Austerity: Will the Soviet Public Rebel?
IN response to the 500-day economic reform proposal just presented to the Supreme Soviet, a number of Western and Soviet commentators are expressing serious doubt that the Soviet public will be willing to pay the price of radical reform. Public opinion data do indicate considerable concern, for example, over job security. In a poll of Moscow residents only 4 percent thought that unemployment was good for society while 52 percent thought it was ``abnormal'' or even ``tragic.'' In a poll I conducted last May in our sister city of Vladimir, 65 percent ``strongly agreed'' that everyone should be guaranteed a job.
Last June, the chairman of the USSR State Committee for Labor estimated that as many as 40 million might be laid off during the transition to a market economy. If a shortage of cigarettes can bring angry crowds into the streets, fear of the public's reaction to massive unemployment is understandable.
In addition to the anticipated large scale layoffs, major price increases are planned as a part of the revamping of the economy. From a purely economic standpoint there is no choice. Currently, government subsidies on food alone are running 88 billion rubles a year. The result is that, except in times of shortages, no one has an incentive to conserve cheap goods, and bread which sells for a few kopecks a loaf is often fed to livestock at the same time that billions of scarce dollars are being spent to import grain. But the Muscovites polled in the study noted above put inflation at the top of the list of the things they feared most under a market economy, and in my May survey 72 percent ``strongly agreed'' that the prices of ``basic necessities'' should not be raised.
Another concern is that the Soviet work force won't be willing to adjust to the greater demands of a competitive economy. A lawyer in Vladimir who had recently returned from a trip to Britain told me that he had watched a British worker do in half an hour what he was sure a Russian worker would take at least half a day to complete. After reflecting on how hard the Englishman had worked, the lawyer said that he decided it was ``better to live poorly than to work well.''
In contrast to this view, 50 percent of the respondents in a national poll placed a large share of the blame for the poor state of the Soviet economy on the fact that ``our people don't like to work and long ago forgot how.'' In my Vladimir poll, 74 percent ``strongly agreed'' that ``most people need to work better.'' Recognizing that there is a serious problem with labor discipline is the first step toward doing something about it.
In this same vein, in the poll of Muscovites cited earlier, 58 percent thought the country should switch from central planning to a market system even though the same percentage did not think that a market economy would enable everyone to ``get rich.'' Also encouraging, only 20 percent of the respondents to the poll I conducted in Vladimir ``strongly agreed'' that it was ``better to stand in line than to pay higher prices.'' In short, a majority does not appear to oppose change, although they are understandably concerned about its consequences.
If the leadership can maintain a degree of public trust - and here Boris Yeltsin clearly is in better shape than Gorbachev - if a safety net can be put into place to catch those hit the hardest by the transition, and if the dislocations can be kept more reasonable than the 40 million unemployed predicted this past spring, then there is a good chance that the Soviet public will not rebel.
Even major price increases are likely to be better tolerated than many observers expect if people start seeing good quality goods in the stores - and realize that if they work hard they will have enough money to buy more than bread and cigarettes.
The transition to a pluralist political system is being made more quickly than most observers thought possible. The change over to a competitive economy will be more difficult, however, because it will adversely affect the daily lives of the public. But there does appear to be a reasonable chance that enough people will be willing to bear the costs to make the transition possible. We may well be surprised by how quickly the Soviet public will learn what they must do in order to ``live normally.''