of much of the Italian and European jet set, which recently levied a large new excise tax on yachts and other luxury items: Berlusconi himself was required to foot a rather extensive tax bill.

Italy being Italy, there is always something to fill the vacuum. Item number one is the burgeoing soccer scandal, which began with telephone intercepts demonstrating the interference by Juventus, a premier club, with the selection of referees for key games and has now spread to cover drugs, gambling, and even illicit intervention with the selection of the national team for the World Cup in Germany this June. There is also the usual run of polemica, a term somewhere between debate and insult, in the Italian press. A recent example occurred when Berlusconi criticized the behavior of Italy's handful of lifetime Senators, which includes former Presidents and other luminaries, for voting in favor of the new Prodi Government in a recent vote. Former President Francesco Cossiga, who is apparently past worrying what anyone thinks of him, replied that he didn't need any behavior lessons from a paperone (literally, an overstuffed goose) like the outgoing Prime Minister, adding that the behavior of Berlusconi's followers had transformed the Senate "into an atmosphere reminiscent of a bad neighborhood in decadent Rome." Some things never change.

india reviews tax incentives

The Indian finance ministry has called for comments on a number of direct (i.e., income) tax incentives with an eye toward their future reduction. Under review are a wide range of items, from the tax treatment of gratuities and expense reimbursments to partnership income and income from non-resident bank accounts. The most recent Indian budget estimates that direct tax exemptions cost the Government more than $15 billion per year in lost revenues.

Friday, May 05, 2006

greetings from italy

As my thousands of readers have undoubtedly guessed, I am away from home doing research, this time in Italy, and will be back and posting later next week. To reward anyone who stopped in, here are my absolutely free suggestions for enjoying everyone's favorite country when and if you have the chance to:

1. Go anywhere except Rome, Venice, and Florence, at least for a day or two. Ferrara (where I am now), Padova, or Modena are three good northern choices. Turin is big but wholly different from the rest of Italy, and in the middle of a marvelous region. If you are limited to the big three, just walk until you stop hearing English around you. Anytime except August, that shouldn't be far.

2. Eat dinner late, even if you have to take a nap to do so. The same restaurant that is all Americans at 8:00 will be all Italians at 10:00. Naps for couples are a good idea, anyway, especially if the kids are in another room (or preferably, another country).

3. Forget a phrase book and learn to pronounce three to five words correctly (grazie, prego, scusi) together with the basic rules for saying the names of places (the "o" is always long, the "g" is soft before i and e unless followed by an "h", hard before everything else, and so on). Nobody expects you to speak Italian and they'd probably think you're crazy if you did. But if you pronounce Madonna like the singer, they won't know what you're talking about.

That's all for now, it will be interesting to note if I get any more responses than the usual tax column. In case any search engines miss me, I will insert the words ITALY TOURISM BLOG and see what happens. That's ITALIA BLOG TURISMO, in case anyone missed it.