Why can't Poland get down to work?
"Our trouble is that we want a Western way of life but not the work tempo," remarked one young member of the Communist Party with typically perverse Polish humor.
Prime Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski had told the last session of parliament much the same thing: "We are working shorter hours, producing less, but earning more."
He was touching on the key question in Poland's present economic plight. At present it owes Western creditors some $27 billion and is unable to repay even the interest on much of that debt.
At first glance only parliament itself seems to be working harder. Since the crisis erupted last summer, the committee work necessary for legislating the promised reforms, added to the plenary sessions, means most members are putting in three full days a week, more than they would have logged in a whole month in more normal times. And on the same minor salary with modest expense allowances.
The rest of the country has a 20 percent increase in income.
For months, their East German and Czechoslovak neighbors have grumbled that "the Poles should work more themselves" instead of counting on allies to help out in their current food shortage.
A Polish acquaintance, returning from a holiday in Prague, tells of baleful stares for Poles making purchases in food stores. A Western colleague who was recently in Prague says critical comment is commonplace among Czechs.
Hostile propaganda in East Berlin and Prague may encourage this reaction, but there is a valid point to it. East Germans and Czechoslovaks live under harder-line, more dogmatic regimes than did the Poles for the last 25 years.
Yet both continue to observe much of their traditional, native diligence. Their national plans lag behind targets and there is absenteeism and other disregard of labor discipline, but their records are not nearly so bad as the Poles'.
After Poland introduced "free Saturdays" -- a major reform demand -- production suffered and absenteeism on Mondays rose from about 12 to 20 percent.
Some time ago a writer in a Polish weekly related a sad and slightly irreverent story of two Poles talking about the economic crisis. One says there are two ways to cure it -- the "miraculous" way and the "natural" way. The other asks for an explanation.
The first says: "Well, the archangel Gabriel could come down from above and put things right." His friend says: "I suppose that's the miraculous way."
"No," the other replies, "that would be the natural way, the miracle would be if the Poles did it themselves!"
The hard truths of the situation -- as General Jaruzelski detailed them -- are that the first five months of this year saw a 12 percent decline in industrial output compared to 1980. In May alone it reached a record 18 percent. In addition there was a drop of 5 percent in supplies to the market.
"New factories were recently commissioned," the rpemier said. "Many new machines were added. We have skilled manpower and experts. "Yet productive capacity is insufficiently utilized. Reduced hours are not matched by higher productivity."
It is not altogether surprising that East Germany and Czechoslovakia have held back quotas of some trade items because Polish defaults in raw-material deliveries force them to compensate with Western purchases in hard currencies.
Do Poles really work? There is little evidence yet that they are making the bigger effort that alone can stop the present economic rot.
For almost a year they have lived amid the tension of one of the worst crises in Eastern Europe since World War II. There is day-to-day uncertainty about their country's future. Such as atmosphere hardly stimulates good work.
Yet many miners, shipyard workers, and steelmen, all of Whom are traditionally hard workers, keep up that tradition as conditions allow. "Free Saturdays" have wrought havoc with coal output and export, but some pits manage to show higher shift output rates.
Many willing hands in major plants are idled by power cuts, shortages of coal and raw materials, often through grossly inefficient distribution. Farmers and artisans suffer from lack of resources and from continued restraints on individual enterprise, though reforms are coming in both sectors.
But this still does not explain the bad production figures. It is impossible to ignore the evidence that many Poles simply do not work in any conscientious, disciplined way. They seem uncaring, unconcerned about how their job is done.
The attitude is particularly glaring in the public service areas.It is bad enough, for example, that most shops do not open till 11:30 a.m. (and have a five-day week). Some close during the lunch hour, and Poles must queue for almost anything often because of the slackness of the service.
But even low pay cannot excuse the "take it or leave it" attitude with which the average salesclerk dismisses the public. They are, after all, in the same leaky boat.
Many Poles are all too prone to blame the past for the present disinclination to work harder. They recall centuries studded with partition and foreign occupation, when not working hard was a form of resistance.
But history makes a wry argument in Poland's present situation. The country now has a government tenaciously standing up for reform despite outside pressures, and it has no prospect of realizing those reforms except through better work efforts nationwide.
There is scant sign so far that Poles are heeding even Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, when he exhorts them to "give the government a chance" and roll up their sleeves for the country's good.
More relevantly, sociology professor, Jan Szczepanski told parliament, "We have the people, the hands and heads. It is necessary now for Poles to want to work."
One is told with relish that people in the West are wearing buttons saying, "It's exciting to be Polish!"
Maybe. But that does not increase productio n, which is what the country needs more than jokes just now.