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Consuming Interest

The shopping list is much like what an American consumer would take to the market: toothpaste, razor blades, detergent, shoes, panty hose, among other items. The quantities, though, are on a scale that manufacturers dream of. The Soviet Union plans to increase its imports of Western consumer goods this year by $8 billion, on top of the more than $51 billion already budgeted. Included are new funds to buy 300 million razor blades, 10 million compact cassette recorders, 15 million pairs of leather shoes, 10,000 tons of toothpaste. It is indicative of the growing climate of Soviet consumer discontent that orders for these products have gone out, as a deputy trade minister acknowledges, with “uncharacteristic urgency.” Soviet shops are supposed to start receiving this bounty within a few weeks.

And then? And then, so Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and other advocates of economic reform hope, the idea should begin to percolate through the labor force that the regime’s repeated promises of a higher living standard have some credibility after all, and that harder work can bring greater material rewards. A contented worker, so the argument runs, will be a more productive worker, and increased output and productivity are vital if Soviet economic stagnation is to be overcome.

The interest in making consumer products more available doesn’t mean that the Soviet Union’s traditional spending priorities, with their emphases on heavy industry and the military, have been abandoned. But clearly the emphasis has shifted somewhat, toward a greater willingness to spend more hard currency to try to reduce some of the chronic and, lately, worsening shortages in the consumer sector.

One of the considerations that helped to spur this long-debated change was the defeat suffered in last month’s national elections by a number of senior Communist Party officials, in many cases after they--and the party--were criticized in public forums for the growing scarcity and shoddy quality of most consumer products. Even before then, the seriousness and urgency of the problem were a matter of public discussion. As a columnist in the increasingly outspoken Moscow News wrote earlier this year, “It is clear to everyone that if the country is not supplied in the next few years with foodstuffs, and people with clothing, shoes, furniture, electric appliances and so on . . . all faith in perestroika will evaporate and the party will be deprived of the people’s confidence.”

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High-level opposition to spending more on consumer imports remains, however. Traditionalists prefer to see the billions of dollars in credits the Soviet Union has obtained from the West used for machinery and other capital goods. The reformers counter that unless purchasing patterns are changed to provide a broader flow of consumer products the labor force will have no motivation to work harder. The decision to spend more on imports this year doesn’t mean the argument has been finally settled.

Conservatives can be expected to insist that a bigger budget for consumer imports must show a prompt return in the form of higher productivity and expanded output. Otherwise, presumably, they will try to have the experiment branded a failure and insist that the old spending priorities be restored. Demanding such a regressive step may be a lot easier than taking it; any attempt to snatch back from consumers the little more that they have been given could surely be expected to deepen popular resistance, cynicism and resentment, making things worse than they were before. The opponents of reform may think that the spigot of high-quality consumer goods that is being opened can simply be turned off if things don’t go the way they would like. It can be, if that is what the regime wills, but perhaps only at the cost of inviting a political explosion.


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