Magazine article The American Conservative

Potemkin America

Magazine article The American Conservative

Potemkin America

Article excerpt

As wages stagnate and unemployment booms, U.S. prosperity appears as illusory as that of the old Soviet Union.

IN 1961 I was a member of the student exchange program to the Soviet Union. It was the second year of the exchange and part of a diplomatic effort to achieve some thaw in the Cold War.

There were three groups of us totaling approximately 35 American students. The Soviet authorities were not comfortable with us hanging out with Russian students, so we were kept constantly on the move. Consequently, we saw a lot of the communist country and its empire.

My group went in through Yugoslavia and Romania, spent time in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Tashkent, Samarkand, and a Soviet sports camp on the Black Sea in Georgia, and came out via Poland and East Germany during the construction of the Berlin Wall. We were in the Caucasus mountains when Yuri Gagarin made the first spaceflight, a propaganda success for the Soviet Union.

What was most striking about the Soviet Union was that, except for the sparkling clean Moscow subway with its gleaming marble floors and walls and some beautiful old buildings built by the czars, there was nothing there. There was no traffic on Moscow's boulevards. The small food stores were empty. The department store, GUM, had nothing to sell us for our fistfuls of rubles we had been paid for our Levi jeans, button-down shirts, and penny loafers, clothes literally bought off our backs on the streets.

I remember being on a bus in Tashkent when a meat delivery truck appeared. The carcass was hanging on a rail in the open air. The few vehicles on the street were following the delivery truck. The bus driver deviated from his route to follow the delivery.

Bus passengers came alive with anticipation. People began coming out from shops and office buildings. By the time the truck arrived at the small butcher's shop, a long line had formed.

In the Soviet Union people kept a sharp eye out for deliveries of any kind. People would line up to purchase whatever was available as it could be bartered to obtain other goods. As goods of all kinds were scarce, money was not an effective medium of exchange.

My time with the Soviets made me immune to the exaggerated claims made for Soviet economic performance. During my years in graduate school, it was taken for granted that central economic planning enabled the Soviet economy to continuously generate growth rates that were very high compared to those of market economies. In 1962, G. Warren Nutter's study, Growth of Industrial Production in the Soviet Union, was published by Princeton University Press for the National Bureau of Economic Research. Nutter concluded that the official index of Soviet industrial output exaggerated Soviet growth, and that Soviet growth was not remarkable compared to that of the United States in similar stages of development. Nutter's conclusions provoked much controversy, and he had few defenders at the time.

Even as late as the 1980s, the view still prevailed in the CIA that the Soviet Union could triumph in an arms race because central control over investment meant that the Soviets could cause their economy to grow at whatever rate it took to counter an American arms buildup. When the Soviet economy collapsed, the CIA arranged for me to explain to the agency's analysts why they had been mistaken about their enemy's capabilities.

The Soviet economy failed because it used more valuable inputs to produce less valuable outputs. The outputs would be measured as statistical product, but the values of the outputs were less than the values of the inputs. In other words, instead of producing value, the Soviet system was destroying value.

This was the result of ideological aversion to using prices and profits to allocate resources and investments. Instead of profit serving as a manager's success indicator, managers were judged according to whether they fulfilled a plan measured in gross physical output, such as weight, number, square meters. …

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