Finance Minister Yair Lapid doesn't do it every week, but every so often - when things get messy - he loses his cool and blames his predecessor. This time it was over arak.
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Lapid watched his Facebook page fill up with protests about the increase in alcohol tax - and he freaked. How was it that instead of thanks and admiration he was suddenly receiving slams and obscenities? Consequently, he decided to absolve himself by blaming Yuval Steinitz: "The tax is a bummer," he wrote. "I don't like it ... I inherited it."
The truth is slightly different, though. While it was indeed Steinitz who worked out a change in the method for calculating the tax on alcoholic beverages with the OECD, the former finance minister did not set the tax rate. It was Lapid who determined that the tax on one liter of pure alcohol would be NIS 105. Had he set it at NIS 50 per liter, for example, the price of arak would not have risen. But that would have created a hole in the budget that would have to be plugged by means of other taxes, and then the shouting would have come from a different place.
Lapid should have manned up and stood behind his decision. He could have talked about the alcohol epidemic; unprecedented levels of teenage drinking; drunk-driving; health issues; violence up to and including murder. He should have emphasized the "negative outside influences" that made it necessary to impose a high tax taking into account the damage that alcohol causes to society as a whole, not just to drinkers. But Lapid was evasive. Does he really want to be a finance minister who gives in to Facebook comments, bloggers and the chants of demonstrators?
The truth is that the parallelogram of forces between the people and the government are identical. Until just a few years ago, the government needed us every four years, for one day, period. Then it would ignore us completely and do whatever it wanted, until the next election day rolled around. Today, the government faces an election every day. At any given moment the public can protest, organize, take to the streets - even throw out the head of the government midterm. Just look at Egypt.
Once, we would gripe to our friends on Friday night, and at most it would end with a letter to the editor. Today, one angry status update on Facebook or incensed blog can - if it takes off and goes viral - lead to a huge demonstration that can bring down leaders and governments.
At first glance, the demonstrations in Greece, France, Israel, Turkey, Sweden, Brazil and now Egypt all have different causes. In truth, though, they have much in common. In every one of these countries, the protest began with a single issue and expanded into a general protest against the whole system. In every one of these countries, the middle class rose up in protest against corruption in government, against cronyism, against growing gaps between rich and poor, and against the very wealthy at the top. In each of these places, the middle class is torn between high expectations and a reality that falls far short.
For years, high-ranking officials in these countries boasted that the state economy was growing, that it was in excellent financial shape, and that the government was doing everything on behalf of the public. This talk generated enormous expectations of an improvement in living standards and the quality of life. But the middle class felt as if the party had skipped over it. It saw others get rich - people who were already wealthy pulled down even bigger salaries, with mansions and fancy cars. At the same time, it wasn't getting what it deserved: a fair wage, decent home, annual trip abroad, good health care and affordable education for its children.
This gap - between expectations and reality - led to the demonstrations and revolutions around the world. This gap must be addressed seriously, by raising the wages of the middle class, but also by lowering the unreasonable level of expectations. Not every protest or demonstration is justified. For example, the protest against raising the tax on arak is unjustified. Lapid should not have been alarmed by it.