Federico Caffè: an unheeded lesson, for now
Federico Caffè (1914–?) was a great Italian economist and mentor of many academics, politicians and pre-eminent leaders of present-day public administration. His passion was economic policy, which relates to the actions that governments take in economic fields – for example taxation, government budget, money supply, interest rates and labour markets. For him, economic policy was strictly connected to its social dimensions and effects.
Federico Caffè taught Economic and Financial Policy at the University of Rome La Sapienza. At dawn on 15 April 1987, he left his house and disappeared – a mystery that still has not been solved. Someone think that he committed suicide, while others believe that he disappeared intentionally, going to a secret destination, perhaps a monastery. He was declared dead in 1998.
All this brings to mind Ettore Majorana’s disappearance. Let me stray from the current discussion for a few minutes, to talk about this similar historical enigma. Ettore Majorana (1906–?) was an Italian theoretical physicist, a genius according to Enrico Fermi and other famous scientists of the time. The first of the ‘Via Panisperna boys’, Fermi’s team in Rome, he theorised the existence of the neutron (James Chadwick, who later proved its existence, was awarded the Nobel Prize), the Majorana fermion particles (which seem to be a part of the ‘missing mass’ of the universe) and the Majorana wave equation, which opened interesting perspectives into quantum mechanics. On 27 March 1938, he vanished during a trip from Palermo to Naples by ship, and his body was never found. Several investigations in the past as well as a recent one didn’t solve this mystery. There are a number of different hypotheses: suicide, escape to Argentina, entering a monastery, becoming a beggar, kidnapping or murder. In 1975, the famous Italian essayist Leonardo Sascia (1921–1989) suggested, in his book The Moro Affair and the Mystery of Majorana, that Majorana had escaped to a monastery. The most recent research seems to indicate that he travelled to Argentina where he worked incognito as an engineer – but there isn’t any incontrovertible proof.
Going back to Federico Caffè, his disappearance hasn’t aroused the same public attention, except within his circle of students and admirers. He was rather shy and reserved. Moreover, his vision for economic policy wasn’t adopted by later generations of politicians, even though he trained some of them – for instance, the ECB president Mario Draghi, the governor of the Bank of Italy Ignazio Visco, the Danish/Italian economist Bruno Amoroso, and again Guido M. Rey, Enrico Giovannini, Nicola Aconcella and Fernando Vianello.
Federico Caffè fought for a more humane society and for the recognition of human dignity. “Nessun male sociale può superare la frustrazione e la disgregazione che la disoccupazione arreca alle collettività umane” (“No social evil surpasses the frustration and the disruption that unemployment causes in the human community”), he said, crying out in warning and in pain. “Sciaguratamente, al posto degli uomini abbiamo sostituito i numeri e alla compassione nei confronti delle sofferenze umane abbiamo sostituito l’assillo dei riequilibri contabili” (“Wickedly, we replaced men with numbers and compassion towards human suffering with the pressure to and goal of balancing the accounts.”) Today financial power dominates national needs and decisions, and makes weaker states impotent. This is especially true of those that have been left behind and have no hope or future, in the name of an absurd austerity that is causing continual crisis and unemployment, and which is stalling any possibility of widespread recovery.
Federico Caffè was convinced that:
“La sovrastruttura finanziario-borsistica con le caratteristiche che presenta nei paesi capitalisticamente avanzati favorisca non già il vigore competitivo ma un gioco spregiudicato di tipo predatorio, che opera sistematicamente a danno di categorie innumerevoli e sprovvedute di risparmiatori in un quadro istituzionale che, di fatto, consente e legittima la ricorrente decurtazione o il pratico spossessamento dei loro peculi.” (The features of the superstructure of finance and the stock markets in the most advanced countries favour not competition, but an unscrupulous predatory game, which systematically operates against the innumerable categories of unprepared savers, in an institutional framework that effectively allows and legitimates the repeated dispossession of their assets).
After his disappearance, three other, very relevant books by him were published: La solitudine del riformista (The solitude of the reformist), Scritti quotidiani (Daily writings), Contro gli incappucciati della finanza (Against the hooded figures of the finance).
I’m especially fond of his Lezioni di politica economica (Lessons of economic policy) and I can’t help but identify with his vision. Especially today, when the consequences of a Europe based only on finance and without roots or values are extremely clear in terms of unemployment, poverty and debts, decline and the human pain of those who have been left behind.
Our values are different. Our roots and values are different and from this “third society” – the category of those who are suffering, at least 30% of the entire population – we have to begin again, according to the splendid, human and religious-like vision of Federico Caffè.
He may have mysteriously disappeared and his message remains unheeded by current politicians and by the “hooded figures”, but his voice is becoming stronger every day.