Yair Lapid, the Two Mrs. Cohens, and the Infantilization of Israeli Economics

The commentariat and twitterati may have stuck their knives into Lapid's Facebook column but as long as there is no one educating the public to demand anything better, Lapid will continue setting his own shallow agenda.

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As of Sunday night, the most famous woman on the Israeli financial scene is a certain Riki (Rivka) Cohen. She was launched on a meteoric trajectory to fame just as most Israelis were settling in for the last long sleep of the Passover vacation and as Yair Lapid, not long ago the most popular columnist in the country and for the last two weeks, Israel's finance minister, updated his Facebook account.

Israel's Mrs. Cohen doesn't know much about economics, but she knows that like most of the middle class, she is being squeezed. She existed first as a figment of Lapid's imagination: his model citizen. But she quickly became a symbol, a figurehead for the fiscal ignorance of the wider Israeli public. It would have been so much better if Lapid, instead of inventing his own Mrs. Cohen, would have looked to England where another Mrs. Cohen, a real one, is the symbol of the British public's self-awareness on money matters. She would never have allowed a politician to label her in such a cavalier fashion.

Lapid's vapid Facebook text was a rather romanticized account of yet another meeting between the new minister and his top officials on how to shrink the gaping deficit and of how Lapid ordered the economists and number-crunchers to put away their graphs and spreadsheets to start talking about Mrs. Cohen. What came next was a presentation on a fictional Israeli high school teacher, Riki Cohen, 37, of Hadera, who is married to a mid-level technology company employee, with three kids and a family income of just of over NIS 20,000. "We sit here, day after day," Lapid lectured his civil servants, "and talk about balancing the budget. But our job is not to balance Excel spreadsheets, but to help Mrs. Cohen."

He went on to extol Riki as the quintessential embodiment of the Israeli middle class – "people who get up in the morning, work hard, pay taxes, don't belong to any sector but carry on their back the entire Israeli economy. What are we doing for her? Do we remember we work for her?" And then he ordered them to go home and prepare for the next meeting some ideas how they can help Mrs. Cohen.

Lapid's post was eviscerated, first by the denizens of social media on Monday and then Tuesday morning in the newspapers by financial and political commentators. And there was no shortage of ammunition.

For a start, a joint income of over NIS 20,000 places an Israeli family in the second decile, which may be middle class by the social definition but still puts the Cohen family way above the average Israeli. Surely, the finance minister should be urging his officials to work on behalf of over 80 percent of Israeli families with less income than the Cohens'. Lapid wrote that the Cohens own their apartment but are worried they will not be able to buy their children homes when they grow up. What planet does Lapid live on? Most Israelis are trying to hold on to what they have, not imagining they will ever be capable of buying apartments for their offspring. Others objected to the paternalistic characterization of Mrs. Cohen: why is she the teacher while Mr. Cohen makes (a bit) more money in high-tech? And what about single-parent families? And what about Israeli Arabs? And what about the crazy inflated salaries of bank managers? All legitimate criticisms, of course, but the real problem is that Mr. Lapid, a minister for two weeks, seems yet to have realized that he is no longer on the campaign trail.

Politicians the world over seek to "humanize" financial issues by focusing on the challenges faced by one specific voter. Barack Obama did it in one of the debates against Mitt Romney. It is a standard, though effective, rhetorical trick. You mention the name and hometown of one voter you have spoken to on the trail and speak for a minute about how he built a business or learned a profession that he might now lose; how he fears he won't be able to help his children go to college. It helps make the candidate seem close to "ordinary people" and sounds much better than any explanation on the levels of taxation and on budget cuts. But Lapid is now a minister, the next Israeli elections are four years away, and as the man in charge of delivering the next state budget, he has to work on the bigger picture with his Treasury advisers, not persuade them to vote for him.

But macroeconomics is routinely treated in a childish fashion in Israeli politics – Lapid simply has to get used to the fact that the Treasury is the one place where people actually act like professional grown-ups.

Some Anglo-Israelis who read Lapid's patronizing post were immediately reminded of the other Mrs. Cohen – one who shares few worries with Riki Cohen of Hadera. Mrs. Bernice Cohen, the presenter of Mrs. Cohen's Money, a personal finance advice show on British television, who during the 1990's, was a popular pundit, columnist and best-selling writer. She lectured to the British public on the need to get educated regarding the financial issues directly impacting them, on their capability of investing profitably in the stock markets and on demanding from the financial authorities greater transparency on the way taxpayer money was being used and abused.

The redoubtable Mrs. Cohen of Pinner in north-west London, now 76 and comfortably retired, learned to research the markets and arm herself with the relevant economic information the hard way, after seeing most of her savings and retirement funds wiped out and after being forced to become an "armchair investor" to recoup her losses. Her message to British viewers was, first, to be aware of their personal situations, how much money they were actually making, spending and how they could begin to responsibly invest whatever available funds they may have. This can be summarized in two words – "grow up."

And besides the amusing coincidence of their identical family names, the same message is long overdue also from Mrs. Cohen of Hadera. Most of us aren't trained economists but that doesn't mean we should allow them or their minister to patronize us. If you had asked Mrs. Cohen from London what to do, she would have answered, don't wait for the politicians to help; learn, research, be aware, and help yourself.

Lapid's new party, Yesh Atid, did not publish a detailed economic plan before the elections; neither did the ruling party Likud, nor any other party in the last Israeli elections, for that matter. With the exception of Labor, which presented a program mainly based on widely expanded, and according to most economists, unsustainable social spending. But this is merely par for the course in Israeli politics, and unthinkable in Western democracies. American or European politicians may also talk about the plight of a specific voter, just like Lapid, but if they want to get voted into office they had better also have a serious plan for balancing the budget – including the tax rate and the programs they plan to cut, or preserve.

Israeli politicians do not feel they have to do the same and by and large the local media does not hold them accountable. There is no Israeli Mrs. Cohen demanding transparency – most of the financial commentators talk to the elite and the money-matters shows on television are very shallow, dedicated mainly to consumer affairs and lionizing tycoons. Whether or not Lapid succeeds or fails as steward of Israel's economy, it won't be because he refused to explain his plans to the public. The commentariat and twitterati may have stuck their knives into his Facebook column but as long as there is no Mrs. Cohen educating the public to demand anything better, Lapid will continue setting his own shallow agenda.  

Yair Lapid gestures as he delivers a speech at his "Yesh Atid" party in Tel Aviv, January 23, 2013. Credit: AP

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