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