Taking Stock / Cowards, Not Ideologues

We shall not deviate from the 2004 budget by a single shekel, vows Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Expenditure will remain strictly within the limits, swears accountant-general Yaron Zelekha. We shall not capitulate over the budget, repeats treasury director-general Yossi Bachar.

First of all, kudos on your firmness. The credibility of Israel's economic policy depends on the government complying with its deficit and expenditure targets. It is also important for the treasury chiefs to keep publicly reiterating these commitments.

Secondly, one must hope they aren't just talking but can keep their word, and not through creative accounting like classifying spending on infrastructure as "investment," but through actual control of spending.

But even if we assume that Netanyahu can meet his deficit and expenditure targets for the year, a black cloud still hovers over the budget cuts. The scope is good and has set an important precedent. But when it comes to the composition of the cuts, the government has behaved spinelessly at best, and cruelly at worst.

The slashes made to various and sundry stipends purports to be ideological. "The welfare culture," Netanyahu calls it; "go to work," Sheetrit advises; "incentives to join the work force," the treasury's budget department calls it.

A fine ideology indeed, but the treasury knows perfectly well that not every person asking for unemployment benefits is a bum, that not all people asking for stipends are parasites, and that the steps they've taken badly hurt the elderly and the ill who rightly expect the state to help them.

The cruelty can be economically justified. There is no choice, the budgets must be cut; otherwise the state of Israel will go bankrupt. No cuts, no growth; no growth, more unemployment and spreading poverty; and then the resources that will be available for education and health will be even smaller.

A big fat lie

It is all a big lie. There are choices. It is easy to wield the ax over government stipends to the jobless, the single parents and the aged. But when it came to aiming that ax at the pork barrels, at the true flab and corruption of the public sector, the ministers quailed, they hesitated, they stammered and stuttered and finally, they capitulated.

Where is the great cut to defense budget that they promised? Shouldn't the treasury reveal the true number of career soldiers and defense employees costing the taxpayer untold millions before sawing away at the tiny pension payments to the impoverished elderly?

Where is that ambitious plan to consolidate more than 100 local authorities? Where is the plan to fire hundreds of totally superfluous deputy mayors, people living high on the hog with tremendous salaries, bureaus, aides and spokespeople?

It is dead and buried, of course. The good people at the political party central committees killed it. The local authorities and the government corporations and authorities are the plush, lush trough to which the politicians and central committee members can appoint themselves, their family and friends and their families and friends.

The broader public sector is crawling with giant authorities and public institutions employing thousands upon thousands of "friends and cronies of." And all too often the jobs costing the taxpayer so dearly are entirely unnecessary.

Even when the jobs are real ones, the political and administrative mechanisms allow the jobs to be given to unsuitable, uneducated, untrained friends and cronies. Although, of course, the jobs could have been given to people who actually know how to do them, whose only sin is a lack of contacts in the right place.

Meet my cousin

Not a week passes without press reports detailing dozens of anecdotes about superfluous positions, inflated salaries, bloated redundancy pay, twisted policies, one hand washes another, scratch my back and I'll scratch your cousin's, all at the expense of the taxpayer.

This week, Haaretz writer Ziv Maor published the minutes of an Amidar board meeting. It transpires that back in the summer of 2003, the public housing company's board resolved to stop corruptly approving severance compensation exceeding the norm, defined as 100 percent, at the expense of the taxpayer.

A few weeks later, the board reconvened and approved 180 percent compensation for the internal auditor, a decision costing us all a quarter of a million shekels. The auditor's employment contract specifically stipulated regular compensation of 100 percent.

Here are extracts from the minutes.

Director Menahem Granit: "Compensation of 125 percent is fair and sufficient."

To which director Michal Ilan responds: "Did you compare that with what was granted in the past?"

Granit: "It was wrong to do that in the past too."

Another director, Meir Dekel: "You're right, but Shmuel Zumer (the auditor, G.R.) isn't the right person with which to start toeing the line."

Ilan: "I don't remember who received 125 percent, maybe some worker who was being punished. Why the auditor? In my book Zumer is an example of the kind of person who deserves 180 percent."

Amidar and its 180 percent is one of those many anecdotes. Hundreds of boards and management committees are manned by people who think they "deserve" more than 100 percent.

Everybody's doing it

Warped pay norms are only a small part of the problem. Hundreds of public bodies are littered with superfluous jobs, manned by kith, kin and contacts of people with political clout.

There is no difference between left and right, religious and secular. They all do it.

In fact, despite the illusion of ideological divergence between the camps, they have more in common than otherwise. Their common ideology is to look out for No. 1, first and foremost. What are we here for, anyway, Zionism? No, for the jobs.

So please, don't wrap the budget cuts from welfare in ideology that mocks the "welfare culture" and sanctifies the culture of work. You, our leaders, are simply too afraid to take on the bloated bums and criminals of the public sector.