Taking Stock / A Spark of Genius

Jewish genius does not disappoint.

The whole nation knew a moment of satisfaction on Monday, when the Nobel committee announced that the prize for economics was being awarded to an Israeli, Prof. Israel (Robert) Aumann of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, for his work in games theory. He won the award together with Prof. Thomas Schelling of the University of Maryland and Harvard.

This is the second time an Israeli has won the prestigious award for economics; just two years ago, it was awarded to Prof. Daniel Kahneman, who admittedly lives in the United States, but began his academic career in Israel.

The awards showcase the achievements of Israeli academics the world wide. Israel can also boast impressive high-tech advances in the last decade: hundreds of patents, technologies and companies, all home-grown.

Even more impressive is the improvement in Israeli management capabilities; the decade of globalization and increasing competition did wonderful things for the quality of management, the tools at its disposal and management methods.

What a letdown it is, therefore, to see the latest appointments at the finance and industry ministries, specifically the wages director and the new antitrust commissioner.

The rule of mediocrity

The antitrust commissioner has one of the most amazing positions in the public sector. It is a fascinating job with tremendous economic influence, as well. Not only is the commissioner exposed to the business world and to macroeconomic work, it is also a terrific springboard into a top job in business.

One would therefore assume that top-notch businessmen and stars of the legal and economic world would vie for the post, leaving the committee scratching its head over which superstar to choose - say a Harvard grad with international experience, or perhaps a powerful young businessman with a legal and economic background.

Sadly, the situation is otherwise. No such luminaries are lining up for the job. The more time passes, the smaller the pool of candidates from which the next commissioner is to be chosen.

There is apparently good reason for the paucity of candidates: Israel's public sector does not attract quality manpower, because only mediocre people are at the top of the pyramid: and mediocre people tend to hire even more mediocre people, who bring in even more middling people. That is how the world works.

A short stroll through the Internet shows that most ministers and top-ranking public officials - and, in fact, many of the leading politicians in Washington - have a rich background in business, a relevant educational background and sometimes graduated cum laude, too. Why is our Knesset packed with people devoid of any sort of record? Why is our public sector ridden with people of no proven worth, aside from their association with the person who hired them?

For he's a jolly good moron

The former finance minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, proved that if the minister insists, professionals with a business and academic background could be found for top jobs. He even proved that the best guarantee of fruitful work was a shared vision, not a shared meal.

But the incumbent finance minister wants to go back in time. The story about the antitrust commissioner is being repeated with the budgets director.

Of all the people in the world, only one seemed suitable to the current minister, namely Raanan Dinur, who's a great guy. Thing is, he doesn't have one single relevant title. In fact, he has no higher education whatsoever.

Is Dinur, the director general at the Industry Ministry, the best candidate to oversee the national budget, and to be the civil service commissioner, as well?

Was his performance for the city of Jerusalem so outstanding? Is he the best expert around on finances, a wizard at negotiation, a master of manpower, a matchless manager of public administration?

Apparently not. His most obvious relevant characteristic is his close relationship over the years with Ehud Olmert, the minister giving him the job.

In response to the news item that Finance Ministry and civil service officials think Dinur unfit because he lacks academic credentials, Olmert said, "The fact that he has no academic degrees won't get in his way."

No, it won't, nor will it get in Olmert's way. It will, however, get in the way of the public sector, where social friendships or political alliances are the supreme value, while excellence and professionalism fall to second place.