Missing the Bus, or Milton Friedman’s Legacy

It’s Pesah, and the kids wanted to liberate Mom and Dad from their keyboards for a day of hiking, perhaps an overnight. We all have to leave our personal Egypts, after all. Nonetheless, I went back to screen, to check bus routes at the Egged bus site . Our family is among the holdouts, still living without a car. Once this was a normal Israeli lifestyle. Now it’s as strange as – say – being Orthodox and dovish. One might as well be Martian, or lack a cell phone. In town we walk, or take buses or cabs. I ride a bike. Occasionally, we rent a car for vacation, but to do that on Pesah, I would have to make a reservation before the tourists did, and pay way too much.

I thought of taking a hike I used to take with the kids, from Haifa University to Kibbutz Beit Oren in the middle of the Carmel forests and then down to the coast. My wife would have needed to skip the second half to get back to work. Once there was a bus from Beit Oren to Haifa. No longer, my screen informed me. My son wasn’t surprised. There’s no bus service any more to Kibbutz Ma’ale Gilboa, where his yeshiva is located. Sometimes he hitchhikes from the junction to the kibbutz, and I worry.

We thought of a hike out of Zikhron Ya’akov. Once there was a bus from Jerusalem up the coast, stopping at major towns. No more. If you want to get to Zikhron by bus, you have to go to Tel Aviv and change buses at the seven-story maze of a bus station. That takes too much extra time to make sense for a vacation day.

In a previous incarnation of Israel, a bus ride here cost a quarter of what it did in the average American city, despite higher fuel costs here. Public transporation was handsomely subsidized. Private cars were for the well-off. Now cars pack the roads, and buses cost much more. The government is investing in expanded train service. But trains won’t get you to outlying towns and rural communities, or to a trailhead. For most Israelis, they will make it possible to use the car less, but won’t replace the car.

Buying a car got easier during the Begin years, I assume because of the general slashing of import taxes. (The tax cuts fed hyperinflation of those days, as the government spent money it didn’t have.) Arie Caspi, who was Israel’s most prominent and most iconoclastic economic commentator, once told me that bus subsidies mostly vanished at the same time as subsidies for basic food products, in the late 1980s. As I remember, Arie explained this as direct U.S. pressure on Israel to give up its social-democratic economic policies. Since Arie is no longer in this world, I can’t go back to him and ask for sources. If he was right, the US was willing to pressure Israel to stop making bread and bus service cheaper, but not to get it to stop building settlements.

But another expert, who preferred to speak off the record, did describe the shift to Friedmanism in the 1980s as a product of direct and indirect American influence. The direct part was advice from Reagan administration officials on how to stop hyperinflation. The indirect part was that the U.S. had replaced social-democratic Western Europe as the model for Israel’s managerial class. Many economists had studied in the US – particularly at the University of Chicago, the Church of Milton Friedman.

The change was a process. Bus service to little communities on Mt. Carmel or Mt. Gilboa or elsewhere, I’d guess, was always subsidized. It was a public service, never meant to be profitable. Now it’s gone. Our family took the bus to Tel Aviv and spent a day in Old Jaffa. It was pleasant, but noisy. The difference between that and a hike in the Carmel will never be measured in any economic indicator. Thanks, Milt. And thank you, Ron.

2 thoughts on “Missing the Bus, or Milton Friedman’s Legacy”

  1. “Thanks, Milt.”

    Yes, let’s measure the contributions great economists have had on Israel by the quality (or lack there of) of Egged bus routes for our Pesach vacation…

    You’ve managed to express your disagreement with a particular economic school of thought when simply writing a pleasant piece about your Pesach break….a little irrational angst there?

    If you want to hate, please make a direct, fluid and rational case instead of backing into blame.

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