Into The Fray: Come to the carnival, comrade!

The protests smack more of political frustration on the part of the opposition and its media cronies, than of genuine economic deprivation of the middle class

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August 5, 2011 06:29
Tel Aviv housing prices tent protest

Tel Aviv housing prices tent protest 311 . (photo credit: Channel 10)

 
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With little political steam left in the “peace process,” the left-leaning opposition is looking desperately for a new card to play. Their unlikely, inappropriate and outdated choice: “Social justice.”

With commendable professional integrity, Uzi Benziman, editor of the Israel Democracy Institute’s blog The Seventh Eye, posed this candid question: “There is a puzzling discrepancy between the bitterness expressed in the housing protest and the satisfaction with life in Israel expressed in recent polls. Could it be that the way the rebellion is depicted in the media is influenced by the journalists’ personal identification with its objectives?” It is question that must be addressed both in the specific context of the ongoing protests and in the general context of how the public discourse is manipulated in this country, and why certain issues are accorded prominence, while others are consigned to obscurity.

Grounds for genuine grievances

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Don’t get me wrong! Israel’s socioeconomic fabric is far from unblemished! Social workers’ salaries are scandalously low – and dangerously shortsighted. An underpaid, overworked police force is a guaranteed formula for the spread of corrosive and crippling corruption and lawlessness. The meager remuneration for teachers and doctors is wildly out of sync with their value to society.

Yes, there is little room for social complacency.

This is a country whose only significant productive resource is the human resource. Widespread social iniquities would entail huge economic costs. Accordingly, outlays on health, education and public safety should not be considered unproductive welfare expenses, but investments in capital maintenance. Without a healthy, well-educated, motivated workforce, the economy would be unable to compete as a modern wealth-generating entity. This is not bleeding- heart socialist doctrine, merely hardheaded capitalistic realism.

In this regard, criticism can reasonably be leveled at the Finance Ministry – under both the current and past governments. This is particularly true of its influential Budgets Division, which is often afflicted by both short-sightedness and tunnel-vision, consistently subordinating long-term, systemic considerations to a short-term, “penny wise, pound foolish” dogma of fiscal austerity.

The Budgets Division has made the deficit the overriding criterion for providing – or rather, not providing – resources for sorely needed national enterprises, thus delaying projects clearly capable of eventually generating revenues that would have easily covered the initial budget outlays – and conceivably prevented much of the current outcry.



Down with daily difficulties

That said, the sudden rash of country-wide protests has a distinctly unauthentic ring. It is one thing to decry exorbitant overpricing by private corporations in uncompetitive, centralized local markets and/or chronic deficiencies in supply induced by bureaucratic gridlock. It is quite another to demand sweeping restructuring of the entire socioeconomic edifice with a “back-to-the-future” reinstatement of a “socialist paradise” and an unaffordable, anachronistic welfare state.

As such, the protests smack more of political frustration on the part of the opposition and its media cronies, than of genuine economic deprivation of the middle class. They are being seized on as tool for social division rather than for social solidarity, to ferment – with the use of incendiary innuendo – resentment against the “settlers” and the religious.

With business slow in the “peace industry,” they are increasing being exposed as a flimsy pretext to denigrate the government rather than in a sincere endeavor to reform society.

Suddenly, perennial proponents of Palestinian statehood have morphed into socially sensitive activists, advocating the elimination of difficulty in daily life, and demanding the enhancement of everything. Suddenly, everything in country – from housing through medical services to food prices – is a legitimate target of revolutionary rage.

From the picture painted by protesters – and eagerly conveyed by a brazenly biased press – one might think that life in Israel was an unbearable ordeal for most of the downtrodden masses. It is a picture that sits uneasily with the facts.

Meanwhile, back on planet Earth

Last year, Israel was admitted to the prestigious OECD group of the world’s most-developed nations, and while the inequality index in Israel is somewhat higher than the OECD average, its is just slightly above that of the UK, Australia and Italy and not that different from that of Japan and New Zealand.

So it seems that Israel’s impressive economic development has not been accompanied by any inordinate socioeconomic iniquities, relative to other OECD members. Indeed, there is compelling evidence that the Israeli economy – and many Israelis – are faring considerably better than their counterparts in much of the developed world.

Last April, in a Gallup survey to gauge “well-being” in 124 countries, Israel scored remarkably well. In only 19 countries, a majority defined themselves as “thriving,” rather than “struggling,” or “suffering.”

Israel ranked seventh, with 63 percent seeing themselves as “thriving,” tying with New Zealand, close on the heels of Finland and Australia and ahead of the Netherlands, US, Austria and UK.

These findings closely parallel those in a study by the OECD itself, assessing the quality of life in member countries. Again Israel fared well. Seventy-two percent of Israelis were satisfied with life, well above the OECD average. They were also better educated and enjoyed higher life-expectancy, reflecting favorably on the general level of health care in the country.

Locally conducted polls reinforce this picture.

A Central Bureau of Statistics survey published in mid-2009 showed Israelis greatly satisfied with their lives, their professions, their places of employment... and their income.

Pampered, pompous and politically partisan

Looking at the Israel economy overall, especially in the light of the teetering fates of several other OCED nations, the sudden outburst of outrage is difficult to comprehend.

As the polls referred to above attest, it certainly cannot be attributed to years of simmering dissatisfaction. The outrage can, perhaps, be traced to what the BBC diagnosed as the frustration caused by aspiring to Swiss living standards on Greek-level incomes. Largely untouched by the world economic crisis and accustomed to increasing consumption, Israelis are refusing to tailor their expectations to their means. Keeping up with the Joneses is becoming increasingly onerous, inducing many to live stressfully beyond their means.

But justified or not, the frustration is real, and is being hijacked for political ends.

Claims that the protests are non-partisan are patently ridiculous. To accuse the government of pandering to the wealthy is wildly unjustified. Arguably more than any of its predecessors, it has been willing to challenge the monopolists/oligopolists and to confront the “tycoons” – even incurring plutocratic wrath by retroactively raising royalties on the profits from the newly discovered natural gas fields.

The left-wing bias is clearly evident not only from what the protesters are demanding, but from what they are not.

Indeed, their demands appear to be a hodge-podge of poorly thought out proposals for a cradle-to-grave welfare state that has brought several EU countries to the verge of collapse. In a risible attempt at economic alchemy, the protesters specify no discernable source of finance for this package of “social justice” other than reducing indirect taxes.

But even more revealing is what is not on the protesters’ agenda. Conspicuous by absence is any suggestion of consumer boycotts against the avaricious private monopolies/ oligopolies, the real culprits for much of the excessive price hikes. (After all, high prices can only be maintained if consumers are willing and able to pay them.) Nor do they advocate assertive measures to decentralize the economy, or reducing prices by encouraging more competitive imports – perhaps out of fear of alienating the agricultural sector that runs large dairy farms supplying the “cottage-cheese” producing oligopolies.

Likewise, there are no proposals to reduce rampant tax delinquency in the Arab sector, or to end the general lawless in the Negev.

While they berate the low cost of real estate the “settlers” allegedly enjoy, there is no word about the illegal takeover of state land by the Beduin in the South, and the attendant cost to deal with it.

Apparently that would be too politically incorrect for the “new social order.” While they bewail funds for the ultra-Orthodox, they are silent on the scandalous expenditure of tax revenues that sustain polygamy among the Beduin, involving multiple marriages to women brought in from Gaza and the Palestinian Authority.

Described by police sources as a pervasive “social trend,” this is a growing iniquity funded by welfare payments from the National Insurance Institute that seems to leave the protesters’ social sensibilities un-offended.

Last but not least, the cost of housing.

Surely any non-partisan body genuinely concerned with high housing prices would embrace the most obvious and proven measure for reducing them: an end to the building freeze in the “territories” and accelerated construction there to increase the supply of accommodation so as to arrest the upward pressure on markets in the Dan region.

And surely if the protesters have no political affiliation, they would not eschew such an immediate remedy. After all, this is precisely what the Rabin government did! Despite 1992 electoral pledges to freeze construction across the Green Line and “dry up” the settlements, it quickly realized that this produced skyrocketing real-estate prices.

The prompt response was to approve – in mid-1994 – massive construction in the “settlements,” which kept price rises in check.

There is little doubt that current constraints on building in “the territories” are a major factor contributing to the exorbitant prices of housing in country – but one the protesters studiously eschew mentioning.

In conclusion

Genuine non-political social protest? Give me a break!

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