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.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

All couples are equal, but some couples are more equal than others

MK Adi Kol (Yesh Atid) introduced a bill recently that was scheduled to be voted on today, granting same-sex couples the same rights mixed-sex couples enjoy vis-à-vis tax "points". Under the existing "point system", each person is assessed a number of points for different criteria (being a recent immigrant, having recently completed some higher education, having served in the army for a certain period, family status, etc.). For each point, a person receives a reduction in income tax, currently 218 shekel per month.

There is a difference in the amount of point given to fathers and mothers, with additional points being given to mothers, in order to encourage women with children to return to/enter the workforce. Besides the extra benefit given to mothers, women receive an extra half of a point (currently about 1,300 shekel per year) for the impressive accomplishment of having two X chromosomes in every last cell in her body, irrespective of the number of children she has, or even if she has any at all.

According to Kol, same-sex couples of two men are treated unfairly under the current system, as they cannot take advantage of the additional tax points given to mothers, while same-sex couples of two women can "double-dip", with each one enjoying those extra points. In order to even things out, MK Kol proposed that one member of a same-sex couple will receive points as if s/he were a man, and the other as if s/he were a woman. The couple decides which one is which (George Costanza's philosophical conundrum of "how do you decide who leads" remains, tragically, unresolved).

At first glance, this seems like a fair law (despite Habayit Hayehudi's vigorous objection to it). There's no reason that, if the government gives a form of tax relief to a couple raising a child, it should only give it to mixed-gender ones. Once both parents are in the workforce, the extra money each month can go a long way towards defraying the necessary child-care expenses, irrespective of the genders of the parents.

However, in extending the tax break to same-sex couples, MK Kol is giving them an advantage that mixed-sex couples do not enjoy. Tax points are only valuable to someone who has an income; someone who does not pay income tax does not get the tax relief. In most mixed-sex, if, after the birth of a child, one spouse decides to give up working in favor of spending more time with the children (sometimes called "raising the children", but, from my experience, families with two working parents also raise the children, so I'll avoid the phrase in this context), it usually is the woman who does it, thereby giving up the tax relief the family would have received had she stayed in the workforce instead of the man. Whether this decision is due to social mores, biology, etc., is irrelevant. The bottom line is that in such cases, the additional tax benefit given to parents is forfeited if the mother does not return to work after a new child comes along.

However, same-sex couples are not so restricted by their physiology. If one of the spouses decides to give up working in favor of spending more time with their children, there is nothing stopping them from selecting the working spouse to receive the tax relief granted to women, even though he is assuming the typical "male" role.

If MK Kol really wanted to make all couples equal under the law, there are better ways to have done this. For example, she can extend the right to select who gets the extra tax points to all couples. Alternatively, she can change the way points are assigned, and instead of giving extra points to one of the spouses for his/her children, give it to a couple in which both spouses have an income (i.e., in a single-income family, points are given as they currently are given to a man; once the second spouse enters the workforce, the additional points are given, either to one of the spouses, or divided between the two).