Chapter 12 The Communist Economy of the Former Soviet Union (revised August 2006)
The rise and subsequent collapse of communism must certainly be one of the major events of the 20th century. As a set of ideas, communism developed in the 19th century. But it did not become a major force in the world until the creation of the Soviet Union following the Russian Revolution (1917). During World War II, the Soviet armed forces brought communism by force to much of Eastern Europe. Political revolutions also brought communism to China, North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba. The result was the Cold War. In the 1980s, communism began to change considerably. Communist countries took on more and more of the characteristics of market economies. By the early 1990s, communism had collapsed completely in the former Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe. As of this writing, China, Vietnam, North Korea and Cuba still have communist economies. But they are very different from the period before 1980. Indeed, China has become basically a market economy, as we will see later. At the beginning of the new millennium, market economies have become totally dominant among the countries of the world. In this chapter, we will focus on the former Soviet Union. We will look at the basic components of a communist economy. Then we will try to assess how well the communist economic system performed and why reforms to that system failed. In the next chapter, we will discuss the attempt by Russia over the past 15 years to transform itself from a communist economy into a market, capitalist economy.
1. The Components of a Communist Economy
In Chapter 1, we introduced the terms “socialism” and “communism”. By our definitions, socialism occurs where the government owns and controls most of the capital goods. A socialist economy becomes “communist” when the government is not a democratically-elected one. The former Soviet Union was probably the best example of a prototype communist economy from its inception in 1918 until its collapse in 1991. Indeed, most of the other communist countries patterned their economies on what had been done in the former Soviet Union.
To analyze communist economies in detail would take a complete volume. In this chapter, let us focus on a few key components. These are: (a) The Big Push, (b) State-Owned Enterprises with a Soft Budget Constraint, (c) Central Planning, (d) Collective Farming, (e) A Shortage Economy, and (f) Trade Autarky. To get a picture of a communist economy, we examine each of these in turn.
(a) The Big Push
All of the countries that adopted communist economies did so at a time of considerable economic backwardness. For either military or political reasons, they all believed that they needed to industrialize very quickly. Upon taking power in the Soviet Union in 1929, Stalin prophetically stated that his country would have ten years to overcome 100 years of backwardness if it wished to survive. (His country was invaded by Hitler’s armed forces just twelve years later.) In order to industrialize quickly, it was believed that a very high portion of all production had to be production of capital goods, with considerable emphasis on steel and other materials needed for the military. The focus therefore was to be on large, capital-intensive projects in “heavy industry”. Normal consumer goods and housing had to be discouraged in order to channel resources into production of these capital goods.
The need to channel resources into these priority areas required the government to have considerable control over the economy. This was accomplished through a highly centralized Communist Party. The Communist Party made all major appointments, promotions, and dismissals in the enterprises that came to comprise the Soviet economy. Those who refused to carry out the orders of the Party leadership could quickly see their careers ruined.
(b) State Owned Enterprises With a Soft Budget Constraint
As noted above, in a socialist economy, capital goods are owned by the government. In the former Soviet Union, all enterprises (and all land) were indeed owned by the government. Those who managed the enterprises were bureaucrats. They were most likely to have been members of the Communist Party, as this was the path to any career success. As with all decision-makers, we have to look at the incentives they face to see how the enterprises will behave. In the former Soviet Union, there seem to have been two main incentives facing enterprise managers. First, there were incentives for meeting the plan targets. We discuss central planning in the next section. There were many plan targets to meet. But the one with the greatest rewards was the target for production. Meeting the production target would bring the managers of the enterprises considerable financial reward (a bonus that could add 25% to 30% to one’s income) as well as prestige. Consistent failure to meet the production targets meant the loss of the bonus, reduced promotion prospects, and possibly the loss of one’s job.
This passion to meet the target for production was dysfunctional for at least two reasons. First, the managers of the enterprise desired to meet the target but not to exceed it. Exceeding the target this year would certainly mean an increase in the plan target next year. The result was that production often went along at a slow pace until the last three days of the month, followed by a frantic pace of production to meet the monthly target. This phenomenon was called “storming” and was obviously very inefficient. Second, this passion to meet the target for production was dysfunctional because it made enterprise managers very resistant to change and innovation. If an innovation were a failure, the plan target would not be met. If the innovation were a success, the result would be that the plan target for next year would be raised.
Second, there were incentives for enterprise managers in the former Soviet Union to push for enterprise expansion. This seems to be a ubiquitous goal of bureaucrats. For the manager of the enterprise, power and prestige increased as the size of the enterprise increased. Managers of Soviet enterprises tended to ask for more funds for new capital goods than they actually needed. To increase the chances that their requests would be approved, they would underestimate the costs of the capital goods and the completion time. This phenomenon has been called “investment hunger” --- where investment refers to the buying or building of new capital goods. Those higher up in the bureaucracy often approved the increase in capital goods because they saw this as part of the “Big Push”.
This “investment hunger” was also dysfunctional for at least two reasons. First, the government commonly permitted the buying or building of more capital goods than it could possibly afford. When it realized that it was over-extended, the government would then slow the building or buying of all the projects simultaneously. The result of this was that many projects stayed only partially completed for years and years. Second, enterprises in the former Soviet Union became very large. In the entire country, there were perhaps only 50,000 manufacturing enterprises of any kind. They averaged more than ten times the number of employees as would be found in a typical American company. By becoming so large, they became very hard to manage. As a result of companies being too large, costs of production rose – a phenomenon called diseconomies of scale. This passion for very large companies has been called “Gigantomania”.
Notice that, when we examine the main goals of the managers of enterprises in the former Soviet Union, we did not include profits. Managers of Soviet enterprises did receive a target concerning profits. The profits target was supposed to force enterprises to produce efficiently. But, at all levels of the Soviet bureaucracy, meeting the production target was much more important than any other target. If an enterprise met the production target while its costs exceeded its revenues, it would receive assistance from the government. This assistance was commonly a direct subsidy. Companies never had to worry about costs, as they knew that any losses would be covered by the government. This phenomenon has been called the “soft budget constraint”. The result, as you might guess, is that Soviet enterprises were very inefficient. (The term “soft budget constraint” is a play on the words “hard budget constraint” in which a company or division must live within a fixed budget.)
(c) Central Planning
In the former Soviet Union, central planning largely replaced the market. Planners’ preferences replaced consumers’ preferences. Generally, there was a five-year plan (to set major goals and priorities) and an annual plan. The annual plan would set the plan targets that were discussed in the previous section. This annual plan began with targets for production for the entire economy. These targets were then broken down by sector, such as agriculture, industry, transportation, and so forth. From there, the plan was continually disaggregated until it reached the enterprise level. But the final plan targets were not simply imposed on the enterprise. There was considerable bargaining between the enterprise director and the planning authorities. The final plan targets determined the quantities of each good that would be produced by the enterprise, the materials that each enterprise would be allowed to have (as well as the company from which the enterprise was to buy these materials and the price it would pay), the number of workers that would be allowed as well as the total wages that could be paid, and so forth. For a large enterprise, there could be as many as 200 different plan targets to meet. Meeting the plan targets was mandatory, although, as noted in the last section, managers realized that meeting the production target was by far the most important. It has been estimated that the planning for production and for the allocation of materials was undertaken for 30,000 to perhaps 60,000 products. A plan for one year would commonly be something like 12,000 pages.
For about 4,000 of these products, the former Soviet Union attempted a Materials Balance. First, for each product, the planners would estimate the sources -- how much would be produced or imported. Then they would estimate the uses -- how much would be used in production, consumed, or exported. For each product, the sources and the uses had to balance. Since many of the products were inter-related, achieving a balance of any kind for all products was extremely difficult. (For example, anything that affected the materials balance for iron would also affect the materials balance for steel which would affect the materials balance for machinery and so on.) For this reason, planning was typically done “on the margin”. This means that the planners would begin with last year’s plan, whether it was good or not, and then make a few changes for the coming year. Central planning proved to be a virtually impossible task. Can you imagine a group of people planning production of 30,000 to 60,000 products (remember that one company’s production then had to be part of the materials allocation for another company) in a country of over 300 million people that spoke over 100 languages and that spanned eleven time zones?
Central planning also led to certain dysfunctional behaviors. For example, a manager of an enterprise would, of course, want as easy a production target as possible and as plentiful a supply of materials and labor as possible. In order to achieve that, the enterprise manager would distort information. Commonly, he or she would try to make superiors believe that the enterprise had a capacity to produce a smaller quantity than it really had. Or materials would be reported as “lost or damaged in shipment” and then stored for future use. Enterprises commonly hired people to go around the country and bribe the directors of other enterprises in order to obtain needed materials. This, of course, was illegal. Materials were commonly being used for purposes not specified in the plan. For another example, if the materials allocated to an enterprise were not sufficient to meet the plan target, the enterprise would simply lie about the product it had produced. For example, if there were not enough leather, a shoe company might produce what is really a size 6 shoe and label it as size 8. And for yet a final example, there was the problem of the unit of measurement for the production target. If production were measured in weight, the products would be very heavy. If production were measured in number of units, the products would be very flimsy. One famous cartoon had an enterprise director standing next to an absolutely gigantic nail and telling his colleague how he had met the production quota for that year.
(d) Collective Farming
When a country is beginning to develop economically, the agricultural sector has four major functions. (1) It must provide food for the people plus raw materials (such as cotton) for industry. (2) Since most of the population is engaged in agriculture, people must be shifted to manufacturing to provide the labor force that will allow manufacturing industries to grow. (3) It must be the source of most of the savings that will pay for the investment in new capital goods. (4) And finally it must provide export products to earn foreign exchange to buy the imported materials that industries need.
To achieve these results, the former Soviet Union decided to have agriculture collectivized. Collectivization was done in a very bloody and destructive manner in the
1930s. Soviet farms were basically of two types. The first was the State Farm. This was a farm but operated like any other enterprise --- a factory in the fields. The second was the Collective Farm. Technically, this was a cooperative. It was “owned” by the workers who received a basic wage plus a bonus based on the performance of the collective farm. While the Chair of the collective farm was supposed to be chosen by the workers, in reality, the Chair was chosen by the Communist Party. The collective farms were given plan targets, just as any other enterprise. But anything they produced above the plan targets could be sold on collective farm markets at higher prices. As you might expect from the description of the Soviet enterprise, the farms in the former Soviet Union were very large (“Gigantomania”). Collective farms commonly averaged more than 16,000 acres and State Farms averaged more than 40,000 acres.
Throughout most of the Soviet period, agriculture rarely performed as intended. Over these years, there were many attempts at reform. None of these changed the basic character of Soviet agriculture. Let us examine how Soviet agriculture performed based on the functions specified above. (1) Soviet agricultural production rarely reached the goals of the planners. Indeed, the growth rate of agricultural production was quite low by any standard. In the 1970s, it was estimated that agricultural production per worker was only 6% that of the United States and that production per machine was only 33% that of the United States. (2) The labor force in agriculture did fall, as intended, to provide workers for the growing industries. But it did not fall very much. For example, from 1970 to 1983, the agricultural labor force fell by only 700,000 people out of a total of 26.8 million. The labor force for the growing industries had to come from forcing almost all married women to work. (3) The Soviet government tried to extract savings from farm workers through high taxes. This money was to be invested in industry, not agriculture. Because of this policy, agricultural infrastructure was poor. About one-fifth of all grain, fruit, and vegetables would perish due to poor storage facilities. At least 20% of all tractors would be out of service at any given time. And the roads were so poor that a major use for those tractors that did operate was to pull trucks out of the mud. Because of these problems, the Soviet government decided in the 1980s to invest more resources in agriculture. As they did so, they were taking savings away from industry to pay for investments in agriculture, exactly the opposite of what they had intended. Finally, (4) rather than provide export products, Soviet agriculture performed so poorly that large quantities of meat and grain had to be imported. In the mid-1970s, the Soviet Union and the United States agreed to two large sales of wheat to the Soviet Union (known to some in the United States as the “Great Grain Robbery”).
Probably most embarrassing for the Soviet authorities was the role of private plots. State farm members, collective farm members, and city dwellers had access to private plots. These were very small --- less than one acre. They were operated with spade, hoe, and sickle technology and worked by wives or retirees. Yet these private plots were responsible for 60% of all potatoes grown, 40% of all fruits, berries, and nuts, 30% of all meat, milk, and vegetables, and 25% of all agricultural production.
(e) A Shortage Economy
In the former Soviet Union, prices were not determined by demand and supply. Indeed, in most cases, prices were set below market-level prices and were rarely changed. The result was shortages of most consumer goods. The shortages were most commonly resolved by distribution on a first-come, first served basis. Long lines were pervasive throughout the former Soviet Union. It was common for people who had worked a full day to spend two more hours in line shopping – 5 or 6 days a week. If one had a recipe that required three or more ingredients, one could be assured that at least one of these ingredients would not be available at all. The average waiting time for housing was ten to fifteen years. The average waiting time for an automobile or a telephone was over three years. The pervasiveness of shortages led to forced savings --- called a “monetary overhang”. This means that people had income but could not find anything to spend it on. So, unwillingly, they saved it.
Distribution on a first-come, first-served basis was not the only means to resolve the shortage problem. In some cases, there was “seller choice”. Those most favored were members of the Communist Party. And it was not uncommon for workers in stores to hide some goods and then sell them to friends and family.
A shortage economy leads to black markets. In the former Soviet Union, this was called the Second Economy. Large amounts of clothing and housing services (such as repairs) were sold in the black market at high prices. Blue jeans, in particular, could command a very high price. As mentioned above, enterprise managers hired individuals to go around the country buying materials on a black market. Truck drivers would divert cargo and then sell it on a black market. Foreign goods would be smuggled into the country. People would steal materials from their places of employment and use them to construct summer homes and other amenities. (Stealing from the government was not looked down on in the former Soviet Union.) Bribery of government officials was a fact of everyday life.
There were also shortages in the labor market. Workers were free to move between jobs. Workers were generally hard to find while jobs were easy to find. A common result was shirking by workers. Workers would show up for work, leave in the morning, go shopping or drinking, and then return to work in the afternoon to punch out. These workers would not be fired because there was no one to replace them.
(f) Trade Autarky
The last aspect of the economy of the former Soviet Union was a complete aversion to international trade. This was called “autarky” and resulted from the government seeing other countries as “the enemy”. Imports were limited to those necessary goods that could not be produced at home. Exports, mainly from agriculture, were to earn the money to pay for these imports. All international trade was handled by specific agencies; with a few exceptions, enterprises could not trade directly with companies in other countries. The Russian Ruble was not convertible into foreign monies. Transactions involving foreign exchange were tightly controlled by the government. The price charged for a good within the Soviet Union and the price charge in international trade had virtually no relation to each other.
2. Economic Performance of the Former Soviet Union
This description of the economy of the former Soviet Union is a description of an economy modeled on the military. Those at the top gave the orders and others obeyed. The use of markets was more limited than in most other countries. The economic performance of this type of economic system was generally unsatisfactory. Let us examine this performance.
There are many measures of economic performance. But since the goal of the planners was economic growth, let us focus just on this measure. According to official Soviet statistics, from 1950 to 1984, production in the former Soviet Union grew at an annual rate of 7.6%. American estimates had this growth rate much lower at 4.4%. This would mean that, each year, the former Soviet Union would produce 4.4% more goods and services than the year before. During the same period, the American economy grew at an annual rate of 3.4%. Especially during the 1950s, when Americans thought that the former Soviet economy was growing at an annual rate of 6%, there was great fear that the Soviet Union would catch up with, or even overtake, the United States.
While the Soviet rate of economic growth in this period looks very good, two important points need to be noted. First, according to American estimates, the growth of the economy of the former Soviet Union slowed consistently over this time. From 6% in the 1950s, the Soviet economy grew 5.1% in the 1960s, 3.7% in the 1970s, and only 2% from 1980 – 1984. The second point is that, after communism ended and Soviet records were made available to Americans, we learned that American estimates of Soviet growth were too high. The economy of the former Soviet Union was actually performing more poorly than we had thought. By the mid-1980s, production in the Soviet Union may not have been growing at all.
Economic growth can be of two types. One is called “extensive growth”. This growth occurs because of increases in the quantities of the various factors of production (more labor, more capital, and so forth). The other is called “intensive growth”. This growth occurs because of the ability to make better use of those factors of production that exist (more productive workers, better technologies, and so forth). The relatively high growth rates of the 1950s and 1960s reflected extensive growth. By 1970, the ability to grow by through extensive growth was beginning to run out as the quantities of both labor and capital were growing slower than previously. The low growth rates after 1970 indicate that the Soviet economy was not doing a good job at increasing the productivity of its workers nor of improving its technologies. The best measure we have of this is quantity produced per unit of input, where “input” includes both labor and capital. (This measure is called “total factor productivity”.) In the 1950s, this measure rose at an annual rate of 1.7% per year in the former Soviet Union. From 1960 to 1981, it rose at an annual rate of only 0.8%. And from 1983 to 1987, it actually fell at an annual rate of 0.7%. The former Soviet Union was not only behind the countries of the West, it was losing ground. By the middle of the 1980s, the leaders of the former Soviet Union had come to believe that their country had little chance of achieving a desirable rate of economic growth without making fundamental changes in the economic system.
3. Reform of the Soviet Communist Economy
The last half of the 1980s was a period of perestroika, meaning restructuring. This was the plan of the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to reform the economy without changing its basic communist character. Perestroika had several aspects. These are discussed in detail in the next chapter.
It is important to note what perestroika did not do. (1) It did not allow for a change in property arrangements. Enterprises were still owned and controlled by the government. State farms and collective farms in agriculture were retained. (2) It did not create prices that were determined by demand and supply. (3) It reduced, but did not eliminate, central planning. (4) It did not open the country to international trade, although it did allow enterprises, for the first time, to enter into foreign trade agreements on their own.
In all, perestroika only made marginal changes in the economy. And it was implemented slowly over time. The slow implementation meant that enterprises were in continual confusion. (A joke in a Soviet humor magazine went this way. The government sends an emissary to Britain to try to discover why the traffic accident rate is so low in Britain. The emissary returns and reports to the Minister of Transportation that the reason is that the British drive on the left side of the road. “Good”, say the Minister. “We’ll do that too. But we’ll start with just the trucks.” If one can imagine the trucks on the left side and the cars on the right side, one gets a good sense of the confusion caused by the slow implementation of reform.) Enterprises could now make deals with each other. But there was no legal system to enforce the deals. And there were no wholesale markets to reduce the transactions costs of making the deals. Some prices were freely negotiated and some were set by the government. Some production had to be sold to the government while other production did not. The rules were constantly changing. Because perestroika was resisted by those in high government positions, no one could be sure that the reforms would last. As we will see in the next chapter, this confusion caused production to actually fall in 1989 and 1990. And between 1985 and 1989, the budget deficit more than doubled. This means that the government was spending much more than it was taking in as tax revenues. Rubles were being created at very rapid rates to pay for these budget deficits. This increase in money available, at a time production was falling, created very great shortages. In response, many of the changes of perestroika were reversed. It was an admission of failure.
In August of 1991, communism collapsed completely after a failed coup against Gorbachev by hardline party members. The former Soviet Union broke into different countries. The Cold War was over. In 1991, Boris Yeltsin took over as the leader of Russia, the largest part of what had been the Soviet Union. Since that time, Russia has attempted a rapid transition to a market, capitalist country. Nothing like this had ever been attempted. So far, there have been some clear successes and some clear failures in that attempt. We begin the discussion of the transition from a communist economy to a market, capitalist economy in Chapter 14.