'Why didn't planners worry about the country for a change?'
TAU Prof. Dan Ben-David says problems facing Israel becoming apparent, providing "great opportunity to change course, to do the things for the long run."
By SAM GREENBERG
"A severe crisis is also a huge opportunity if you know how to utilize it, [but]" this budget is a missed opportunity that can have catastrophic consequences down the road." Tel Aviv University Prof. Dan Ben-David said on Thursday.
Ben-David, who is the executive director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, said that while it is usually hard to bring major reforms to the budget, since this year the problems Israel faces will become very apparent, "it's a great opportunity to change course, to do the things for the long run that we couldn't do for the past few decades. This budget doesn't take advantage of the major recession that's ahead of us."
In describing how the budget is formed, he said "The whole approach is wrong."
"A lot of the arguments that we're having today are just demagogic, because every minister is just looking at his own field, saying 'Give me more because this is where we need it,' but nobody's looking at the big picture, and the big picture is such that we're heading into a really bad year and we're going to have to spend a lot of money," he said.
"What we have now is automatic increases all across the board, so we're shelling out huge amounts for all kinds of things that help only small groups," he added.
Government officials, he believes, needs to seriously consider what the national priorities are, and "worry about the country for a change."
"First of all, you help the general body of the population," he explained. "If somebody's poor, it doesn't matter if he's haredi, if he's Arab or if he's Jewish." Specific sectors, sects and interest groups should only get what money is left over after the country as a whole is served.
Ben-David said that spending money to repair the education system is imperative for advancing the common good.
"The bottom line is that we have the worst education system in the western world, and what we have as a result is [that] our poverty rates have been increasing for the past three decades, same for income inequality, and we have one of the lowest rates of long-term economic growth," he said. "A large, growing percentage of Israelis are not receiving the tools to work in an open, competitive, modern economy."
He sees a great potential to address this problem in the economic crisis, which will leave many educated professionals unemployed.
"These are people who we can only dream about having them teach our kids and teach 20 and 30 year olds who are out of the job market. This is a time when instead of ignoring them we're going to have to help them anyways, so if we're going to have to help them, why not try to move at least some of them into teaching?"
Ben-David added that with the economic troubles facing many foreign universities, it would not be hard to convince some Israeli professors to return to teach here.
Ben-David said that unemployment benefits had to be reformed for the many adults left without a job.
"Unemployment benefits in Israel are among the worst in the western world," he said. "The rationale behind it is that of you're very nice about giving unemployment benefits then people will have less of an incentive to look for a job. The coming period is one where a lot of people will lose their jobs â€¦ this is not an issue of incentives at this point; this is an issue if helping people get by this really tough period."
While he said he believes in a free market, "there are market failures. That's where a government needs to step in."
Were it up to him to decide how the government addresses the problem, he said he would "reconfigure everything from scratch. Ask basically, what does Israel want to attain in the next 10 years? What does it need to do to reach that?"
Long-term planning, as well as a more transparent budget, are the overarching principles he believes the country needs. Ultimately, he feels it is not too late for Israel to benefit from the economic crisis.
"Because it's a really bad year we can take advantage of it, and bring Israel to the point that once we get out of the recession, we could be on the point of takeoff. If you think about the capacity of this country, the capability, the sky's the limit. We could be in a totally different place if we utilized the abilities inherent in the population here," he said.
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