ANTHONY BROOKS, host:
Back now with DAY TO DAY.
It was Benjamin Franklin who said nothing is certain but death and taxes. The Italians amended that to nothing is certain but death. Taxes? Hmm. Optional.
You see, in Italy, avoiding taxes is part of the national culture. And Prime Minister Romano Prodi is vowing to fight that culture. He's launched a new effort to track down and punish tax cheats.
Joining us now from Italy is Beppe Severgnini, a columnist for the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. He's also author of the book "La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind". And Mr. Severgnini, welcome.
Mr. BEPPE SEVERGNINI (Author, "La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind"): Hello. How are you?
BROOKS: Very well. Thanks. We read this week in the Wall Street Journal, which reported that unpaid taxes in Italy are equal to more than a quarter of the country's gross domestic product. Why do so many Italians cheat on their taxes?
Mr. SEVERGNINI: In Italy, taxes were imposed for a few hundred years by foreign powers. Italians have not understood that taxes are a way of contributing to your own country.
BROOKS: Isn't part of the problem, though, the Italian tax code itself, that it's famously ornate? I mean, I remember several years ago, I interviewed a small restaurant owner in Rome who talked about the literally dozens of separate taxes he had to pay on his tables, on the sidewalks, on his refrigerator, on his sales, even on his awning.
Mr. SEVERGNINI: This is all catch-22. Try to follow me. It's very simple. The Italian state has to get the money somewhere. So what they do, they sort of raise the tax rates, they multiply controls and checks, they multiply the little levies on the different things. And so if you want to be honest, it's going to be extraordinarily expensive and hard. I think the only way to get out of this catch-22 is a new pact saying, right, everybody is going to pay a third of their income no matter what - more or less what happens in most Northern Europe or in the States - and if we catch you, then you will go to jail. But there is a huge resistance.
BROOKS: You know, even the former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, campaigned on the idea that Italians pay too many taxes and said - I found this quote today - that Italians shouldn't feel guilty about cheating if their taxes were too high. That was a former prime minister talking.
Mr. SEVERGNINI: Well, yes. But Mr. Berlusconi had perfectly clear that most Italians don't want to pay taxes. Someone is going to pay taxes anywhere, because if you have a salary, for instance, you're going to pay taxes. If you are a writer and you work for a big organization or a newspaper, I pay all my taxes. I have no embarrassment to say that because I have no other option. The point is, people don't feel there's a social guilt associated with tax evasion.
BROOKS: So Prime Minister Romano Prodi has launched this new campaign. The measures include making it easier for tax authorities to peek into bank accounts, limiting cash payments and tougher penalties for tax cheating. Do you think his campaign can work?
Mr. SEVERGNINI: If he manages to stay in power and he manages to show that if everybody pay taxes - and things are looking a little better now - then tax rates will go down. I think all of a sudden the whole of the nation will understand that actually if everybody pays, then every pays a little less.
BROOKS: That's Beppe Severgnini, a columnist for the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. He's also author of the book, "La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind".
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.