IN POLAND the standard of living fell throughout the 1980s. In some of the other Eastern European countries it may have risen slightly, but not enough to acquit their Communist governments of the charge of incompetence. The sense of economic crisis has been a powerful force in the revolutions of the past year. The democrats now taking office know that to make their countries work better in the long term, they have to go ahead with reforms that will hurt in the short term.
The CIA recently offered the Joint Economic Committee its view of this process and came to the right point. Deepening austerity risks public resistance and protest that can block these desperately necessary reforms. In the immediate future, the CIA suggested, economies may well perform most badly in those countries -- Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia -- that are pushing reform hardest.
Over this past year, the West has come to realize how far the reforms are going to have to go. The CIA study estimates that 40 percent of the firms in Poland and Yugoslavia will fail if direct state aid is cut off. Because of the severe housing shortages, workers can't easily leave the mill towns in search of new jobs elsewhere.
That raises once again the question: Is the West doing enough to help these new democracies? The answer is that the West has done some useful things, but not nearly enough so far.
Jeffrey Sachs of Harvard, who has been working as a consultant to the Polish and Yugoslav governments, offered the Joint Committee a short list of immediate needs. The Eastern Europeans need financial support for their currencies to enable them to open their markets and trade with the West. On that, the West and specifically the United States have given at least Poland valuable help. Eastern Europeans also urgently need technological help -- not only in engineering and manufacturing but in design and marketing to enable then take advantage of their access to Western markets.
And then there are Eastern Europe's foreign debts, regarding which Mr. Sachs has been carrying on a crusade for some time. Through the Brady Plan, the rich countries have begun to provide a measure of debt relief to the poor countries -- mostly in Latin America -- that owe billions to the commercial banks. But the Brady Plan doesn't help the Eastern Europeans. Most of their debt is owed directly to the governments of the rich countries, which, as Mr. Sachs observes, have declined to apply to themselves the same rule of forgiveness that they are urging on the commercial banks. But as an investment in democracy, debt relief promises to pay dividends.