The protesters’ demands

The protesters’ demands fit snugly into the populist empowerment-polemics rubric.

Social Justice Rally 465 2 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Social Justice Rally 465 2
(photo credit: REUTERS)
After several weeks of generalized agitation for nebulous “social justice,” Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard tent-protesters and student union representatives have hammered out their joint list of demands. Their qualifications to fix Israel’s entire socioeconomic system aside, their catalogue of demands is so all-encompassing, and so radical, that no government of any political persuasion could plausibly meet it.
Regrettably, therefore, it must be judged as more populist than serious.
Populist discourse pits “the people” against “the elite” and ballyhoos sweeping, often unrealistic changes in the sociopolitical system. Because these are so across the board, they’re bound to include something for everyone and thus superficially appeal to broad, unspecified segments of society.
Claiming to sound the undiluted voice of “average folks” versus oppressive and privileged classes can be intoxicating. The protesters’ demands fit snugly into the populist empowerment-polemics rubric.
Headlined “Guidelines for a New Social and Economic Agenda,” these demands include reducing indirect taxes while hiking direct and capital gains levies; investing surplus revenues in social programs; annulling anti-bureaucracy legislation geared to speed up construction (which, protesters, aver would benefit contractors); more mortgage and rent subsidies; free education from age three months through university; overhauling Israel’s medical infrastructure; halting the privatization of welfare and mental health facilities; and cancelling private-contractor participation in public-sector projects.
No cost-estimates for the above have been furnished, and no timetables.
Some postulates are incontestable. Indirect taxes are regressive. Nonetheless, do we want to return to the 80- percent income-tax brackets that once stymied our economy? Tycoons, with armies of accountants and lawyers, will find loopholes. The middle classes, in whose name the protests are mounted, will inevitably be hard hit.
Privatization must indeed have its limits, especially when it concerns services liable to be misused by big business. Mental health facilities and mother-and-child clinics certainly come into this category.
Overhauling the medical infrastructure is worthy; but how to achieve it is another matter. When things are easier said than done, we enter the sphere of demagoguery.
The anti-contractor clauses are cases in point. If private contractors are barred from various programs, things will get worse, not better – as they were in the Israel of the 1950s, when shoddy, undersized future slums were put up by government/Histadrut functionaries. Smallish flats built to please young singles won’t do when they start families.
Subsidies are expedient, but who’ll foot the bill? The same goes for “educating” three-month-old infants – a euphemism for diaper-changing services. Such largesse with taxpayer funds exists nowhere, and it’s doubtful that any country can afford it – least of all Israel, which is, inter alia, lumbered with existential burdens unequalled anywhere.
Decades ago, late finance minister Yigal Hurwitz responded to demands for exorbitant welfare expenditures by turning his pockets inside-out and shouting “I’ve got nothing!” He also called on “all crazies” to “get down off the roof.” Today, there’s nobody in high places with his fearless straight-talking and earthy grit. Even if many current higher-ups feel Hurvitz’s outspoken pronouncements remain valid, they won’t dare say so.
The current spate of social protest is so intrinsically populist and has been so hyped by the media that anyone who dares to object will be commiting PR suicide. Entertainer Margalit Tzan’ani, who boldly questioned the protest instigators’ goals, was so pilloried that she had to backtrack just a day later. No politician missed the message.
By definition, populism is popular, but it is frequently irrational and introduces instability into the political process, no matter how enticing or compelling its rhetoric appears on first hearing.
Critical appraisal is mandated from us all, and especially from the government, which, despite its natural craving for popularity, must not give in to demands that are bound to unbalance the collective budget and leave us far worse off than we are now.
It’s not easy to be fiscally responsible in the face of a seemingly grassroots outcry. It is, on the other hand, easy to end up where Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Spain currently are.
We‘re moaning about the marmalade, not about the bread and butter. Things can get a lot worse if unemployment ensues as a result of overspending. In Spain , 45% of young people are jobless. We don’t want to be dragged down that path.