Captains of Concentration Get Their Day

What do we want, democracy or oligarchy? Seven people versus seven million. Can those seven ride roughshod over the interests of the seven million? In Israel 2010, it appears, they can.

Tonight Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will convene a number of top officials, including Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer, to decide whether to create a panel on the most charged and frightening economic issue that Jerusalem has faced in years: economic concentration. The tremendous clout wielded by a mere handful of tycoons over the masses.

Tomer Applebaum

The discussion in the Prime Minister's Office should never have been necessary. The moment the prime minister and governor of the Bank of Israel decided last year that the concentration of wealth was hurting competition, productivity, financial stability and democracy, they should have appointed a team of experts to study the issue in depth and make recommendations.

But the moment Netanyahu and Fischer put the topic up for discussion, the true face of concentration began to emerge, and it was a terrifying beast, capable of buying any analyst or halting even the bravest of public servants in their tracks.

Every year brings dozens of public commissions: ministerial committees, panels of directors general, experts and inter-ministerial missions, and on and on. None have required months of preliminary discussion about whether the committee was needed. That fact attests to the dimensions of the pressure, and the fear.

Let's assume there's a chance that experts delve into the matter and reach the conclusion that government intervention isn't needed. That the rising number of cartels and monopolies is natural. That it's right and proper for a handful of people to control half the top jobs in the country. That their power to make politicians and regulators quail is normal in any democracy. That that's how it is everywhere and that a lack of competition in Israel is a diktat of fate.

Okay. So why the fear? Why the hesitation? Why summon a special debate on whether or not a committee to study economic concentration needs to be established?

What could be simpler than naming a committee of independent experts who don't need favors or jobs from the tycoons to delve deep into the bowels of the matter and formulate conclusions, which could range from "massive government intervention is needed" to "some areas need attention, such as separating finance and non-finance investments."

The reason for the fear is clear. Israel has seven, or 10, or 20 people, the precise number doesn't matter, who control a trillion shekels worth of public resources. Twenty oligarchs who hold most of the people's money. Twenty tycoons who make hundreds of top-level appointments, who control thousands upon thousands of jobs in the private sector, who spend billions on consultants, lawyers, accountants and advertising.

The new kings of Israel

These are the new kings of Israel: they hold the power, not the prime minister, not the ministers, not the voters and not the entrepreneurs.

They are not manufacturers or high-tech dreamers or importers. They do not build plants. They are mainly people of finance, of acquisitions, government tenders, monopolies and cartels. Their expertise is buying, selling, regulation. They know how to use and manipulate the capital market, politicians, regulators, the press, the advertisers and public resources.

In the last month some politicians have been saying they don't really understand what this economic concentration thing is all about. I wish that were true. One thing they all understand perfectly well is where their buddies work after leaving public service. Most get hired by the five biggest business groups.

Not everybody is a cynic. Not everybody thinks mainly about the next job. Not all are prepared to grovel and ingratiate. Some cherish their freedom. Some believe in a fair, free market.

These people need to speak up today.

They see that Israel is daily taking on the trappings of an oligarchy. The most palpable sign of the times is the press' weakness against the big business interests. But in the years to come, it will infect everything, corrupting norms of management and meritocracy. Cronyism and nepotism will flourish and back-scratching will bloom. We will have an economy where
efficiency doesn't matter, talent is trash, innovation is scorned and all that matters is who you know.

Aficionados of concentration, and there are many, say it's common. That is a twisted argument. Even if the U.S. has horrifying inequalities, Italy is rife with corruption and 100 Russians grabbed Moscow's assets ¬ so what? Do we want to be like that too?

The outcome is clear: quaking officials, cowering regulators, cringing reporters, "fixed" markets, crushed entrepreneurship, fading innovation and declining productivity.

The domestic market will be first to pay the price, but ultimately, exports will suffer too, and badly. Economist Michael Porter, doyen of sovereign competitiveness, has said that one of the conditions for competitive exports is competition at the local level.

In the last month, the tycoons have unleashed their people: from politicians to their top managers, lawyers, economists, and accountants. Maybe they're doing the right thing: In the short run, at least, they should be paid handsomely for their efforts. But one day their charms may fade and they'll find themselves out on the street, looking for a job. Then they'll realize
what sort of economy they've helped create.

Benjamin Netanyahu knows well the dangers of economic concentration and the growing threat to democracy. Fischer also understands the issue at stake deeply. Today the two will be deciding whether to stop the process of Israel morphing from a democracy into an oligarchy. Only they can do it.