Populist fever

If Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu hadn’t moved up the elections to early 2013, we’d be voting in late 2013.

Sooner or later, the race must be run next year.

But the difference, in political terms, of when we go to the polls is huge. It matters cardinally to what’s best for the country rather than what’s best for any party. Here Netanyahu has undeniably opted for what’s best for the country.

We all know that the 2013 budget must be put together and then put to a Knesset vote. We all know that this annually entails intense haggling. We should all be equally aware that the budget now awaiting deliberation is likely to be full of edicts that would perforce increase the burdens already weighing down on ordinary folks.

We should all know that this isn’t the product of arbitrary hardheartedness. The world’s leading economies are all – without exception – in deep trouble, and this cannot but rub off on us. Hence the need for what should be – for the collective good – an austerity budget, or one close to an austerity budget.

It’s conventional wisdom that it’s easier to pass an unpopular budget after having received a mandate from the public than to attempt it before having faced the electorate. Political common sense rules against going to the voter after having inflicted an austerity budget, even if this is warranted by objective reality.

Moreover, even if Netanyahu were altruistically to put all the above cogent considerations out of mind and adopt a semi-suicidal political course (as his detractors would surely have liked him to do), it wouldn’t work.

It wouldn’t work primarily because all players in the political arena know the clock is ticking. With elections unavoidably in the offing, no political faction would earnestly consider the budget in terms of what is best for the economy. Trumping everything would be the upcoming campaign, i.e., the need to appeal to constituents and put their sectarian interests even more ahead of the greater good than is the usual inclination.

Thus the horse-trading about a particularly difficult budget would be overshadowed by an election season. No Knesset candidates can afford to ignore the political calendar.

Given this, concocting a budget becomes a mission impossible, with all MKs focusing on the contest for electoral support directly ahead. The inducement to curry favor with the voters would grow all the greater at the unquestionable expense of doing the right thing.

In a nutshell, this is called populism – catchall demagoguery that purports to side with the “people” against the “elites.” Populism doesn’t make for good economic management, but it can be exploited to make political capital. Populists of varying political colors will tell the public that cutbacks and belt-tightening are ruthless unjustifiable greed.

Short-term carping over higher prices and fewer entitlements stokes populist furnaces. It allows populists to misrepresent economic reality in order to appear like righteous protectors of the common man. If election fever coincides with budget time, politicians are tempted to wax populist, at which point no rational budget is remotely attainable.

In the background hover existential concerns, certainly not disconnected from economic circumstances. Dangers of war don’t improve our economic prospects. But even barring outright confrontation, extreme geopolitical uncertainties don’t help stabilize an economy, already imperiled by economic instability abroad.

We aren’t an island. When basic commodities cost more abroad, we pay more. When countries to which we export goods find themselves in dire economic straits and buy less from us, they inflict pain on our industries, hi-tech sector, etc. This is unavoidable.

Beyond all this looms the US political picture. Whatever the outcome of America’s elections, it would serve our interests better to face the winner with an Israeli government that enjoys a new mandate for potentially four years than with one at the end of its road and susceptible to foreign interference (hardly unprecedented) in our own domestic democratic processes.

Given the 2013 challenges, we’re better off casting our ballots early in the year than doing the same later in the year with a bad budget and greater vulnerability to excruciating political pressure from overseas.

7 thoughts on “Populist fever

  1. The Brits went with austerity and are now in their second recession. What is needed is a higher tax rate for the rich Israelis especially the “five families” that seem to own just about everything. Austerity is the last thing you want to impose as what that really means is higher unemplyment (after all, austerity means cutting jobs), leading to less spending (if I don’t have a job I’m not shopping) leading to manufacturers cutting back because nobody is buying. Much better that these billionaires should have to cut back to five mansions instead of six.

    • There’s just so much you can milk the richest families. The bulk of any country’s taxes does not come from them.
      As for austerity and right-wing economic policy, it means less government spending, while creating more jobs in the private sector. More jobs in the private sector means more people paying taxes.

      • It’s about solidarity wizardofil. There is as little among the Jews as between the rich and the poor anywhere. During the Hitler years, the rich got out, the poor
        were deported. Never Again? It happens again and again.
        Your right-wing economic calculus bids us “be kind to the rich”
        with the promise that the wealth with trickle down.
        Fat chance. Mostly the rich get richer.

        What is morally intolerable is not wealth per se, but poverty in the
        midsts of plenty.

        Read Bernard Wasserstein, “On The Eve: The Jews of Europe Before The
        Second World War.” (Simon & Schuster 2012)

      • Alison, please note that this column’s thrust is against populism and that populism is defined as the demagogic pitting of the “masses” against the so-called elites. Populism is propagandistic distortion which is what this piece rails against. You, however, blithely echo propagandistic slogans. You seem not to have understood the contents of Sarah’s article.

        Gunter, what you write is no less than vile. Yes, folks who could afford it had more chance of running (like German Jews) and yes, the poor (like Polish Jews) had less opportunity to escape. But this is no evil machination. These were the hard facts of reality.

        In the end, however, the Germans (of all socioeconomic classes) exterminated both rich and poor Jews. They didn’t discriminate. They were equal-opportunity mass-murderers. To impute guilt on the victims (even the better-off ones) is unconscionable.

        At fault besides the Germans, were the world’s democracies which allowed no Jews safe-havens (leastways not in numbers that at all mattered). The world didn’t care about Jews then and the world still doesn’t care about Jews now. This is the constant truth we must keep in mind and not seek to blame our own.

      • What is vile and immoral is poverty, hunger and disease in the midst of riches and abundance,
        Moran. Poverty exists, even among Holocaust survivors in Israel. Why is that?

        You don’t have to tell me about the Holocaust Moran. I am the only survivor of my family.
        My father, age 40, and mother, age 38, perished in Sobibor and Lublin, 1943.
        We couldn’t get in and we couldn’t get out. A ton of literature has spoken to the question
        “how it could it have happened?”

        The Capitalist Depression, leading to widespread unemployment and poverty set the stage for Hitler after WW I. The Jews were scapegoated and paid the price. The rich German Jews
        also lost, but they had enough money and connections to get visas. Also, prominent
        Jews collaborated with the Nazis with the pretense of being a buffer, to protect the deportees
        from Nazi brutality. Preparing the deportation lists and meeting the Nazi demands entitled
        them, their families and friends to be exempted from deportation until no Jews remained.
        In Warsaw, at least, the resistance overcame the fear of “dire consequences” fed to
        the population by the Judenrat. They died fighting.

        Could it have been different? I believe so. If the well-to-do Jews who hoped to be fully
        assimilated by trumpeting that they were “Germans first” had not opposed the Zionists,
        but had joined them, they could have organized a resistance to the brown-shirted thugs
        that sparked Hitler’s initial success. There was even a Jewish arms manufacturer in Germany
        who could have provided the Jews with arms. Had there been solidarity among the Jews,
        had they faced antisemitism together, they might even have succeeded in receiving
        support, especially from the Communists.

        Again, the tragedy of a myriad of conflicts among the Jews, their lack of solidarity,
        sealed their fate. I submit to you that your kind of detached capitalist mentality,
        “Jedem das Seine”, produced the passivity that led to the Catastrophe.

        After the war, the survivors’ hopes for a better world kindled by the United
        Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights was short-lived.
        We who lost everything, soon realized that the postwar “normalization process”
        returned us to the status quo ante. The world didn’t stop to consider its
        moral failures in its haste to return to business as usual.
        As the free market wills it, the abyss between the rich and the poor is widening.

        As Thrasymachus averred in Plato’s Republic: “Justice is in the interest of the stronger.”

        günter hiller

  2. On the January election, an old Yiddish saying ;Man plans,God laughs comes to mind.
    Watching Turkey stoke the flames with Syria lately just before Obama’s re-election bid,US troops sent into Jordan for a ‘chemical’ mission and the large US/Israel military exercise starting Sunday, the movie ‘Wag the Dog’ comes to mind. Obama’s sinister nature has me watching closely.
    It won’t take much to set the spark that ignites everything and then we’ll have another kind of fever.
    An Israeli election with the many political and economic problems plaguing Israel might just recede to the tail end of the ‘to do list’ by January.

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