Soviets need food, not advice

Global Viewpoint

September 04, 1991|By John Kenneth Galbraith

Cambridge,Mass. - IN WORLD War II, Colonel Blimp, the great figure of the English cartoon world, observed: "The one thing you can say for chaos is that chaos is good for free enterprise." Be that as it may, chaos spawned by economic hardship is surely a very poor advertisement for democracy and personal liberty.

This the new leaders of the former Soviet empire know. As a result, they will be asking the United States, Western Europe and Japan for aid. We should respond -- generously. Debating the details of who should receive the aid or how the aid should be distributed should not be an excuse for postponing help.

Astonishingly, some of the most articulate and self-confident voices of our time have been or will be reduced to a mere whisper when faced with the aid question. "It is too early to say what is going to happen," they will admonish. "We must simply wait and see," they caution.

Alas, this attitude has bred supremely ridiculous suggestions as to what form aid should take. Some proposals are highly transparent attempts to reduce the cost of the contribution.

The offer of advice -- technical, economic, political -- is an example of aid whose prime and only recommendation is its low cost. In most cases, such advice will be simplistic, obvious, vacuous -- guidance on how to have a convertible currency, a stock exchange or a vegetable market.

None of this involves more than an hour's instruction, and the requisite knowledge is now fully in the possession of hundreds of Russians or, for that matter, Latvians.

There will also be solemn proposals for underwriting investment in the country's basic industrial structure -- steel, cement, machine tools, petrochemicals, transportation and, no doubt, improved urban-waste disposal.

The problem is that, while many of these Soviet economic sectors are, by Western standards, in poor or obsolete condition, they are on balance the enterprises performed best by communist countries. We never doubted the effectiveness of Soviet planning in the sphere of military technology and its production, as reflected in the vast U.S. investment in defense.

It is in the production of consumer goods and food that the Soviet command system has failed most dramatically. This is where we can be of most help.

Food should be no problem. American grain growers are generous and politically undiscriminating when foreign customers are concerned. As major suppliers of the Soviets, they never thought that mere ideological differences or adverse actions should stand in the way of shipments. President Jimmy Carter discovered this when he suspended grain shipments to the Soviet Union for invading Afghanistan.

Our food help must now extend beyond grain to other farm products. This, incidentally, will bring to George Bush more than subdued applause in the Farm Belt.

As for consumer goods, the new republics just wrenched from communism must be allowed to choose. Medicines, soap, jeans and shoes, raw textiles and cigarettes will, with much else, be on the shopping list. For these, the United States and the other aid-supplying countries would pay. Over a longer period, there should be a shift to producer goods -- to the needs of permanent productive investment. But for now, it is things to eat, wear and use.

The consumer-goods purchases will have a stimulating effect on the now-depressed American markets. They need not add greatly to the federal budget, for they should substitute for military spending and military aid, which have been made redundant by the end of both the Cold War and the Soviet Union. Civilian spending, we should remind ourselves, is far more efficient, dollar-for-dollar, in creating employment than exotic military weaponry. Again, the political beneficiary would be Bush. Rarely has one of my political faith been so seriously in support of a sitting Republican.

There is, of course, another possibility. It is that Bush will, as on previous occasions, seek to support the emerging republics not by material help, but by a sterling speech whose centerpiece will be the offer of advice. Such oratory has been the president's greatly favored therapy in the past. Resorting to it again, he will miss what could be the greatest opportunity of our lifetime.

John Kenneth Galbraith is a professor of economics emeritus at Harvard University.

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