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Off We Go Into the Wild Free Market

WE do not realize how little the Soviet people know about a free-enterprise system. Westerners, from early childhood, experience free-market concepts through TV advertising, games like "Monopoly," and selling lemonade to neighbors. Even the brightest and best educated Russians have not had this kind of exposure and, as a result, do not automatically grasp concepts that are obvious to us. A few examples:* I know a computer magazine publisher who decided to publish a Russian edition of his magazine. The galley proofs of the first edition indicated that it was a few pages too long. He asked his Russian editor to bring them down to the required size. The Russian editor sent back the galleys with all of the advertising removed. He commented that the advertising provided very little new content of interest to the readers, and therefore it should be eliminated. * My niece showed an American newspaper to some Soviets in Moscow. After reading it, they asked, "What is a sale?" She responded that it occurs when a business sells its products for a lower price in order to attract customers. The Russians then asked, "Why would anyone want to sell a product for less?" * Last year, I met with leading bankers in one of the republics. The subject of credit cards came up, and I showed them mine. They had never had seen any before, and were fascinated to learn how they are used. Bank checks are also a new concept. Consumer purchases in the Soviet Union are on a cash basis. * In Moscow last year, I met with some young entrepreneurs who were looking for investors to back an exciting new international magazine devoted to culture, aesthetics, philosophy, etc. The magazine had already generated a lot of enthusiasm among eminent people in the arts and sciences. I asked what they anticipated would be the subscription price. Their response was, "Two thousand dollars per year for four issues." I said, "No one would pay that amount." First they responded, "Don't libraries buy all ma gazines?" Next, they said they thought this was a fair price when compared with Western business and market reports that sell for just as much money, have no aesthetic value, are on poor quality paper, have no photographs, and contain many fewer pages. While our leaders urge President Gorbachev to institute economic reform, we are forgetting that the participation and cooperation of the Soviet people are essential for success. They are envious of the higher standard of living in the West. But they are fearful of the unknown, are unaware of how it will affect their families, and are apprehensive when they hear about unemployment, homelessness, and higher prices that reforms may bring. A top-down approach to reform imposed by their leaders can only bring resistance, frustration, disillusionment, and ultimate failure. The people must be part of the economic reform process and must be convinced it can work. They need to understand about the power of consumers, the expectations of employers, and the transiency of economic dislocations. Educating for a free enterprise system is a much sounder investment than direct financial aid, because it reaches beyond divisive Soviet leaders and bureau crats and fundamentally influences peoples' attitudes. It helps them learn to help themselves. Compared with full-scale financial aid, the expense of educating the Soviet people will be small. However, it will take many years to bring the level of understanding of their average citizen to that of a typical American. Here are some educational activities we could support: * Television programs aimed at the average Soviet citizen. This is the most effective and the principal medium for mass communications in the Soviet Union. TV stations throughout the USSR have already expressed interest in such programming. * Academic courses designed for all levels in schools and universities. Developing such courses requires outside help, as very few Soviet economists have a basic understanding of how a free enterprise system works. * Videotapes for use in schools and workplaces. Bringing Soviet managers, professionals, and factory workers for on-the-job training in American business environments could also produce rapid results, so long as the language barrier can be overcome. In the other direction, some American entrepreneurs, educators, and professionals have already started workshops and seminars in the USSR. These programs could be begun with relatively little investment. The needed tools and skills are readily available in the United States. Many Soviet institutions are eager to enter into such ventures, but the combined efforts of a great many people are required. A commitment by major foundations and our government would accelerate the process. We have a rare opportunity to help the USSR and the world move in a direction that will benefit all of us.