By Donella Meadows
–October 3, 1991–
The United States is planning to respond to Mikhail Gorbachev’s repeated appeals for economic aid by sending in teams of experts in accounting, marketing and finance.
What? No LAWYERS?
I assume that our leaders are sincere in this offer — that it’s not part of a secret plot to bring the Soviet Union down the last step, from its knees to flat on the floor. If I’m right about that, the generosity of our leaders reveals the appalling state of their economic understanding. They apparently believe that an economy devastated by three generations of rapacious central planning has a great need for the ability to help companies swallow each other up, or to get 75 million children clamoring for “My Little Pony.”
I would suggest that marketing, finance, and accounting, useful though they may be, are not the central functions that make an economy run. What Russia needs is wheat, beef, cheese, soap, shoes, well-made buildings, and cars that don’t fall apart.
And plumbers. You don’t have to spend more than a day in the Soviet Union to realize that plumbing should be high on the aid list. Russia is a vast land of leaking faucets and unflushable toilets. I would imagine that the people would welcome with parades and flowers an arriving army of competent plumbers.
Next after plumbers we should send farmers. I once did a study with a Soviet colleague, intending to compare inputs and yields on Russian and American farms. When we met to review our data, we discovered that we couldn’t. There were no Russian data.
How much fertilizer is applied per acre? I asked. No one knows, my colleague replied.
Didn’t you ask the farmers? I did, but the farmers don’t put on the fertilizer.
Who does? The district party functionaries. Well, how much do THEY put on? No one knows. Why not? They sell most of it on the black market.
This crazy system has produced two generations of abused soils and “farmers” who have never been allowed to fertilize their own fields and have never known how much fertilizer was actually used. Remedial agricultural education is badly needed in the Russian countryside, preferably conducted by people who have been raised in a deep, land-respecting agricultural tradition. I suggest that our aid program pack up one person from every Amish household in this nation and place him or her as an extension agent on a Russian farm.
Here’s a story about another aid program, already underway in East Europe, that should be extended to the Soviet republics. A friend of mine has been participating in a USAID-sponsored energy efficiency survey in Romania. He travels around with an instrument about the size of a suitcase called a combustion analyzer. One afternoon he raised the energy efficiency of a paper plant by 50% within 45 minutes and at no cost, just by using the analyzer to convince the plant managers to adjust the draft on their boilers.
Happens all the time, he tell me. Never saw such energy waste. We should send over more combustion analyzers, plus furnace maintenance people, plus folks who know how to insulate buildings, along with the insulation. We could save the former East Bloc about half the money it spend on energy, and save the world a lot of pollution too.
Next on my list of folks who could help out in Russia would be Cliff Griswold, the guy who keeps my car running, and other experienced, honest car mechanics of his ilk. They tell me in Hungary that when one takes delivery of a brand new Lada car imported from Russia, one takes it immediately to a Hungarian repair shop to have it rebuilt before driving it. Such repair shops do not exist in the Soviet Union, nor does, apparently, the expertise to run them, nor the tools. We should send all of the above, plus some people who know how to assemble cars properly in the first place.
And people from dairy coops who can produce butter and cheese. And environmental engineers to work out pollution prevention programs. Entrepreneurs in the use of recycled materials. Cooks, steelworkers, builders. People who know how to brew decent beer.
What bothers me most about our leaders choosing financiers, accountants and marketing experts for the first wave of Soviet aid is that they must think OUR economy depends centrally on those skills as well. White-collar Washington, like the former bureaucrats of the Soviet Union, has a tendency to look down on folks who make things, grow things, and fix things — not realizing that without them there would be nothing to be accounted, marketed, or financed.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991