Poles pay a price

Nothing makes the average Pole madder than not having enough meat in his larder. Twice in the past decade the issue of cheap meat has caused political shock waves. In 1970 plans to raise food prices brought down the Golumlka government. In 1976 Edward Gierek almost suffered the same fate. Hence the Polish government last week moved with extreme caution in boosting prices on certain meat products. Workers staged some slowdowns but violence was avoided.

The fact that even so modest a government move has to be stealthily orchestrated points up both the political and economic problems confronting Poland after more than 30 years of communist rule. Marxist economics has improved the relative lot of many people, perhaps, but its overall performance is dreary. Last year the economy registered a negative growth rate. The nation is beset by poor harvests, acute shortages of consumer goods, poor-quality of production, and a debt to the West exceeding $18 billion -- repayment of which takes more than half of every dollar in export earnings. Worst of all, Poles are demoralized, taking out their frustrations in alcoholism and poor discipline at work.

The Polish leadership seeks to remedy this dismal state of affairs, but the only formula is seems to come up with is importing more technology from the West. So eager is the regime for more loans to purchase equipment, in fact, that it took the unprecendented step recently of opening its books to its Western creditors. Yet it is doubtful that even with more credits Mr. Gierek can pull the economy out of its doldrums. Much more is needed. The fact is, Poland has resisted the kind of basic structural reforms that have enabled countries like Hungary to move forward. Even liberal Marxist voices from within the establishment call for flexible planning reforms that would permit greater freedom of action.

The government's gingerly price increases are more than justified, for meat prices are massively subsidized by the state. Other meat products, too, should logically be "decontrolled" under the government's new austerity program. But Poles can grumble with no less logic about why, after so many decades, they should continue to pay the price for the ineffeciencies of a hidebound regime unwilling to mend its old-style Marxist ways. Meat is the immediate issue -- but it is a symbol of a wider Polish discontent. The question is how long Poland can go on before that discontent erupts once again.

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