Political campaigns in the two countries that I know best remind me, once again, that leading politicians believe in fairies. Or think that their voters believe in them.
An explanation comes from Australia, where I worked for several months. The senior civil servant who arranged meetings for me with his fellow professionals hesitated when I asked to be introduced to some elected officials. "Why do you want to talk with politicians," he said. "They are good in the bars, but they don't know very much."
My view of current American and Israeli politics begins with the globalized financial meltdown. Virtually all countries with sophisticated economies are suffering, and committing vast sums to propping up their banks and other financial institutions. The crisis, and the remedies offered are complex, and not fully described. Governments may actually profit from some of their aid mechanisms, but it will take a while. In the short run, it is likely that whatever uncommitted resources are at the disposal of governments have been allocated to rescuing their national economies.
That has not stopped politicians from promising to spend more and/or to cut taxes as they say, "Vote for me. I will make your life better."
We should applaud Barack Obama for promising to expand the coverage of a health system so incomplete, fractured, and complex for the consumer. A recent New York Times article quotes a government study that shows, once again, that Americans pay more per capita for health, but get less health care than people in every other western democracy. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/16/health/16infant.html
When Obama says that he will get the money for this and other reforms by cutting government waste, we have to wonder in what bar is he selling himself. "Cutting waste" is one of the oldest placebos that politicians employ, while the professionals who have to do the work know from long experience that it defies practice. When Obama says that he will search the budget line by line to find where he can cut, I recall lesson #1 in courses on public budgeting: a national government budget is too large and complex, with hundreds of pounds of budget books. No one can look at it all, or even a significant part of it, or understand what each billion dollars will buy.
Obama supporters can fill in the blanks with McCain examples. I will turn to the other country I know well.
Israel is not currently in an election campaign. Due to the offered resignation of the crime minister, however, Tzipi Livni has won the opportunity to lead the Kadima Party and put together a coalition of other parties.
So far she has been tight fisted in resisting demands for increased expenditures. But not entirely, and she is facing the prospect of completing her coalition with ultra-Orthodox parties hungry for money to support their religious academies, and family payments. Nominal breadwinners who vote for those parties spend most of their time studying in those academies. If she fails to satisfy the ultra-Orthodox parties, she faces the prospect of recruiting to her coalition a left-wing party hungry for spending on other social benefits.
She is also relying on help from the Pensioners' Party, and its leaders say they want more money for old folks.
Even I may get something out of this political cycle.
A rabbi prominent in one of the ultra-Orthodox parties says that his folks will have a problem joining a government led by a woman.
It is not all about money.
She has already agreed to a Labor Party demand that university tuition remain at its present level or even decline. This when the universities are threatening to close themselves due to insufficient funds. Currently Israeli university students pay the equivalent of US $3,600 per year. Institutions the equivalent of Harvard or Yale are not on offer, but half of Israel's universities rank in lists of the best 150 in the world, and all of them in a list of the best 500. There are scholarships and work opportunities for low-income students, so no matter how you cut it, higher education is a good deal. But someone must pay for it. Whimpering student organizations compare tuition to those of a few wealthier countries in Western Europe. Israel's share of the financial crisis (measured by a 45 percent decline in a major stock exchange index since mid-June) does not interest them.
Politics abhors a vacuum. Americans will elect a president, and an Israeli will form a government.
An Israeli government minister once told us what is likely to happen again. "I promised, but I did not promise to keep my promise.
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Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Home tel: 972-2-532-2725
Cell phone: 054-683-5325