Italy's Renzi to tinker with retirement age
My colleague Paolo Belardinelli and I have an article on the Wall Street Journal Europe, on a new Italian pension reform advanced by prime minister Matteo Renzi. The Italian pension system is far from perfect (and far from any “free market solution” to this problem), and yet it found a difficult equilibrium after a 2011 reform, which raised the retirement age to 66 years for men and 62 years for women, to be raised incrementally until the two converged by 2018 at 66 years and 7 months.
Of course raising the retirement age is unpopular and lowering it is popular with voters. This is why, as Paolo and I point out, “Since 1995, Italy’s pension system has undergone ‘reform’ six times”. Politicians like to tinker with the pension system, until a crisis looms, when they suddenly have to rein it in. “The dynamics of the Italian government’s meddling with pension reform is typically this: first a show of largesse, followed by a crackdown.”
Now it’s the turn of Mr Renzi, who faces an important referendum in October and needs to convince voters to vote for his constitutional reform. Mr Renzi is a natural gambler and has highly personalized the vote, announcing that he will resign (thereby opening the door to yet unknown and unforeseeable political options) in the case he loses. But since he’s a skillful political operative, he knows well that the average Italian is very unlikely to really care about constitutional reform, an arcane subject she has neither the time nor the will to master, and needs to sell her something else in order to get her support. Hence, Mr Renzi is attempting to mollify the voters with the prospect of an early retirement. His proposal, though labeled “a private sector solution”, is likely to have a negative impact on public finance.
This is Paolo and my, we hope common-sensical, conclusion:
The Italian pension system is far from perfect, but it has finally reached an equilibrium of sorts. If history teaches us anything, it’s that apparently harmless attempts to lower the retirement age may be the first step on a dangerous slope. Mr. Renzi should instead focus on building consensus around reforms that revive economic growth, from deregulation to tax reform. His government, for instance, has still not followed through with a liberalization law first conceived in 2015. Bribing Italian voters into buying his constitutional reform could be a strategy as dangerous as is shortsighted.