Poles Try to Catch Up With Capitalism
A VICIOUS joke in Poland asks: ``Is there a difference between Dr. Balcerowicz and Dr. Mengele?'' Lech Balcerowicz, Poland's finance minister, is considered among the most competent and courageous of economic leaders. His bold economic reform affects the lives of his countrymen even more directly than Poland's political transformation. Yet, the macabre comparison with the Nazi doctor underlines the deadly seriousness of the experiment.
After four months in power, the government of Tadeusz Mazowiecki, with approval from the Polish legislature, passed a set of laws, authored by Mr. Balcerowicz, that overnight plunged a somnambulant socialist economy into a free market maelstrom. On Jan. 1, prices were decontrolled, wages frozen, subsidies eliminated, taxes raised, import duties imposed, and currency made convertible.
Every capitalist country, every business school, and every school of economics should send an observer to watch this grand experiment. Lacking that, let me share the impressions of a common businessman, who in Poland sought profit and found economic wisdom.
Elimination of subsidies and price controls changed spending habits overnight. Fear of unemployment altered work attitudes just as quickly. Most Poles view this as another descent into the well of poverty. Yet some see it as an opportunity.
On Jan. 18, LOT's Boeing 767 left JFK for Warsaw less than 20 percent filled. Last year that flight was crowded with Poles paying subsidized fares. Now, for an average Pole earning less than $100/month, the fare is prohibitive.
In Warsaw, passport and custom control were a breeze. Taxi drivers fought over me. I was whisked to my hotel over traffic free streets for $2. Gasoline cost $1 a gallon, like in America, but for many a Pole it was reason enough to leave the driving for the city bus.