Poland's meat lines hint deeper problems

It is six weeks since the government announced emergency moves to ease the meat shortage. But the lines at the butchers' are just as long. With the first breath of winter already in the air, they don't extend down the block now. Instead, they coil in a circle inside the shops. And they wait just as long.

This past month, despite imports, the Poles have begun eating into their meat reserve. The peasant farmers have yet to respond to appeals to deliver more animals to the markets.

In all, the government has alloted hard currency to buy 50,000 tons of meat abroad, but at the same time it has had to warn that domestic production is likely to be lower next year than this.

There are many shortages besides meat, and all of them were aggravated by the general stoppage in production through July and August.

By mid-September industrial produc tivity was at only 80 percent of expectation. Housing had reached only 36 percent of target. Coal is 2.8 million tons behind, as is almost everything from pig iron and steel to car tires, washing machines -- and 73 million pairs of shoes.

The government's dilemma is almost that of the Dutch lad trying to plug the break in the dike with a thumb. this is not to deride or minimize its problems, or the effort it has launched to grapple with them. Its options are limited, indeed.

However, much of this situation -- quite apart from the added burden of bad harvests in five of the last six years -- results mainly from gravely mosconceived economic policy through the 1970s. And this year everything happened at once.

The summer crisis, which many had forewarned, was the culmination of many social as well as economic errors that had contributed to a national mood of deep frustration.

By the mid-'70s, some of Poland's leading economists were sounding alarm bells. but, as they have said -- now that they may say it openly -- their forecasts went unheeled by the political leadership, and the censorship applied to "state secrets" prevented them from alerting the nation by publishing them.

Without doubt, the government has on its hands the most acute and complex economic situation any East European country has faced in the 35 years of the Communist bloc's existence.

It would like to get right down to its development program for 1981, which will involve a virtual U-turn from former investment policy to give priority to the new social objectives dictated by the strike settlements.

But it cannot do so while it is beset at every hand by the difficulties of meeting the immediatem demands and problems arising from the crisis. These in themselves are formidable enough.

To meet its pledges -- and avoid the risk of further labor unrest -- it has had to speed up the wage increases. Instead of a "breathing space" till next June, it has had to assure 10 million people they will receive their increases by the end of this month. the remaining 2 million -- mainly white-collar workers -- will get them by the end of January.

In parliament Oct. 8, Premier Josef Pinkowski called it an "unprecendented" increase in so short a period. "We want to meet the demands of the working people halfway," he said, "according to Poland's economic possibilities."

The workers are expected to go the "other half" of the way by working more efficiently and increasing productivity. that, however, is still a question for the future.

Scholarship and other student grants were increased with the term just started. In the new year, old-age pensions, family allowances, and other social-welfare benefits will go up.

The five-day week is being considered, but given this Polish context, it is one of the strikers' most "idealistic" demands.

But the government is committed to this and other reforms reaching nearly every phase of Polish life. these range from autonomy in enterprise management with only overall guidelines from the center to a more independent, "checking" role at least for parliament; from free play for the new unions and self-management for workers in industry to self-governance for students. It extends to journalists, academics, and creative artists.

The government, in short, has to correct what the economic journal Zycie Gospodarcze called "the seven sins of the '70s." Among them:

* Excessive and often "abortive" investments.

Work will be halted on some of the biggest, most capital-intensive projects begun in recent years. Investment for 1981 is being cut by $3.5 million.

* The debt burden of mushrooming Western borrowing to keep an unrealistic investment program going. (In 1973, Poland owed its Western creditors $2.5 billion. By 1976 it was $11 billion, by last year $19.4 billion, and now, in wake of the crisis, it is estimated at well over $20 billion.)

* An income policy in which earning rose 40 percent higher tha consumer supplies, and the failure to reform the price structure.

* Continuous disregard of agriculture's essential needs by restrictions on capable private farmers who wanted to buy more land, and neglect of corn production, which led to massive annual imports, again requiring hard currency.

Indebtedness (said Zycie Gospodarcze) finally went beyond the International Monetary Fund's so-called barrier of safety, which says all is well as long as the servicing of debts does not exceed 25 percent of a country's export earnings.

For Poland it became a vicious circle. Necessity for new loans, for continued and new investment, the growing need to import raw materials and then to borrow more to meet the most pressing obligations meant that, by 1978, more than 50 percent of its hard-currency export earnings was consumed in this way.

Last year, repayment and servicing took almost everything. This year Poland must repay $7.2 billion; next year it will be almost as much. Only in 1982 will it fall to more acceptable proportions -- $3.8 billion.

Between now and then the government has a rocky road to traverse. "It can manage," one Western diplomat here observed, "if it can gain public confidence. but without that, the danger of another crisis can never be far away."

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