Teabags -- the latest symbol of Poland's strained economy

As I was on my way up to interview a Polish official, the elevator stopped and two female employees got on, carrying between them a big box. In it were scores of the kind of brown paper bags normally used for apples. These bags, however, were rough and ready packets of tea: Georgian tea, to be distributed among the staff.

Last month, tea suddenly became as scarce as coffee usually is. But then shipments from the Soviet Union and China were reported. Unfortunately, they were in bulk, and Poland doesn't have the usual materials for packaging tea for retailing just now.

The lack of tea packages is just one example of the many little things in which Poland lags far behind smaller countries that have much fewer resources.

Other goods, like meat, are also being distributed through work places this Christmas to try to even out supplies, but they still find their way to the black market. Or they get stolen, instead of being handed around.

This week has seen some modest supplies of Christmas extras. Carp, for instance, is a favorite for the Polish Christmas. But a new worry has cropped up -- a shortage of toilet paper. All Warsaw seems to be hunting it.

How does it happen that Poland, which has received so much aid and economic support from both East and West, finds itself in such a situation? Why does the present crisis seem so insoluble in so many small ways as well as in big and more difficult ways?

"Poland is still a backward country and too few of us Poles appreciate that," the senior official remarked during our interview.

"We have to come more to terms with ourselves.In the '70s we deluded ourselves with all the 'success' propaganda and a euphoric feeling that 'this is the take-off, now we can have everything.'

"Sure, there were achievements, and consumer conditions certainly picked up. But the economic premises on which it was based -- that we could borrow as much as we wanted, that we were now an advanced nation and all that -- were fallacies. And as the economists warned -- but weren't heeded -- it couldn't last and it didn't.

"Even now," he continued, "too many of us still do not realize the crisis came about because we are not yet an efficient, developed nation in any real [ sense of the] word in the late 20th century."

The government faces three strategic problems in its bid for recovery:

* Arresting the country's continuing slide behind the modern world's technological advance.

* Ensuring industry an adequate base of materials, so it can work the statutory 42-hour week instead of the actual 34 hours.

* Solving the food-shortage problem.

There seems no end to these dilemmas while the economic reform makes only a slow, faltering progress. It is still thwarted by subsidies to lame-duck industries, despite the severe pruning envisaged by the reform. And the political risks of removing supports for food and services, which cost billions of dollars, still seem to outweigh the benefits of establishing a pricing structure that reflects the market.

Official policy cells for tight credit. But funding for enterprises that may not be viable or potentially profitable is still easy to get. Effective measures have yet to be adopted to link wages to productivity.

Wages are to rise another 17 percent next year, some of it admittedly a spillover from this year. And, again for political reasons, additional compensations are likely to be included in the pay packet. But how can the Polish government set prices at market levels without granting extra cost-of-living bonuses, when some 50 percent of working Poles earn only 8,000 zlotys (about $85) a month, or less?

When it announced the food price rises -- averaging 15 percent -- to take effect early next year, the government issued a questionnaire inviting opinions on how the increases should be implemented. Most of those who bothered to reply are pensioners and the lowest paid workers. The rest of the population seems indifferent about how it is done. "What difference will it make?" is a common rejoinder.

An invigorated export drive to capitalist markets is planned for 1984. Poland needs to earn hard currency to purchase 3.5 million tons of grain and animal feed. But an equally essential key to the food problem is to make it worth the private farmers' while to get back to raising beef and pork.

Government contract prices were raised last summer, but not enought to make it pay. Fresh incentives and another hike of procurement prices are foreseen but it is the consumers who will have to bear it.

So the Polish circle goes round. . . .

Some growth in national income was recorded this year for the first time since 1979. In 1984, growth should be possible again. Coal output and exports are picking up steadily.

Western banks -- though not governments yet -- seem encouraged by the crisis recovery program and have agreed to talks in January about a further rescheduling of Poland's debts.

But another terribly uphill year is ahead, and most people believe it will stay like that well into the late 1980s.

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