The University of Chicago Magazine

December 1997


Last summer was the second time Johnson visited Berlin; the first was almost half a century ago. He was there in the summer of 1948 and vividly recalls June 21, the day the Soviets blockaded Berlin, a high-stakes gamble that sent the cold war into a deep freeze and led to the storied Allied airlift. But the agricultural economist in Johnson prompts him to observe, "The challenge wasn't food-that was not too difficult to supply to two and a half million people-it was fuel. There was no indigenous supply of fuel in Berlin."

When Johnson thinks back to that pivotal moment, he always reaches the same conclusion: "I don't see how the Allies could have backed down" from the Soviet challenge. "But I often wonder what would have happened if the airlift had not been successful. I think there would have been another war."

But there wasn't war. Instead, after xx years of the cold war, there was the inexorable disintegration of the Soviet Union followed by a market-economy transition that has not been nearly as successful as the one in China. In the Ukraine last summer, Johnson was talking to the director of what used to be a state farm but is now "something else-which is still almost exactly like what it used to be."

The director told Johnson he produces milk and sells it to a local dairy-processing unit that was formerly part of the state system. "First of all," Johnson says, shaking his head in wonderment, "the price he got was only half what the milk was really worth; secondly, often he didn't get paid at all. So I asked him, 'Why do you sell to these people and not directly?' He replied, 'Because the local officials tell me to.' It is hard to call this a market system.

"Another thing that made me cringe inside," Johnson continues: "I asked this man who he felt responsible to. He said he doesn't have a board of directors, even though the land was allocated to the people who used to work on the farm. But this is what got me-he doesn't feel responsible to the workers; he feels responsible to the local officials, presumably because they decide if he has a job or not. These officials want people to be employed processing milk, so they make him sell it to them."

In the Ukraine and many other parts of the old Soviet hegemony, it will take years for a true market-based economy to emerge, Johnson fears, although "Russia's not in as bad shape and the Baltic Republics have done well." Elsewhere, things look grim. "These countries set out to do two things at once: to become democracies and to become market economies. Those of us who were astounded by the peaceful transfer of governmental authority mistakenly assumed that the problems of creating new political and economic systems could be almost as easily carried out. What we didn't realize was who would win out in the new democracies: The winners have been more or less exclusively the old guard, because they're the ones who had the political organization. But they're also the ones who have not wanted change. They have resisted almost all the positive moves required for creating civil order. Courts, enforceable contracts, punishment for violating the law-these things don't exist."



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