Were Italian Cruisers Killed by Nepotism?

02/03/2012 01:11 EST | Updated 04/04/2012 05:12 EDT

The mystery of the sinking of the Costa Concordia isn't so much what caused the accident, we know that story all too well. The real mystery is how someone as incompetent as Capitan Francesco Schettino, got the job in the first place.

To solve the mystery is to understand how the Italian economy works, or doesn't in this case. It's not one based principally on meritocracy. When looking for work, family connections and status are more important than competence, skill, and education. And from anecdotal evidence, this is true whether in the north or south of Italy even though Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam made the point in his book, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy that social capital is stronger in northern Italy and hence has less corruption.

I'll wager Schettino rose quickly through the ranks not because he was a fine captain, but was privileged with family connections in the naval business. According to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Schettino was "trained" at the naval institute in Piano di Sorrento "passing" all his tests. (He must have missed the lesson about not abandoning passengers when the ship is sinking.)

It's not unusual for Italian students who come from well-connected families to get special treatment in schools with higher grades and easier degrees. Not that wealth doesn't have its privileges in other countries, but in Italy there is an expectation that institutions will bend over backwards to accommodate those with names from wealthly and powerful families. If your name is Montezemolo, De Michelis, or Agnelli, you float above the struggling masses with better services, status, and titles.

Aside from the demoralizing affect of nepotism, the entire country suffers economically. That's one reason Italy has struggled for years with little growth and poor productivity. It carries too much dead weight. There are instances where two people are hired for the same job; one for the well-connected, the other for someone to do the work. It's worse in the public sector where thousands of phantom workers collect salaries who never show up for work.

Did Schettino benefit from nepotism? Hard to say, but what's undeniable is that in Italian society meritocracy takes a back seat to family connections. After all, Schettino's first call when he made it to shore was to his mother.