Sunday, February 5, 2012

Seven things I learned about transition from communism

by Andrei Shleifer


February 5, 2012

Twenty years ago, communist countries began their shift towards capitalism. What do we know now that we didn’t know then? Harvard's Andrei Shleifer, the Russian-born, American-trained economist, provides his answers and their relevance for contemporary policymakers.

Recently, I was asked by the organisers of the IIASA conference to mark the 20th anniversary of the beginning of economic reforms in Eastern Europe and former Soviet Union to comment on the lessons of transition. The assignment presumably refers to the things that I learned – as an economist – that are different from what I believed initially. Such a recollection free from hindsight bias is challenging, but I tried. This list might be useful to future reformers, although there are not so many communist countries left. Some of the issues are however relevant not just for communist countries; the problems of heavily statist economies are similar. So here is my top-seven list.

First, in all countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, economic activity shrunk at the beginning of transition, in some very sharply. In many countries, economic decline started earlier, but still continued. In Russia, the steepness and the length of the decline (almost a decade) was a big surprise. Countries with the biggest trade shocks (such as Poland and Czechoslovakia) experienced the mildest declines. To be sure, the true declines were considerably milder than what was officially recorded – unofficial economies expanded, communist countries exaggerated their GDPs, defence cuts, and so on – but this does not take away from the basic fact that declines occurred and were surprising. These declines contradicted at least the simple economic theory that a move to free prices should immediately improve resource allocation. The main lesson of this experience is for reformers not to count on an immediate return to growth. Economic transformation takes time.

Second, the decline was not permanent. Following these declines, recovery and rapid growth occurred nearly everywhere. Over 20 years, living standards in most transition countries have increased substantially for most people, although the official GDP numbers show much milder improvements and are inconsistent with just about any direct measure of the quality of life (again raising questions about communist GDP calculations). As predicted, capitalism worked and living standards improved enormously. One must say, however, that for a time things looked glum. So lesson learned: have faith – capitalism really does work.


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