Taking Stock / For Whom Bibi's Plan Tolls

After several months of fulsomely praising the finance minister's economic policy, a more critical tone has been seeping back into Bank of Israel reports.

The first salvo arrived right after Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu announced he'd be using the entire surplus tax collection, if there is any, to lower taxes. Bank of Israel Governor David Klein hinted that the minister would be making a mistake, and he'd do better to earmark any surplus for lowering the government's towering debt.

The second sally was shot last week, in the preface to the central bank's periodic State of the Economy report. "Despite the buds of growth characterizing this period, there are indicators that the growth process has not equally reached all segments of the population. The composition of growth could, at least at first, expand economic gaps."

With that, the Bank of Israel endorsed a favorite stance of Netanyahu opponents who claim the economic growth has been serving only the rich.

Netanyahu helped foster that sour view by pointing at the rally of share prices since the start of his tenure as finance minister as a gauge of his success. No wonder the economic rally is seen benefiting only the rich.

Yet despite the catchiness of the concept "wealth-oriented growth led by the arch-capitalist finance minister" - economically speaking, it boils down to empty sloganeering.

If you have a better idea, raise your hand

It is true that the poor paid the heaviest price for the economic contraction until 2003. The rich and strong lost a great deal in absolute terms, but the little that the weakest lost hit them harder.

All the roads to bettering the economic status of the poor pass through restoring general economic growth. Anybody who thinks he has a magical method to restore growth and jobs by hurting the rich is ignoring not only economic theory, but experience accrued over the last century.

Society's problems cannot be solved by handouts paid out by expanding the deficit. Israel's economy is being squashed under terrific debt and mountainous public expenditure reaching 55 percent of GDP. It has been proven beyond doubt that deficitory policies do not create growth, they strangle it.

The best proof arises from Israel's macroeconomic management in the last decade. The gap in income between the richest and the poorest has steadily widened, and the state tried to bridge the gaps by incessantly increasing transfer payments.

Wake up and smell the coffee

Then one morning we woke up, staggered to the kitchen to brew coffee, and discovered that the financial markets were rebelling. They wouldn't finance the transfer payments any more. The shekel collapsed, and the stench of financial crisis pervaded the air.

We had to slash our budgets and undertake a crash diet of a kind not experienced since the mid-1980s. And after we'd done hewing and cutting, we found we were left with elephantine gaps between the income of the richest and the poorest, and also that we had no resources left to build bridges.

The lesson is obvious: The only way to raise the standard of living for everyone in the long run, especially for the poor, is to institute a policy focused on generating growth.

The big problem that Netanyahu is ignoring is that the factor underlying growth in recent months is external variables, mainly the global economic rally fueling Israeli exports and the surge on the financial markets spurred by low U.S. interest rates, as well as the American guarantees to Israel and its massive presence in the Middle East.

We got a real live example Sunday when interest on the shekel bonds Netanyahu issued, the Shahars, approached 8 percent for the first time in seven months after U.S. bond prices took a pounding.

Last year, Netanyahu missed no opportunity to boast that his economic policies had enabled long-term interest rates to drop. But now they're climbing again, and Netanyahu is staying mum. He has good reason, too. If he says the United States is responsible for the interest rate climb, somebody might remind him that the country was responsible for some of the drop for which he claimed credit.

Netanyahu should receive unswerving support for his growth-stimulating economic plans, even if they seem to benefit mainly the rich at first, and even if the results only trickle down slowly, as the central bank says.

But Netanyahu should keep in mind that he has taken only one small step along the road of structural reforms. He still hasn't touched most of the pork barrels in the public sector. He has yet to dismantle a single monopoly. And without structural reform of the markets, his pet plans of privatizing Bezeq, Bank Leumi or Bank Discount will make no contribution whatsoever to Israel's productivity or efficiency.