PO BOYS

For pure theater, it's hard to beat last weekend's stage-managed ''declaration of independence'' by Northern Italian separatists. To the strains of Pachelbel's ''Adagio for Strings,'' Umberto Bossi, leader of the Northern League party, wound up three days of rallies by declaring statehood for the new nation of Padania, which he symbolically baptized with water from the River Po. Padania, he said, will give Northern Italians control over their own finances.

Mr. Bossi is not the first Italian to express disgust with the money pit in Rome, which draws resources from the wealthy North and squanders them in a perpetually impoverished South. Nor is he the most polished carrier of that message: With his shadow Parliament in Mantua, his green-shirted militia - an uncomfortable reminder of Mussolini's thugs - and his shouted harangues about Southern sloth, Mr. Bossi is over the top even by Italy's broad standards.Nonetheless, Mr. Bossi has performed a valuable service for Italy - and, by extension, for other countries that have taken regional cross-subsidies to an extreme. While lacking in finesse, he managed to push the notion of federalism - that is, a more decentralized government - to the top of the agenda. Paradoxically, this may well strengthen Italy's union by reducing the tensions dividing North from South.

Indeed, Mr. Bossi's theatrics may influence events relatively quickly. On Tuesday, barely two days after the symbolic ''baptism'' of the fictitious Padania, members of Italy's Cabinet proposed overhauling the way tax revenues are administered, giving a bigger say to regional governments. While that proposal is a long way from being approved, it goes to the substance of Mr. Bossi's complaint.

The heart of that complaint is a decades-old national scandal: a longstanding policy of funneling massive resources from the productive North to the unproductive South, with no visible effect on the Southern economy. Instead, the funds simply disappeared, gobbled up by make-work projects and sweetheart deals. Much of the money was stolen, lining the pockets of the criminal underworld.

Nonetheless, Rome continued to invent support measures, including big infrastructure projects, job creation schemes, vocational training, and research and development centers. The government subsidized private road companies so they did not have to charge tolls and paid the wages of workers in new companies. It even continued to pay former employees of defunct state-owned factories.

Despite those efforts - or rather, because of them - southern Italy, with 36 percent of the population, still has 54 percent of Italy's unemployment and produces only one-fourth of its output. In many cases the government programs were counterproductive, turning potential real entrepreneurs into grant-writers and political favor-seekers. The North, meanwhile, paid the freight through income tax rates that reach 55 percent in the upper brackets, and received relatively little in return.

To his credit, Mr. Bossi was the first to mobilize popular support for applying brakes to the North-to-South gravy train. His rantings about secession may have been sincere, but that is not what struck a responsive chord. Instead it was the fundamental unfairness of an overly bureaucratized central government that keeps finding new clients for public welfare without ever improving the lot of the supposed beneficiaries.

While Italy has made some attempts lately to reform its fiscal system, the job won't be done overnight. The recipients are likely to use their power in Parliament to block a major decentralization. Mr. Bossi's drive for political secession may have been fanciful - ''a noisy joke,'' according to Italy's prime minister - but it could provide a much-needed counterweight to one of the world's most centralized fiscal systems.

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