Newspapers this week competed in offering the scariest headlines. One touted, "The toughest depression since 1953," while its rival screamed, "The worst year since 1953." So is our economic situation really so dreadful? Have we gone back to the 50s? Are we in the austerity period of the shortages and rationing of Dov Yosef (Budget and Supply Minister in the first Knesset)? That would be truly frightening.
True, 2001 has been a bad year economically. Growth according to the Central Bureau of Statistics will be only 0.5 percent, GDP per head will drop by 1.9 percent. Output of the private sector will shrink by 0.7 percent, exports will slump 11.4 percent. Unpleasant. But if we look at the past few years together, the data appear much less worrisome, because in 2000 we enjoyed tremendous growth of 6.2 percent, GDP per head increased 3.5 percent, private sector output rose 8.3 percent while exports soared by no less than 23.9 percent. But that is nothing compared to 1953. To bring up the austerity years as a comparison is like comparing bin Laden's camel with a U.S. stealth bomber.
The years 1950 to 1953 saw the greatest immigration from North Africa. In 1948 the state's population numbered 900,000 and this doubled before 1953. This tremendous accomplishment, in a period when the country had no money to buy either fuel or wheat, caused severe unemployment among immigrants and negative growth of 1.4 percent. GDP per head back then was $445 a year, 12 percent of the economy worked in agriculture and produced less than what 2.5 percent produce today. The economy was mostly state-owned or Histadrut-affiliated, heavily protected by high quotas and import restrictions. It was inefficient and uncompetitive.
Food was rationed and one could read announcements in the paper such as "Meat rations will not be distributed at month's end, but in two weeks time, when the boat from Argentina arrives." It was a time when the finance minister would have to get on his knees to get credit to pay for fuel imports, otherwise we would have had no electricity. So how can anyone compare Israel today to the Israel of 1953? It is an unnecessary panic-starter, because today - even in such a crisis - it is immeasurably better.
There is a crisis and for known reasons - the intifada, high-tech, Nasdaq, the Twin Towers attack and the danger of a regional war. But despite it all, the basic factors of the economy have not changed. There has been no collapse. The economy has not grounded to a halt; it is still working. The economy is stable, with low inflation, a responsible banking network, a highly skilled work force, high investment levels per employee, world-leading technology. And Israeli high-tech is not dead. It is alive and breathing and waiting for its next opportunity, as is the whole economy.
The world is facing an economic slowdown, part and parcel of the business cycle. Here, for our own reasons, the downturn is all the more acute - but we are a far far cry from the days of Dov Yosef.
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