The Bottom Line / Not at Your Command, Comrade Dinur

The threat to abrogate the law mandating product pricing labels has finally been lifted.

The most important thing to come out of Haaretz reporter Ora Coren's recent interview with Ministry of Trade and Industry director general Raanan Dinur is that the threat to abrogate the law mandating product pricing labels has finally been lifted.

If there is one consumer-oriented achievement of which we can be pride, it is the duty to mark the price on every single item in accordance with the 1998 law that was passed thanks to Natan Sharansky when he was trade minister as well as a 10-year public battle.

When Dinur and Trade and Industry Minister Ehud Olmert took up their posts about two and a half years ago, they quickly yielded to the narrow interests of the major food companies and retail chains and made every possible effort to return us to the dark ages of the "previous method", i.e. when we never knew the price of any item.

Olmert and Dinur did not expect the massive public opposition to their plans. They did not realize that the media would join the consumer fight. They did not predict that the treasury would resist. Today they understand that their power is limited, and that is why Dinur gave in.

Dinur says that instead of dealing with the price issue, he is advancing the creation of a fair trade authority. Wonderful. The time has truly come that consumer protection come out from under the boot of Dinur and Olmert. After all, we have not yet forgotten how the two of them strangled the Israel Consumer Council and led to the resignation of its chief Galit Avishai and of the council's attorney, Yossi Berg.

In his resignation letter, Berg mentioned the "mortal wound dealt to the independence of the council ... whose power continues to decline, while giant corporations exploit the situation, harming the public in a myriad of ways."

Dinur is deficient in his understanding of the business world. He speaks against the plan to roll back protectionist import duties, instituted in 1991, on the grounds that it increased unemployment.

First of all, for the record, unemployment actually dropped from 11.2 percent in 1992 to a historic low of 6.6 percent in 1996. Second, the prices of imports - from shirts to television sets - decreased significantly and improved the lifestyle of everyone in Israel, especially the less well-off. Third, the plan greatly assisted Israeli industry in its transition from backward industries that were unable to pay even minimum wage to advanced industries offering well-paid jobs. We will never be able to compete with a Chinese laborer who makes $100 a month. Rather, we will shine in high-tech, in professional training and in general and scientific education.

Dinur believes that if certain wealthy businessman are given broad benefit packages, price breaks on land purchases, professional training subsidies, betterment tax waivers, accelerated depreciation benefits and a host more "government support measures," this will bring about increased investment and lower unemployment in peripheral areas.

That line of thinking was the rule in the Soviet Union - until 1991. There, too, people believed that they could determine who would get what, and how much; in which kolkhoz the nails would be made and in which sovkhoz the soles would be made. Central planning brought the USSR to terrible poverty - until it collapsed.

Dinur and Olmert must understand that no mortal can "plan" a modern economy, so instead of wasting large amounts of money on benefits to businessmen (including the delusional idea of subsidizing investment funds), it would be better to reduce government spending as well as taxes on companies and individuals - and to get rid of the destructive bureaucracy of the Industry and Trade Ministry and the rest of the government ministries - and in so doing, to let a thousand flowers bloom.

Raanan Dinur is not a bad person. He is in error. He is a decent, serious person whose intentions are good - but he simply is not suited to economic positions in the government. Therefore, the proposal that he be appointed by Olmert to a job that combines wages director and civil service commissioner in the treasury is a bad one. He should leave economics to the economists.