The Stepfordization of Yair Lapid

This isn't about the new finance minister as a personality or politician. This is the portrait of a void in a suit.

In the end, it only took Yair Lapid two days to sound exactly like the finance minister before him.

Two days after being appointed, Lapid was already talking about "tough choices" and "unavoidable cutbacks".

Poor Lapid had undergone the exhausting process of Finance Ministry indoctrination, a grueling gauntlet every newly-minted finance minister undergoes, involving days of hearing the same lecture dozens of times by dozens of different people, all seemingly wearing the same suit. Not even Hollywood could come up with a more effective brainwashing technique.

The technique is predicated however on a given characteristic of the finance minister. Namely: that he be an ignoramus on economics, which Lapid certainly is (by his own admission).

Elected on promises to "give back the money" Israel's suffering middle class had lost over the years to various interest groups, the new Lapid seems to have been persuaded that the middle class actually had the money all along.

"We threw a party, and now we have to pay the price," he said last week, claiming he'd had no idea how bad Israel's budgetary problems really were.

You could call it the Stepfordization of Yair Lapid, a man who began with a platform and personality but got molded into a generic finance minister.

Of course, Lapid was not the first to be Stepfordized upon entering the Finance Ministry. Before him was Yuval Steinitz, a philosophy teacher and no socialist but no economist either. Before him was Roni Bar-On, a lawyer with no economic credentials. And before him was Avraham Hirchson, more experienced in economic matters but later convicted of theft. If this was Hollywood they'd film some sort of underground machine churning out crop after crop of be-suited conservative policy zombies. All are taught the Ministry mantra and most importantly: all do as told by the prime minister and their own underlings.

What choice did they have? Certainly, they didn't have any economics larnin' to think on their own. 

Where the power lies

The minister, helpless in his ignorance of his subject matter, is a conduit in a suit. The ones who consider the prime minister's economic policies and how to implement them are the professional clerisy, often derisorily known as "the Finance boys".

"In Israel we have a situation unheard of in the rest of the world: young clerks at the Finance Ministry run the entire government," wrote MK Avishay Braverman, former head of the Knesset Finance Committee and former official at the World Bank, in an op-ed published in TheMarker in 2012.

What has the job of "finance minister" required of candidates? Judging by the reality, we already know it's not economic expertise or academic credentials. Steinitz's background is in philosophy. Lapid didn't even graduate high school. But they didn't need economic larnin' if their job is to rubber-stamp a prime minister's plans.

What else does the finance minister need to do?  The ability to speak well on matters you sometimes know very little about. Steinitz was less a minister and more of an ambassador to a policy dictated by Netanyahu and enforced by the Finance Boys. Lapid seems to be going down the same path.

Unlike Steinitz, however, Lapid entered the political arena with the promise of "new politics" and vowing to find "the money" and reclaim it for his electorate. A week in office he seems to have adopted the same agendas promoted by his predecessors: raising VAT, cutting welfare, while barely touching the defense budget. Is that where "the money" is? Hardly. But it pays off to send a blind dog on the trail.

The queen of the Finance Ministry

So what else marks an Israeli finance minister? A natural sense of recoil when it comes to reforms, for instance. Lapid may have been chosen on a widely reformist platform, but the Finance Ministry is a conservative kingdom and doing more than shifting a few hundred million shekels from point A to point B is all but impossible.

An economic innocent at the head of the ministry is like the queen of England: she may have the crown but parliament is the one in charge.

There have been few major reforms in Israel's finances since the last reformist finance minister, one Benjamin Netanyahu, left office. Why? Former general accountant of the Finance Ministry, Yaron Zelekha claims: "He understood that in order to be prime minister you had to show a proven track record; to stay prime minister, you had to do nothing at all."

If so, that makes Lapid convenient. He lacks the necessary knowledge to develop gumption on economic matters, he speaks very well, and being a wildly adored celebrity, he could probably sell ice to Israeli Eskimos. Too bad that he was chosen on a reformist platform, elevated to unforeseen levels of popularity due to the social protest of 2011, promising to help the middle class. The Israeli public expects him to cut the gargantuan defense budget, jack up corporate taxes, and fight the tycoonization of Israel – because not doing so would mean that he intends to raise their taxes, cut their budgets and fight, well, them.

What will he do? What can he do? Can a media personality that was practically designed to be a docile, submissive Stepford finance minister, bend the government and the Finance boys to his reformist will?

Don't give up yet. Look at Amir Peretz. When appointed to the Defense ministry in 2006, he underwent the same crushing process by that ministry's "boys". But Peretz had a sweetheart project that he firmly believed in, while the "Defense boys" absolutely did not. Peretz refused to capitulate to his ignorance on security affairs or his "training." And thus Israel has Iron Dome.

Will Lapid follow that example and stand strong for his views? Considering that in his first week in office he compared Israel's budget to a household budget, as his predecessors had, I'm worried.In the end, it only took Yair Lapid two days to sound exactly like the finance minister before him.

Two days after being appointed, Lapid was already talking about "tough choices" and "unavoidable cutbacks".

Poor Lapid had undergone the exhausting process of Finance Ministry indoctrination, a grueling gauntlet every newly-minted finance minister undergoes, involving days of hearing the same lecture dozens of times by dozens of different people, all seemingly wearing the same suit. Not even Hollywood could come up with a more effective brainwashing technique.

The technique is predicated however on a given characteristic of the finance minister. Namely: that he be an ignoramus on economics, which Lapid certainly is (by his own admission).

Oh, there it is

Elected on promises to "give back the money" Israel's suffering middle class had lost over the years to various interest groups, the new Lapid seems to have been persuaded that the middle class actually had the money all along.

"We threw a party, and now we have to pay the price," he said last week, claiming he'd had no idea how bad Israel's budgetary problems really were.

You could call it the Stepfordization of Yair Lapid, a man who began with a platform and personality but got molded into a generic finance minister.

Of course, Lapid was not the first to be Stepfordized upon entering the Finance Ministry. Before him was Yuval Steinitz, a philosophy teacher and no socialist but no economist either. Before him was Roni Bar-On, a lawyer with no economic credentials. And before him was Avraham Hirchson, more experienced in economic matters but later convicted of theft. If this was Hollywood they'd film some sort of underground machine churning out crop after crop of be-suited conservative policy zombies. All are taught the Ministry mantra and most importantly: all do as told by the prime minister and their own underlings.

What choice did they have? Certainly, they didn't have any economics larnin' to think on their own. 

The minister, helpless in his ignorance of his subject matter, is a conduit in a suit. The ones who consider the prime minister's economic policies and how to implement them are the professional clerisy, often derisorily known as "the Finance boys".

"In Israel we have a situation unheard of in the rest of the world: young clerks at the Finance Ministry run the entire government," wrote MK Avishay Braverman, former head of the Knesset Finance Committee and former official at the World Bank, in an op-ed published in TheMarker in 2012.

What has the job of "finance minister" required of candidates? Judging by the reality, we already know it's not economic expertise or academic credentials. Steinitz's background is in philosophy. Lapid didn't even graduate high school. But they didn't need economic larnin' if their job is to rubber-stamp a prime minister's plans.

What else does the finance minister need to do?  The ability to speak well on matters you sometimes know very little about. Steinitz was less a minister and more of an ambassador to a policy dictated by Netanyahu and enforced by the Finance Boys. Lapid seems to be going down the same path.

Unlike Steinitz, however, Lapid entered the political arena with the promise of "new politics" and vowing to find "the money" and reclaim it for his electorate. A week in office he seems to have adopted the same agendas promoted by his predecessors: raising VAT, cutting welfare, while barely touching the defense budget. Is that where "the money" is? Hardly. But it pays off to send a blind dog on the trail.

Reuters
Tomer Appelbaum