Ask Italian students what awaits them on the far side of their degrees and they shrug. Ask their parents when or how Italy will turn the corner and you get the same expression of bafflement. You hear more than you did 10 or even five years ago about migrations to Britain, to the United States. You hear less faith in tomorrow.

I’ve been startled by it. Also spooked, because I arrived here straight from our government shutdown, and I’ve observed Italy’s discontent through a filter of America’s woes, processing it as a cautionary tale. Italy is what happens when a country knows full well what its problems are but can’t summon the discipline and will to fix them. It’s what happens when political dysfunction grinds on and on and good governance becomes a mirage, a myth, a joke. Italy coasts on its phenomenal blessings rather than building on them and loses traction in a global economy with more driven competitors. Sound familiar? There’s so much beauty and promise here, and so much waste. Italy breaks your heart…

Just step off the high-speed train (which is terrific) or exit the autostrada and travel the lesser byways, crumbling into disrepair. Or try to throw your empty gelato cup into one of the proper trash cans in the country’s storied capital, Rome. They’re seemingly always full or overflowing. The one I turned to near the Italian Chamber of Deputies one night had gone unattended for so long that people were just leaving their garbage at its base, where a hump of refuse rose: the eighth hill of Rome. In a city whose stressed budget and inefficiencies mirror the country’s, garbage has become a huge issue, a symptom of the body politic’s iffy health.