Once upon a time, I lived in a country that was emerging from socialism into capitalism. Locals were highly educated and poorly paid, essential goods were rationed, industry was inefficient, bureaucracy bloated, tourists were awarded a higher rate of exchange, and the black market outperformed the official one.
Times in the old country were historical and hysterical: bullock carts, traffic-less streets, antique vehicles belching noxious black fumes, shared food, material envy, assistance from friends and relatives living abroad who gave a few scraps and achieved hero status.
Then the equalization happened, the switch was flipped. Locals had to pay what foreigners paid, the black market was eliminated but its prices became the standard, the dual exchange rate merged, and imports were allowed. Galloping inflation that resulted was recognized when the price of bread was adjusted upwards, twice a day. The privileged became more privileged, and erected walls and placed barbed wire on their tops to keep those falling below the poverty line from invading their space. The middle class faced two choices: embrace entrepreneurship by hook or by crook, or grab hold of the vanishing subsidies in the hope that they would be sustainable and sustain life in the long term. And if all failed, get thick skinned enough to ask for assistance, that is, get ready to beg, bum or borrow with never an intention of paying back.
Recently I visited another such country, one of the last bastions of communism, where after generations of isolation, the truth has come home to roost: the old model, utopian in concept, is unsustainable. “We need to unleash greed, fear and enterprise to make things tick again,” is the grim realization. No one remembers past mistakes made in other places, because the proletarian rulers need to drown them out and focus the masses into believing the perfection of their new model. And anyway, it will be too embarrassing to turn back the clock now and let global lessons bare the truth.
“We are going to do this gradually,” say the rulers. Tell that to the frog who winds up burned anyway, whether you throw him into a pan of boiling oil, or whether you place him gently in a pan of cold water and increase the temperature slowly to a boil.
We live in a world of man-made, imperfect political systems and no one has invented the flawless one yet, the utopia that we dream of. Greed and fear vs. inefficiency and poverty – a hell of a choice to make! Let’s flip a coin, shall we?