Yesterday, I had the distinct honour to speak to a group of students at Cambridge University’s Italian Society. The Society, founded almost 75 years ago by Hamish Henderson, a poet student who interrupted his studies to serve as an intelligence officer in Italy in the Second World War, brings together those studying at the world-renowned university with academics and the public to promote a better understanding, and deeper appreciation, of our country.
Although this was an online event, I was delighted and encouraged to discover the passion for Italy, the thirst for knowledge and debate, and the ability to quickly adapt to, and thrive in, change is as undimmed for these young people as it was for Hamish Henderson.
Our lively discussion centred on some of the most pressing issues economies, nations and society faces, from what responsible capitalism looks like to how Europe can emerge stronger from the Coronavirus pandemic.
It’s clear that Europe needs sustained, and sustainable, growth to emerge from the economic havoc wreaked by the pandemic. An ambitious plan of federal investments – selected, managed and financed at EU level – worth several trillions of Euros in infrastructure, innovation and education is the best recipe for success, not just for the present, but more importantly, for the future. Just think how tall Europe could stand in the world having developed new generation digital technologies, led the global green energy transition and invested in visionary research.
When it comes to Italy, we can deal with the economic crisis ahead, but only with an ambitious plan to kick start the economy, reduce social malaise and correct our structural weaknesses. A plan of tax incentives, modernization of our physical and digital infrastructure, and strengthening of our healthcare system. And of structural reform of welfare, education, justice and bureaucracy four weaknesses that can be turned into opportunities.
Remembering the great Bobby Kennedy’s phrase that GDP “measures everything except that which is worthwhile”, we discussed the need for a revised GDP, rather than ditching it altogether. A GDP that takes into account social and environmental measures – like a poverty indicator that aims for 0% fir absolute poverty or a sustainability indictor that aims for 100% renewable energy, in the long run – and leaves out the informal and criminal economy.
And we spoke about the urgent need for responsible capitalism to take root in economies and society. With rising unemployment, deepening social malaise and unsustainable levels of inequality, our economic system has to use its enormous power for good. It has to become a capitalism where profits for shareholders ceases to be the sole goal, but one where the overall impact of business on a community and the environment – in essence, the common good – lies at its heart. Real reform of capitalism is ultimately a cultural challenge for the entire ruling class, but the common good cannot simply be the result of each person pursuing their own personal interest, in a perversion of Adam Smith’s philosophy.
These issues are going to be those facing the brilliant minds of the next generations – who, like the students I spoke to, are going to be the leaders of tomorrow, the leaders of our shared future – for decades to come. I am heartened and reassured in the knowledge that they will be able, should they become entrepreneurs or managers, to say as we do at illimity – facciamo utili e siamo utili. (We make profit and we are useful at the same time: in Italian the word “utile” means both profit and useful:
If you would like to watch the debate, you can find it on the Cambridge University Italian Society YouTube page.