Wednesday 21 September 2011

Two down. Seven million, four hundred and forty one thousand to go.

All Israeli men up to the age of 40 are required to do army reserve duty (מילואים miluim in Hebrew) for anything up to a month each year. I quite enjoyed my reserve duty, as many do. It can be a bit of fun, in some ways, away from the trouble and strife, an opportunity to be macho, and to leave the humdrum office world behind. I always saw it as some sort of open prison sentence, bringing you into contact with all walks of Israeli society, and making you appreciate the finer points of life (solid buildings, normal work hours, soft toilet paper).
On one occasion, I was assigned to a jeep patrol, together with my officer and a driver. We drove around the area – beautiful desert countryside, gorgeous weather, no complaints this end – until we decided to pull up somewhere, get out the old primus stove and make coffee. As we sat and drank the thick, sweet coffee, the others began chatting about whatever was the political hot subject at the time, I can't remember what. The driver – a young Russian immigrant, brawny, imposing, great fellow to have on your side – expressed his opinion, and the officer – a young second generation Israeli, intelligent, terribly polite, hi-techie, with a degree in Chinese – gave his. And then, being the well brought up fellow he was, he asked my opinion.
The real problem, I said, was the voting system. 
You see Israel has a simple, proportional representative electoral system, and the country acts as one single constituency. Voters get to choose a party, and each party wins seats in the legislature in direct proportion to the percentage they garner of total votes cast. If Party A gets 10% of the vote, then Party A gets to fill 10% of the seats in parliament. Simple, straightforward. 
Only this system, as I explained to my audience of two, has a terrible flaw: There is no direct link between these elected representatives and the electorate. No link, and therefore no accountability. (To prove the point, there's no word in Hebrew for accountability). If the country were split, electorally speaking, into constituencies (wards, boroughs, call them what you will), then each area would elect their own rep, and he/she would be answerable (another word missing from the Hebrew lexicon) to that local population.
Well at that point we had to get back to our patrol. We clambered back on board: the driver, the officer, and me the "soldier". The wind was quite fierce, particularly as we were zooming around in an open jeep, so there was no chatting as we drove. Until we reached our next view point, where the driver stopped, and we all got down from the jeep. Immediately the officer – let's give him a name, shall we..., yes, Shahar - turned to me and said "Well it wouldn't work here." (He'd clearly been thinking about what I'd said). "Israel's too small. The constituencies would be too small." But we're bigger, or more populous, than Ireland, Finland, Denmark, I answered. And anyway, in municipal elections in Israel, towns are also "small". You don't need a minimum size.

We completed our patrol of the area. Shahar called through to our base, and we hopped back on the jeep, and continued to survey the beautiful countryside. The wind whizzing past, the sun shining.
Now we came to a tourist spot, a ridge providing a panorama of the rocky desert. We stopped, alighted. Shahar turned to me. "No, it still wouldn't work. The religious areas would all vote for the religious parties." Not so. Such wards may indeed plump for a religious candidate, but you'd find that every major, political party would put up as their candidate in that area a married, religiously orthodox man. You'd find that this system would in fact adopt and internalize the features of our multi-cultured society within the parties, I said, instead of picking on these differences and using them as wedges to sever sectors of society for political gain.
And so it seemed, that at each stop, after clearly thinking about it some more, Shahar brought up another objection, a flaw with this proposed system. And I would offer some defense.
Finally, we reached the base. The driver parked the jeep. We unloaded our equipment. Shahar turned to me, with one last comment, "So how do we change our system then?"
So there is hope. At this rate, I should be able to convince the entire Israeli population in time for the elections in 2156J
Shahar, bear in mind, is educated and intelligent. I was surprised that he had no idea what other electoral systems there are. He had no idea that Israel is actually alone in the democratic world in this respect, having only a single constituency. Every other country, from tiny Luxembourg (half a million population, 4 constituencies) to India (hundreds of millions and 543 constituencies) recognizes the necessity of direct personal elections. It keeps the elected representative on his toes and in touch with the public mood. This was very much an aspect of this summer's vast social protests. Our elected legislature, the politicians, were out of touch. They have no link with the ordinary voter. They don't come across them when traveling on the buses, or queuing in the supermarkets, or waiting in line to renew a passport. 

Back in the early days, when I was new and wet behind the ears in the country, I visited some elderly relatives. They were a retired school teacher and bank director. Real Israelis. And I expressed my opinion that the electoral system should be changed. I'm used to the typical Israeli response "But that wouldn't work here." Not so from this couple. They immediately responded, "But that's just what Ben Gurion said."

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Engine on. Lights on. Seat belt on. Brain off.

Now why are so many killed on the roads in Israel? Last year there were 394 fatalities, and many more injured, slightly up on the 370 killed in 2009. That's more than one person dying on our roads every day.
Our record has improved, though at 4.1 fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants, we're still behind the likes of Sweden (2.9) or the UK (3.6). Maybe an international comparison is inappropriate, and we should simply be aiming for 0 fatalities a year.
So what can be done?
First let's have a dig at the Ministry of Transportation. Though there are definitely some professionals there, there are also plenty of middling, bumbling clerks, overstretching their capabilities, imposing their small-minded practices on the rest of the country. For example, for the planned new mass transit systems of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the Ministry of Transportation issued a thick, detailed design manual. Well that's very useful. The manual was based on the Ministry's umpteen years of experience of building light rail systems, I suppose. (For those of you outside of Israel, you should know that, up until this month, there was no light rail system anywhere in the country).
But I really take umbrage (you should try taking it tooJ) at the Ministry's philosophy of mollycoddling Israeli drivers.
For example, have you noticed that traffic lights are placed both before and after junctions? Take a look next time you're sitting at the lights. Abroad, the traffic lights might appear only before the junction. But if you place them only there, then drivers would have to come to a halt actually at the stop line. The Israeli practice of having another light on the far side of the junction allows drivers to overshoot the mark, and stop actually on the crossing, creating inconveniences for the pedestrians. (The who? Yes, those people that get in the way of drivers).
The Israeli driver is a fool and a menace, thinks the Ministry, so we must treat him as such. He is incapable of making reasonable judgments. Therefore, when you come to a junction – now pay attention next time – and it's your turn to turn left, you don't have to worry about crashing into any oncoming cars because, in contrast to elsewhere, the lights in Israel will stop the oncoming traffic. The powers-that-be have decided that you, the Israeli driver, are incapable of judging the speed and distance of other road-users.

Or sometimes you get two roads, both one-way, roughly coming from the same direction, that merge to form a larger road. Abroad, the lights would allow everyone to enter the "joint" road at the same time. No, too difficult for the Israeli driver, decides the Ministry and so you'll find that the two merging roads have their own traffic light phase.

So Israeli drivers are rarely called upon to think, or judge, or hone their driving skills.

But are they inherently bad drivers? I don't believe so. Just the other day, the traffic lights at a busy Tel Aviv junction (Shaul Hamelech, Namir and Begin roads) temporarily failed during the afternoon rush hour. This is where four major roads meet, in a flattened X shape, with at least four lanes coming from each direction. So what happened when the lights failed? You could imagine a dreadful pile-up, but that wasn't the case. I stopped and watched. The speed of the traffic slowed, but everyone managed to get across, somehow. It was noisier, admittedly, with a cacophony of klaxons, but the intersection actually worked.

So why not permanently take away the traffic lights? And while you're at it, all road markings, white lines, signposts? Maybe the roads would be safer. That's not such a crazy idea. (As Polonius said "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't.") Treating drivers more responsibly may actually make them better, safer drivers.
Some traffic designers (a fascinating bunch of people, you should try and crash one of their parties) argue exactly that. Several cities have taken such a step, in selected places, such as Exhibition Road or Seven Dials in London, or the town of Makkinga in the Netherlands. One traffic junction there where traffic lights were removed [see picture above] saw accidents plummet from 36 in the four years before the change in policy, to only two in the two years following it.

I'm not arguing we should change all roads like so, but we could start by treating Israeli drivers as responsible adults, and not children that need spoon-feeding with wide lanes, one-way streets, and traffic lights on even the quietest residential roads. And then maybe our roads would become safer for all. 

Tuesday 6 September 2011

An affordable home? Certainly, madam. Would you like that wrapped?

This summer has been one long series of rallies. The protests, loosely led by the taxpaying, hard-slogging, reserve-duty-serving, middle-income earners of Israel, are predominantly about the lack of affordable housing in Israel, particularly in the most popular parts of the country.
Property prices have indeed skyrocketed in recent years, while incomes have barely moved. And some of the banner-waving crowds argue that this clearly shows that capitalism has failed, and blame the free market. Down with the tycoons, they shout, accusing the prime minister of giving in to the developers, helping them get richer while Mr and Mrs Average fall far behind in the ratrace. A typical apartment in Israel today costs the equivalent of 114 times the average monthly salary. Compare that to the average home in France costing 90 times the average wage there, or 71 in Britain, or just 54 in Germany.
Israelis, on average, have reason to despair.
But I don't think the free market is to blame. On the contrary, the situation we are in today is because THERE IS NO FREE MARKET in housing in Israel.

First let's all agree on what a free market is. If you imagine a typical old market scene, such as in this delightful picture from Cambridge England, then you're already on the right track. It's where lots of buyers and sellers meet. Economics (the study of how we use and distribute scarce resources) goes a little further to describe what it calls a perfect market. It makes some assumptions such as: everyone acts rationally, which, for arguments sake, let's say, is true even in Israel; there is perfect information, i.e. everyone's aware of what's happening in the market; no one buyer or seller dominates the market (and hence the price), and there are no barriers to anyone becoming a seller; and the good or service is homogenous i.e. each product is identical.
Sounds idealistic? Unreasonable? Exists only in textbooks or in the minds of professors and philosophers? Not so. The market in Teva shares, let's say, is a fine example. It's a homogenous product; there are millions of buyers and sellers; no one stops you selling; and it's pretty easy to keep track of prices.
So what? I hear one or two of you asking. So we have a free market. What good does that do anyone? Where's the social justice in that? Hold on, hold on, my little pumpkins, we're not there yet.
The result of such a perfect market is the "right price". And what do I mean by the right price? I mean the price that clears the market.
If the price is "too high", two things happen: more sellers step in to cash in on the top price, and two, buyers get put off as it's too costly. True? In other words, supply rises and demand falls. These two work together to push the price down.
Conversely, if the price is "too low", some suppliers will get discouraged, pack up and go home, waiting for a better occasion to make their profits, while more buyers will rush to the market to snap up a bargain. Result? Supply falls and demand rises. Both of these move to push up the price.
So buyers and sellers interact in the free market until they reach the "right price" (or what economists call, the equilibrium price), where supply meets demand. Ten people are shopping for the goods, and ten goods are on sale at the price they're prepared to pay. Voila, everyone's happy. The market clears.
Now let's look at housing in Israel. It's a far far cry from the free market. Prices today are "too high", which according to our theory should encourage suppliers to rush to market, putting more of the product on sale. And buyers should slink off home. But they can't slink off home. They haven't bought one yet - it's the housing market, dummy! "Home" is the very product on sale. It's a little more essential to life than a Teva share. So demand does not slack off.
What about supply? Well one of the features we mentioned of a free market was the multitude of suppliers. And suppliers of housing can't build on thin air, they need land. The State, mostly in the guise of מינהל מקרקעי ישראל or the Israel Land Administration (boo, loud noise, jeers) owns over 93% of all the land in Israel. The ILA is terribly reluctant to sell, and not all that keen on renting it out either. So the nanny State of Israel, as the largest landowner, is strangling the housing market, by refusing to allow supply of housing to rise.
It's not the free market that is to blame for a lack of affordable housing in Israel today. The extortionate prices of housing is a textbook indication that someone - the state, let's call it the Soviet Republic of Telavivopolis - is not actually allowing a free market to exist. Go figure.