WHAT, goes one of the best Polish jokes, do the United States and Poland have in common? In both countries, Polish zlotys buy nothing and US dollars buy everything.
The humor is particularly pertinent these days. Around the world, the dollar has been battered. But here in Poland, its value goes up and up.
Officially, the dollar buys 310 zlotys. Hotel bellboys offer 1,000 zlotys for a buck. Taxi drivers and well-dressed men outside the four-star Europejski Hotel offer 1,100 or 1,200 zlotys - an increase of 200 or 300 zlotys in the past few weeks.
``Whenever people are scared about living standards, the rate of the black-market exchange rises,'' says Finance Minister Bazyli Samojlik. ``We have to admit that we have a bi-currency system, with dollars and zlotys.''
Poland's dependency on the American currency says much about its economic distress. Local producers are unable to meet demands, and Poland's gigantic $36 billion debt means that the difference cannot be made up with imports. Many items - from coffee to computers - are unobtainable with zlotys in Polish stores.
But these goods can be readily procured in Pewex, the government-run stores that sell goods for dollars.
Inside the Pewex store on Ulitza Stawi, Magda looks over the shelves full of Yardley face powder, Old Spice aftershave, and Chanel No. 5 perfume.
``If you have dollars,'' she says, ``Santa Claus is coming.''
The black-market rate usually rises before Christmas. Dollars are needed to buy gifts. But dollar hoarding is taking on extraordinary proportions this year. Price increases of up to 200 percent are scheduled for January on many basic zloty-priced products, including food and fuel. ``Everyone is rushing to get rid of zlotys,'' says Jan, an engineer. ``The dollar offers protection.''
To a certain extent, a similar situation exits throughout economically hard-pressed Eastern Europe. Only in market-oriented Hungary, where goods are plentiful is it hard to find a money-changer. Where the local currency has lost value, however, a substitute is needed.
The substitute doesn't have to be the US currency. In Romania, penalties are so stiff for holding dollars that the most valuable currency has become Kent cigarettes. Not Marlboros. Not Pall Malls. Only Kents.
Want a train ticket? The salesman says none are left. Hand over a packet of Kents and two first-class tickets slide under the counter.
Aside from such a bizarre case, the dollar is usually the preferred substitute currency. In part, this is because most Pewex and most other East-bloc hard currency shops price their goods in dollars. In part, it results from the millions of East Europeans with generous relatives in the US who send them dollars. And finally, it reflects the ability of East Europeans to travel abroad and earn dollars.
On all counts, Poland leads the Soviet bloc. The several million Polish-Americans long have sent cash to their relatives. In recent years, the Polish authorities have liberalized travel restrictions so that an estimated 800,000 Poles will visit the West this year, many to work.
Polish authorities encourage such practices. The dollars are needed to pay back Poland's debt, and from the official point of view, it is much better for Poles to spend their dollars at home than abroad.
Unlike other East-bloc citizens, Poles are permitted to hold dollar bank accounts. The local PKO savings bank pays high interest - and asks no questions about where the money was obtained. According to Finance Minister Samojlik, about 3.5 million of the country's 37 million citizens hold such dollar acounts.
Then there's Pewex. From the 30th floor of Warsaw's tallest building, Marek Pietkiewicz, its vice-president, proudly explains the firm's boom.
Until the late 1970s, he says shortages were rare and Pewex was restricted mostly ``to VIPs and tourists.'' As the Polish economy collapsed, Pewex was opened up to the general public, and professional managers like Mr. Pietkiewicz were lured to run the enterprise.
Pewex now boasts 650 stores, a figure growing by 20 percent annually. It sold some $365 million last year. To encourage sales, Pewex offers items at substantially less than Western retail price - $2.60 for the Chanel perfume and $1.20 for the Yardley powder.
``Everyone buys at Pewex,'' boasts Pietkiewicz, ``including [former Solidarity leader Lech] Walesa.''
Mr. Walesa and his fellow leaders in the now-banned trade union don't like such claims. During 1980 and 1981, Solidarity complained about the practice of selling many Polish goods in Pewex stores. Although the authorities forced Pewex to stop for a while, the practice resumed after the imposition of martial law.
Today, many local products and services in short supply are available only for dollars. An organization called Polnot sells Polish cars for dollars, another called Locum sells apartments for dollars. Private plumbers repair clogged pipes for dollars, doctors make house calls for dollars, and taxi drivers prefer dollars.
The system produces great inequality in a supposedly egalitarian society. Any Pole receiving a mere $35 a month from abroad can change the sum for upwards of 36,000 zlotys, or twice the average monthly wage - 18,000 zloty. With dollars, life becomes cheap. Lavish dinners - pheasant, duck, veal - go for 1,500 zlotys, or just a little more than a dollar.
But without a generous aunt in Chicago, it is hard to make ends meet. A small Fiat costs 650,000 zlotys, or 36 months of an average person's salary - and the queue lasts several years. The waiting time to get an apartment for zlotys stretches beyond 20 years.
``Anyone with access to dollars lives fine, while those who can't get dollars become poorer and poorer,'' complains Bronislaw Geremek, a key Solidarity adviser.
The government realizes the problem and hopes a series of economic reforms will alleviate it. By raising prices and introducing market mechanisms into the economy, officials hope to bring supply and demand into line and narrow the zloty-dollar gap.
A dollar ``auction'' has been launched, in which enterprises can buy dollars at the going rate to finance imports. Plans have been announced to let state stores buy dollars to make Western goods available - for zlotys.
``The idea is to bring the black market onto a more and more legal basis,'' a Western diplomat explains. ``Eventually, they might even make the zloty convertible.''
Convertibility would constitute a revolution in favor of a free-trade, market-based economic system. At this time, no Pole can change zlotys legally into dollars.
``Giving up exchange limitations means giving up central planning,'' explainss Irene Ruffin, an economist with the French Institute of Foreign Relations. ``The government no longer could control imports and exports.''
Are the Polish communists willing to go that far? Finance Minister Samojlik told a small group of Western journalists last week that convertibility will be difficult to achieve without flooding Poland with Western imports.
``We want to move as close to convertibility as soon as possible,'' he said, ``but it is a very complex issue.''
In the meantime, the Polish government turns a benevolent blind eye to the dollar black market. Another joke explains the situation:
Looking at the money-changers assembled outside the Hotel Europejski, a Westerner asks, ``Isn't it dangerous? Aren't some of them police agents?''
``Of course,'' the Pole replies. ``But they give good rates, too.''