Reality Check: Hat tip to Lapid!

First of all hat tip to Finance Minister Yair Lapid for making the Treasury’s internal pre-budget discussions a heated national talking point

April 7, 2013 21:46
4 minute read.
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid addresses Conference of Presidents, Feb 12

Yair Lapid 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

It’s not for nothing that economics is called the dismal science, so first of all hat tip to Finance Minister Yair Lapid for making the Treasury’s internal pre-budget discussions a heated national talking point, thanks to his Facebook post about Ricki Cohen from Hadera and her monthly pretax family income of NIS 20,000.

By personalizing the discussion and turning the politician’s cliché of “Mrs. Cohen from Hadera” into Ricki Cohen, and building a backstory to include her profession, the job status of her husband (a not particularly senior hi-tech worker), three children and a trip abroad every two years, Lapid succeeded in bringing the debate to life.

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The Facebook update also highlighted the gulf between Lapid and the country’s old-style politicians. Ehud Barak successfully campaigned in 1999 on the basis of “the old lady on the hospital bed in the corridor in Nahariya,” but Barak would never have had the human empathy or imagination to turn the “old lady” into a “real person” along the lines of Lapid’s Ricki Cohen.

And more importantly, by posting his own impressions of his discussions with his senior staff, Lapid is showing a mastery of social media that no other Israeli politician can touch.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu might have his own Facebook page, carefully uploaded by his staff and enjoying bought “Likes” from Indonesia, but it’s not a truly social page – there is no conversation taking place.

Nor will you find the self-mockery on Netanyahu’s page that you can see on Lapid’s: a post of a photograph of Lapid with US President Barack Obama is captioned: “They had to spend hours before they could find a camera angle making us look the same height.”

Unsurprisingly, for someone who until recently, was one of the country’s leading journalists, Lapid knows how to talk to his audience. Using his honed writing skills, Lapid is taking us, via Facebook, into the discussions he’s having with his staff. In almost real time, he shares with us his beliefs as finance minister: the middle-class is the backbone of the Israeli economy and must be helped; public sector workers are there to serve the public, the police should concentrate on catching criminals rather than just signing the insurance forms after a robbery.

Lapid is deservedly reaping the benefits of this social media strategy.

Despite – and much to their disgruntlement – going over the heads of journalists to communicate directly with the public, Lapid is succeeding in setting the news agenda by posting meaningful updates on Facebook.

Without having to get up at an early hour and be subjected to Razi Barka’i’s often irritating lines of questioning on Army Radio, Lapid made Ricki Cohen’s monthly pre-tax NIS 20,000 the story of the week from the comfort of his PC or mobile device.

LAPID REACHED the NIS 20,000 number by doubling the average wage in the economy (NIS 9,300 a month) to represent a dual-income family, and rounding it up to an instantly memorable figure. As a result, he came under attack for misrepresenting the reality of middle-class life in Israel because many working couples, who regard themselves as middle-class, are more likely to be earning a much lower joint pre-tax sum of NIS 12,000-NIS 13,000.

For those who want to get into the numbers – and Lapid, as finance minister, will soon have to despite his dislike of Excel spreadsheets – this discrepancy between Lapid’s figure and the real world is because of the way the average wage in the economy is skewed upwards, due to the fantastically large salaries enjoyed by a small number of public-sector workers, or businessmen who pay themselves astronomical wages from the private companies they run or own.

But the issue here is not what constitutes being middle-class. – Thankfully, Israel is not a class-conscious society, unlike Britain where a new report has listed seven distinct classes ranging from the elite, to the established middle-class, technical middleclass, newly affluent workers, emergent service workers, traditional working- class and at the bottom, the precariat, where the everyday lives of members of this class are precarious. – Rather, the issue is what Lapid will be able to do to improve the life of Ricki Cohen and other people like her.

THE HARD truth is that Lapid will probably not be able to do much to help Ricki Cohen over the next few years. The major problem facing the middle-classes, according to Lapid, is their inability to help their children buy houses due to the country’s exceedingly high price of real estate, but this is not a problem a finance minister can solve.

Until the Israeli Lands Authority frees up more land for construction and the process for planning approvals is speeded up – neither of which elements are under Treasury control – little will happen to bring prices down to a more realistic and affordable level.

In fact, the next few years are going to be tough. As Lapid noted in his Facebook post, if Israel is to avoid turning into a Greece or Cyprus, severe budget cuts are going to have to be made to reduce the country’s NIS 30 billion overdraft. But if these cuts are made in conjunction with policies to encourage the entrance of male haredim and married Arab women into the workforce, along with the opening up of state-owned monopolies such as the Israeli Electric Corporation and the ports to competition, as well as public-sector reform to make it more efficient, then Lapid will still have plenty of material for status updates for his Facebook page.

The writer is a former editor-in-chief of
The Jerusalem Post.

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