Taking Stock / Shaked, Not Stirred

They're like a breath of fresh air in our stagnant, ugly little political swamp. They created an opportunity to place economics and society in the center of the public debate.

That's how it seemed at first glance.

All have successful alternative careers, all boast clear economic and social agendas. They didn't develop in the party centers; all could have continued their comfortable lives. Yet they decided to leap into the reeking bog of politics, hoping to influence.

Sadly, with each passing day, the more it seems that politics is stronger than the people entering its gates, and that at the end of the day, they will serve up the same moldy dishes that we know so well, and loathe.

Shelly Yachimovich is the one in the spotlight right now, but Avi Shaked is no less intriguing a personality. Not just because he's a billionaire, but mainly because he made most of his fortune in less than seven years in one of the most amazing businesses there is: online casinos.

Okay, he has a heart

In terms of a primaries contender, Shaked has a tremendous advertising budget and a catchy slogan, too: "Socialist, millionaire, and not ashamed of it." Short and sweet, no floundering about; a sharp, crystal clear message.

Bismarck once famously said that anybody who had not been a socialist until the age of 20 had no heart. And anybody who remained a socialist at the age of 50 has no brain.

This pre-election period evidently will require an update of that pithy tenet. We have socialists of entirely new breeds.

In the last week, Shaked met with the press. He talked a great deal about the need to narrow social gaps, eradicate poverty, raise the minimum wage, and reduce the defense budget.

We agree with Shaked about all that: fight poverty, social gaps, yes yes yes. But economic policy must consist of concrete steps. It must factor in how they affect parameters such as gross domestic product, economic growth, investments, interest rates, employment, and exports.

Therefore, we were curious to hear Shaked's views on a highly specific matter.

Amir Peretz, chairman of Shaked's adopted party, Labor, declared that he intends to roll back capital market reforms and re-nationalize pension fund money. Shaked didn't miss a beat: "I don't understand much about it," he admitted. "I want to study the issue thoroughly."

Crash course in economics

Doesn't understand much about it? Avi Shaked? This is a high-tech entrepreneur sitting on a $400 million pile, most of which came from a giant stock offering in London not even three months ago, and he says he doesn't understand much about it?

Shaked, learn the issue thoroughly? Doesn't he know the function of a liquid capital market, with long-term investors in a free market? Does he really need to be taught that without a capital market, much of the high-tech industry is doomed? Doesn't he realize that Israel's entire venture capital industry is leveraged with the pension money of nations with advanced capital markets?

He knows, he knows. He knows that without an unfettered capital market, mainly its remunerative tools such as stock options, his company almost certainly wouldn't have reached the heights it reached. He wouldn't be sitting on a pile of 400 million greenbacks.

Shaked may not want to discuss the pension funds. But he and his cronies are dead sure they want to allocate more money to education.

Again, we agree. But we'd like him to explain where the money would come from. If he and his friends don't provide an alternative, we know the source - higher taxes or a higher deficit (which means higher taxes tomorrow).

Well, a position of refusing to raise taxes is not sacrosanct. Why not indeed take from the rich and give to the poor?

Here's an idea for Avi

Maybe because the people already paying most of the tax in Israel are those on salary, because the really rich can't be taxed at all. No less than 87 percent of income tax collected in Israel comes from the two top deciles. Maybe because all attempts to milk more from those on salary simply resulted in more tax dodging.

And what about the super-rich, people like Shaked, for instance? They have arrangements of their own. They can act via companies, transfer shares to trusts, hire tax consultants, establish companies in Holland, Gibraltar and the Caymans, or Vaduz. Tax rates of 50 percent or 45 percent aren't for them. The nicest of the lot would toss say 20 percent at the local tax assessor to make him go away. The not so nice will try to aim for zero.

Here is an idea for Shaked. As a socialist-millionaire who chose to transfer his shares to trusts registered in tax shelters, maybe he can find a way to tax our super-rich and thus find resources for "social" budgets.

Naturally, it's not as though he has to do it. Many claim that tax dodges are part of what's called the free, competitive market, and there's nothing like initiative and competition to stimulate growth and well-being. But people who claim that don't label themselves "socialists."

Or maybe we should simply update Bismarck and add that after 50, one can be a socialist and smart too, if you have a few hundred million dollars to spare.