We all need a concept to grasp the world financial crisis, so how about this one: the Italian work ethic.
I could have chosen the Greek work ethic, the Spanish work ethic, or the Portuguese work ethic, but the New York Times has a great story today about how Fiat Motors is trying to introduce a serious work ethic into one of its Italian factories, so we are stuck with the Italian work ethic. Link here.
The concept feels like an ironic take-off on sociologist Max Weber's famous concept of the Protestant or Puritan work ethic. That's because it is. Link here.
Weber posited that Northern European and other Protestant cultures were defined by a work ethic that was largely absent from Southern European and more Catholic countries.
Europe is divided into North and South. America is divided into North and South, and these divisions, culturally speaking, involve different attitudes toward the value of work.
When you think of the Protestant or Puritan work ethic, you feel austerity, a hardscrabble life, one that is largely lacking in fun and pasta. Imagining the Protestant work ethic does not bring a smile to your mind.
On the contrary, the concept of an Italian work ethic offers a wry, ironic amusement, because we do not associate Italy with the greatest commitment to hard work.
And that is a problem. If you want to live well and enjoy life, normally you need to earn enough to pay for it. If you want to live well and enjoy life but do not earn enough to pay for it, you have to find someone else who is willing and able to do so.
You might have a generous trust fund that pays you to do nothing. Otherwise you will need an equally generous credit line from which you can borrow and borrow and borrow... until you simply run out of credit.
And that, as the Times reports, is the situation that Southern Europe is trying to come to grips with today.
Given that Italy and its neighbors have figured out that they cannot borrow their way to prosperity, and thus, that their model of social democracy has run out of credit, our brilliant president has chosen to try to turn America into a Southern European style social democracy!
Within the Fiat factory in Pomigliano, the debate has been engaged. Workers have awakened to the notion that if they are going to compete in the world economy, keep their jobs, and pay off the nation's crushing debt, they are going to have to work longer and harder.
And that will require a massive cultural revolution. One that devalues hedonism and revalues work.
As one might expect, some have suggested that work makes people miserable, that work kills, and that work is bad for your health.
Nonetheless, chronic unemployment without a generous line of credit is not a lot of fun either, so the workers have voted to recommit themselves to their jobs, even if that means showing up consistently, and on time.
Yet, one man's sloth is everyone's loss of productivity. When teams of workers are responsible for different aspects of automobile production the absence of a few workers here and there has a deleterious effect on productivity. Almost, self-evidently.
But the signs of transformation are there too. As the Times reports: "Yet for every worker resisting the [cultural] shift, many more have decided that having a job is better than unemployment. After months of tension, 63 percent of the employees voted in June to accept Fiat's plan, which would penalize employees for abusing sick days, give them shorter lunch breaks and forbid them from striking during periods of high demand."
Will the new austerity and a new work ethic save these Southern European countries and the Eurozone? We do not yet know.
For now the storm seems to have passed. The governments of Southern Europe have adopted severe austerity measures. And people seem to have reached an understanding of the need for a new work ethic.
And yet, these countries may also be in such a deep hole that more forced austerity, in the form of a severe recession or even a depression, might be unavoidable.
The storm seems to have passed, but that may also mean that we are in the eye of the storm.