Sunday, January 18, 2015

2015 Knesset Elections - Light Bulb Edition

I've haven't blogged in a while. The elections are a good time to (possibly) return. To kick things off, here's some light humor. Feel free to post your own in the comments, but nothing nasty.

How many Bayit Yehudi members does it take to change a light bulb?
None - they don't apologize for broken light bulbs.

How many Yesh Atid members does it take to change a light bulb?
Two - one to buy the bulb without VAT, and one to explain why the price of light bulbs hasn't come down.

How many Likud members does it take to change a light bulb?
Only one, but he keeps putting the same one back.

How many Zionist Camp members does it take to change a light bulb?
Two - one to change the bulb, and one to call it something else in Arabic.

How many "Movement" members does it take to change a light bulb?
Two - one to change the bulb, and one to tell you that despite all the burnt-out bulbs, Bibi hasn't changed a single one in the past six years.

How many Meretz members does it take to change a light bulb?
Two - one to change the bulb, and one to complain that the entire budget for light bulbs was given to the Settlements.

How many Yisrael Beitienu members does it take to change a light bulb?
<This punchline is under a gag order until the criminal investigation is completed.>

How many UTJ members does it take to change a light bulb?
Two - one to change the bulb, and one to make sure that a cheder in Bnei Brak gets a new bulb also.

How many Shas members does it take to change a light bulb?
They only have one guy who knows how to change the bulb, but he left a week ago. No wait - he's back now.

How many Ha'am Itanu members does it take to change a light bulb?
Two - one to change the bulb, and one to leak a video of Maran saying that their guy is really the only one who knows how to change the light bulb.

How many Kulanu members does it take to change a light bulb?
None - Kulanu only knows how to fix cellphones.

How many Hadash members does it take to change a light bulb?
One, and he does it on Shabbat because changing a light bulb is pikuah nefesh.

How many Balad members does it take to change a light bulb?
The light bulb has been there since time immemorial. They will not remove the old light bulb from its ancestral land.

How many Kadima members does it take to change a light bulb?
They don't change light bulbs. They "disengage" them from their sockets and don't take any responsibility for what replaces them.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Testing the Post's Defense

As a tabloid, the New York Post does not shy away from controversies. They're in business to sell newspapers, and printing shocking headlines is standard fare. However, its reporting of a recent sickening murder has many saying that it has gone too far.

In reporting the gruesome killing of a Hasidic slumlord (well, alleged slumlord, according to his brother-in-law), the Post ran a photo of the victim in Hasidic garb, with the headline, "Who didn't want him dead?". Outrage has been swift - while the Post is well-known for its crass headlines, this seems to be the first time they have justified a murder. Not so far as to excuse it, but showing some understanding for the murderers intent is crossing a pretty big line.

The Post, (as of this writing) instead of issuing an apology, retraction, or making any sort of gesture that maybe the headline went too far, issued a statement to the effect that they're not condoning the murder, just pointing out that the list of those who might have wanted to commit this heinous act is long. True, that's all the words of the headline literally say, but the insinuation that a murder victim was public enemy #1 (after all, who didn't want him dead) goes far beyond pointing out that his list of haters was longer than most's. They might as well have written "Good riddance to bad rubbish!".

Besides the Post, there are many who are saying that it's just a case of "the Post being the Post". According to this line of reasoning, the only reason the Jewish community is up in arms about the headline is because it's happening to one of our own. This is a bit naive, since people often only get up in arms if they identify with a victim. That doesn't mean that their indignation is misplaced.

To test if the Post's (and its defenders') defense holds water, let's change the variables just a bit. If, instead of a Hasidic business man being murdered, a drunk, pretty college girl was raped, would it even cross the minds of the Post's editorial staff to run a crass headline to the effect that, well, the girl invited trouble and there's a list a mile long of guys who would love to have sex with her? If they did run such a headline, would as many people come to the Post's defense?

Monday, December 23, 2013

New trend in terrorism?

It used to be that anytime there was an explosion on a bus (or other public place), the safe assumption was that it was a suicide bomber (or a mob hit). The past two explosions on buses (one yesterday, and one last year during Operation Pillar of Defense) both proved to have been explosive devices left on buses (and thankfully non-fatal).

Is this a new trend? Are terrorists getting less religious, and therefore less willing to lay down their lives for their causes? Is Israeli security getting better? Maybe it's all a coincidence?

Friday, December 20, 2013

Lies, damned lies, and the Taub Report (Dov Lipman on education)

Last week, MK Dov Lipman addressed the Knesset (video with English subtitles below), announcing that the recently released "Taub Report" ("State of the Nation Report – Society, Economy and Policy 2013") proves that there is no discrimination against Chareidim in the workforce (i.e., in finding jobs), and urging every MK to read the report.

Lipman is a well-educated guy. He has a masters degree from Johns Hopkins university, which, as the poet would say, is not too shabby. However, he does not seem to understand statistics and how to properly interpret them. (An alternatively explanation is that he does understand them, but he's purposely trying to pull off a deceit, a notion I see no reason to even entertain.)

To make his point, he cites the following from the report:
  • Among Chareidi men, 71% of those who hold an academic degree find a job, compared with 34% of those without a degree.
  • Among Hareidi women, the respective stats are 76% vs. 50%.
  • Salaries for Chareidi men with a degree are 80% higher than those for Chareidi men without a degree. (Although Lipman does not mention it, the report lists a similar statistic for women.)
  • A couple wherein both spouses have a degree earn 157% more than a couple wherein neither spouse has a degree.
  • Of men aged 25-43, fewer than 8% have a degree (800 of the 10,000 men sampled).
  • Only 5% have earned a matriculation certificate (which is necessary to enter college)
From this, he concludes that the only way for Chareidim to end the cycle of poverty in their communities is through higher education.

For some reason, his conclusion (education is the key!) had nothing to do with his opening statement about what the statistics show (no discrimination!). Besides that rhetorical oversight, his presentation was unconvincing in several ways.

First of all, the obvious - it's a bit odd for a member of Yesh Atid to preach the importance of higher education, when their own leader never earned a matriculation certificate, much less earned an academic degree. There's the argument (valid, in my opinion) that not everyone needs an academic degree to compete financially, and that Lapid is one of the outliers, but it's still odd to see one of his "employees" preaching on the importance of education. This isn't totally fair, but, very often, the medium is the message. As a member of a party built on a single personality, Lipman carries the baggage of that personality, in particular when he's acting in an official capacity, such as addressing the Knesset as an MK. Minor point, and a matter of perspective, but one I felt worth noting, though not one which is worth a lot of argument. There's a lot of room to disagree on this point.

Secondly, Lipman does not make his point at all. He claims that the report shows that there is no discrimination against Chareidim in the workforce. In order for numbers to show this, there need to be statistics regarding non-Chareidim. 71% of Chareidi men with degrees find jobs? OK - how does that compare with the general population? If it's north of 90% for non-Chareidim, well, there very well may be discrimination. Even without the relevant data on non-Chareidim, 29% unemployment among Chareidi men who hold academic degrees does not seem like terrifically good odds. Perhaps something's amiss.

What's more, Lipman does not provide a full analysis of the statistics. A closer look reveals that there's reason to believe that the real picture is even more anemic than 71% employment rate among Chareidi college grads. In order to see why, we have to look a bit at the methodology behind the numbers. In describing who the authors considered to be Chareidi, the authors concede an accuracy of 98.5% in identifying Chareidim, in particular that their sample of about 10,000 Chareidi men includes 150 people (1.5%) who are not Chareidi. Considering the low rate of academic degrees among Chareidi men, it's likely that most of these 150 non-Chareidim included in the study were among the 800 Chareidi men who were identified as having an academic degree. Recall that of the 800 men with an academic degree, 568 (71%) found work. Up to 150 of these may not be Chareidi, leaving as few as 418 Chareidi degree-holders with jobs, out of at least 650 (800 identified, minus up to 150 which are not Chareidi). This comes to only 64%. Of course, this is only the worst case scenario, so the true rate of employment among Chareidi men with academic degrees is somewhere in the range of 64-71%, probably in the low end of the range. This is not encouraging. In fact, barring any other data (and Lipman didn't share any), having over a 30% chance of not being able to find a job, even with an academic degree, points to discrimination in the workforce.

Ignoring the rhetorical misstep of the thesis and conclusion having nothing to do with each other, there's a third problem. Lipman concludes that the numbers show that education will help break the cycle of poverty. This is simply not true. The numbers show a correlation between education and employment status (which includes income). However, it does not show a causation, i.e., that level of education was the cause the improvement in employment status. Those seeking higher education, especially those coming from a community where higher education is exceedingly rare, are a self-selected group. It is likely that they have characteristics which make them more likely to both earn a degree and seek gainful employment (probably that their desire to earn a decent living prompted them to seek higher education). The fact is that Chareidim were not randomly chosen to attend college, any conclusion as to its effect are pure speculation.

While education may very well play a role in the employment status of Chareidim, and may prove an important ingredient in breaking the cycle of poverty. Lipman has shown that he is committed to changing the Chareidi community for the better, and believes that education is the way to do it. Having supporting statistics is always comforting. However, the Taub Report doesn't offer as much support as he believes it does.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Protecting our soldiers

Two news pieces from the past 24 hours:
  • Justice Minister Tzipi Livni tried to block a bill which would tax donations to NGO from groups which, inter alia, support armed struggle against the State of Israel by an enemy state or terror organization. In her opinion, the bill would harm soldiers. The bill passed, and Livni plans to appeal it.
  • A Lebanese soldier, apparently acting on his own, shot and killed IDF Petty Officer First Class Shlomi Cohen, HY"D.
You just can't make this stuff up.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The 12 million shekel symbol

PM Netanyahu raised the issues of purchasing an airplane for official trips by the PM and president, and building a new office and official residence for the Prime Minister. The cabinet wasn't to discuss whether or not to approve these expenditures, but rather whether or not a public committee should even discuss if they would be cost-effective.

Yair Lapid objected to the proposal, claiming that "in these days of tightening the belt and raising taxes, as the gaps between rich and poor are among the highest in the world, it is appropriate that the Israeli government demonstrates austerity and does not make decisions that would lead the public to feel like its leadership is disconnected from everyday hardship of citizens."

(Side point - Lapid recently cancelled his planned tax increase, so I'm not really sure what he means by "raising taxes".)

According to Lapid, in the past, experts have looked into the option of purchasing an official government plane, but have found that it would increase expenses. By how much and for how long? Lapid didn't mention.

According to the Jerusalem Post, the Finance Ministry (which Lapid heads) calculates that despite the 100 million shekel price tag, and 5 million shekel per year in maintenance expenses that would come with ownership of an official plane, the purchase would pay for itself within five years (by offsetting the costs of flights currently paid to airlines, and within 10 years, the government would be saving 12 million shekel per year.

Despite this, Lapid objects to merely forming a public committee to look into the matter. Odd, given that there are likely only two possible results - the committee will find that the government can save money, in which case it will recommend buying a plane and saving money (saving money = good), or the committee will find that buying a plane will cost more than the way the government currently funds the PM's trips abroad, in which case it will recommend to not buy a plane (not buying a plane = what Lapid seems to favor). Either way,

Lapid's position, apparently, is that saving money is not a good idea if it looks bad. The symbolism of tightening the government's proverbial belt, even though it will otherwise spend more money on flights, is apparently worth 12 million shekel of taxpayers' money.

Of course, from Lapid's point of view, objecting to the very idea of a government plane, no matter how much money the government (and thus the taxpayers) will eventually save, makes perfect sense. Purchasing a plane saves money in the long run, but will be a financial liability for five years. In other words, buying a plane now will be a financial burden during Lapid's tenure, while the next Finance Minister will enjoy the savings. Lapid's objection seems to be more of the same petty politics he has always said he is above.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Does Dov Lipman want to outlaw flowers at funerals?

Dov Lipman has joined five of his colleagues from Yesh Atid, along with a smattering of kippa-clad MK's from other parties, in co-sponsoring a bill aimed at those who take advantage of mourners. The bill is in response to those who take advantage of mourners' fragile emotional state at a loved one's funeral to sell them amulets and other purportedly-magical baubles. According to the explanation accompanying the bill, people who lack a deep familiarity with Jewish Law may even think that there is a requirement to use such amulets.

However, the law does more than outlaw the sale of amulets. It prohibits anyone, without the authorization of the Minister for Religious Services, from selling any item, asset, or service within a cemetery or within 100 meters of its entrance, unless the item, etc. is directly connected to funerary or burial services.

In other contexts, selling amulets is just preying on people's ignorance. In the context of
a cemetery, it's appalling. But I don't think the the practice should be outlawed - if for no other reason (and there are other reasons) than people hocking holy trinkets are not the only ones who take advantage of mourners - just the most tacky.

But there's a bigger problem with the bill. It outlaws anything not directly related to the funeral or burial. Flowers? Factor out the bias of Western culture, and flowers are no more directly related to a funeral than amulets are. Sure, people often like to see flowers at a funeral, but, once the trinket-hockers have had their say, the same could be for amulets. Taxicabs? Sorry, unless the Minister for Religious Services thinks of authorizing them, you'll have to walk 100 meters from the cemetery to catch one. Car trouble near a cemetery? Unless you have a prepaid emergency roadside assistance, you can't pay someone for a tow. 

What about cemeteries (such as the ones in Sanhedria, Bnei Brak, Petach Tikva, etc.) which are within city limits? Will stores and businesses which are within 100 meters from the entrances need to seek ministerial approval to stay open?

One thing I can't figure out: there's already a law which outlaws amulets - it's illegal to distribute them to convince people to vote (or to not vote). The relevant law actually uses the term "amulet", and defines it as including anything which part of the population believes has the power to do good or bad. If such a legal definition already exists, why didn't the authors of the bill just use the same language instead of making the bill so broad as to cover almost anything? I know that Yesh Atid MK's don't have a ton of experience as legislatures, but this is such a glaring oversight on their part, that they must have a hidden agenda. The explanation of the bill may refer to amulets, but, once it becomes law, the bill will be enforced based on its own language, which is pretty restrictive.

(BTW, this law only applies to Jewish cemeteries. Apparently fleecing Muslim or Christian mourners is still fine.)

An additional irony - the law against sales within cemeteries is designed to protect people in a fragile emotional state. However, the bill also contains an unrelated provision requiring authorized cemetery staff to wear an identification tag, so that mourners can easily distinguish them from those who seek to take advantage of them. So the bill is predicated on the assumption that people distraught/ignorant enough to believe in the necessity of amulets are composed/knowledgeable enough to know that they should only trust people wearing tags.