Sicily Needs a Duchess
Last week, I wrote about Agrigento but what about Sicily as a whole?
The island is a little smaller than Massachusetts but after that the comparison would not go well. By population (five million) it would rank between South Carolina and Alabama, about midway down our population chart.
It’s annual GDP is a little under $100 billion, somewhere between Puerto Rico and Hawaii which is most of the way to the bottom of our state-by-state list, but Sicily would rank well below the bottom of our state chart on GDP per capita (our lowest is about $30,000 while Sicily’s is $20,000). Internationally, it would compare to Greece and it is quite a drag on the entirety of Italy by that measure.
I am not aware of any set of rankings that would compare actual prosperity to potential prosperity but the comparison for Sicily would be bad. It has considerable untapped resources not least because of its superb location at the center of the Mediterranean and its benign comfortable climate. There is also the possibility for a benefactor to become an arts patron on the grandest of scales.
Mt. Etna adds more as a tourist attraction than it detracts as an active volcano.
If you were a professional investor, Sicily would fall into the category of a value stock – one whose potential was unrecognized by the rest of the investment world. Unlocking that value, however, would be a challenge.
I doubt any government could do it and certainly not Italy’s.
Everything below the knee of the Italy boot is an economic basket case that has proven immune to northern efforts to revive it. Then there is the mafia, which tourists don’t even notice because the mafia long ago discovered that there was more money to be made in government shake downs than in banditry.
Here is an example that became apparent to my wife and me on a recent bicycle trip.
Let’s say you have the contract to pick up waste in Catania. Regulations require the residents to separate recycling from garbage and place each in a separate bin. You have to provide separate brightly colored trucks to drive around and empty the bins. That is how the residents judge your work: empty bins good; full bins bad.
Now, you have to take the recycling and garbage to separate disposal locations and pay fees to empty the trucks. That is how various levels of government judge your work: fees paid good; fees not paid bad.
But what if you simply dumped some of the truckloads by the side of the road? Those pesky dumping fees would be avoided, and your profits would increase.
This is a common practice in Sicily, and it reduces the appeal of the island to bicyclists though that is far from the most important reason not to do it.
Imagine this clever profit maximizing plan as an example of much else that transpires on this otherwise pleasant island. Long on resources short on the ability to do much about them. Organizationally challenged and a debt-ridden nightmare.
In determining the value of Sicily, you would have to consider its untapped potential then subtract the cost of overcoming obstacles like mafia garbage collection. It might end up as sort of a vanity project, but there is considerable vanity potential.
Adelaide del Vasto was the Countess of Sicily from 1075 to 1118. It does not look like there have been any others for the last 900 years.
Elisabeth of Sicily was the Duchess of Bavaria from 1310 to 1349. Technically, she would not qualify as a Duchess of Sicily but, again, it does not look like there have been any who were even close to making that claim for nearly 700 years.
Both titles are vacant, and they constitute important assets that could be redeployed toward turning Sicily into a garden spot.
Sicily needs a Duchess and perhaps several Countesses to pull it out of the economic ditch.
Francoise Bettencourt Meyers (L’Oreal, age 66, $50 billion) would be a candidate as would Alice Walton (Walmart, age 70, $44 billion) or Laurene Powell Jobs (Apple, age 56, $19 billion).
There are richer men who could buy the island for their wives, but some like Jeff Bezos and Mike Bloomberg don’t have wives. As a vanity project, Sicily seems more female than male. It is long on history, art, architecture and culture but short on sports franchises. It cries out for a female touch.
As a Duchess or Countess with the mandate to restore all the art and culture of Sicily, the proud patron would be invited to all the best parties like Davos and all of the leading coronations. Tables at restaurants would never be a problem and there would be endless opportunities to signal your virtue.
Nothing tops off a multi-billion-dollar fortune quite like a nice title.
Whatever you think of turning Sicily into a vanity project for a Duchess, it is a far better idea than anything anyone else is coming up with.