Two researchers at the Siberian Academy of Sciences have described a series of experiments in which people have been made to work much harder than they usually do. "It might seem," the researchers reasoned. "that this should make them more tired, and that the tiredness should then make them irritable," but the opposite happened. The people taking part in the experiments became "enthusiastic" about their work, and instead of irritation "a mood of cheerfulness" resulted.
How was it done? By appealing to the workers baser instincts. In one case, the simple capitalist expedient of offering the workers a high bonus so stimulated their greedy natures that their factory was able to double tht productivity of labor. This meant that he factory's work force, which was under 10,000 could be reduced by 1,000, and that the average wages of those who remained went up by a third.
Critics of the Soviet system would argue that any industry that could improve its productivity so dramatically must be grossly inefficient to begin with, and they might be right. Such spectacular reductions in the work force could be accomplished only in an industry so heavily overmanned as to suggest the existence of hidden unemployment on a vast scale. Soviet planners may well respond that this is better than throwing millions of workers out into the street, as the capitalist does - and they might be right too.
But there are those in the Soviet Union who argue that neither extreme is inevitable, and they keep urging the Kremlin to push on with the reforms that could greatly improve the efficiency of the Soviet economy.
The vast improvements in the efficiency of the Shchekino chemical factory, which began to appear in 1967, were part and parcel of the economic reform introduced by Premier Alexei Kosygin two years before. But the reform was allowed to prefer out when it became evident that it threatened the party's monopoly of power.
Some Soviet economists keep insisting that the reform should be taken to its logical conclusion, and they have considerable support among some of the younger, forward-looking, members of the party leadership. But the conservatives argue that to go ahead with the reform would mean to allow far more play to the forces of supply and demand, so that ultimately it would be the consumer who decided what should be produced by industry, not the Kremlin. They believe that if the party allows itself to be seduced by the arguments in favor of economic efficiency, then the economic decisions will be gradually taken out of its hands and its political power will be correspondingly eroded. They want economic efficiency, but not at too high a price.
These arguments are rarely allowed to come out into the open, but a recent article in the Moscow Voprosy Ekonomiki (Problems of Economics) shows that they are not that far under the surface. The article takes to task two Soviet economists who maintain that supply and demand should be balanced by an appropriate pricing policy. The economists believe that prices could also be varied to make resources flow into different industries and regions, and to shape the structure of demand in industry as well as among the general public. But in the Soviet system, the article counters, prices can perform no such functions, "since these are primarily tht prerogatives of the national economic plan." The implication of the argument is that if prices are allowed to play so major a role, then the role of the planner - and of the Kremlin - would be reduced accordingly.
Both prices and wages are of course used in the Soviet Union to influence supply and demand, but it is the planner who determines what the prices and the wages shall be. This leads to anomalies that often result in the production of mounds of unwanted goods and the waste of national resources on huge scale, as often depicted in the Soviet press.
The two Siberian economists who wrote the article for Izvestia propose that the new Soviet constitution should formally sanction the use of prices and wages as "economic levers," because "it is very important that their role should be belittled." One of the authors is a leading Soviet economist, Abel Aganbegyan, who has played an important part in earlier Soviet policy debates. On the face of it his proposal is harmless enough, but there is little doubt that it is intended to be read between the lines as a contribution to the leadership debate on economic reform.
Without addressing the Kremlin directly, he warns it of the "disillusionment" that takes hold of people who see that their work is wasted - and he makes it clear that the work of many Soviet people goes to waste because of the inefficiency of the economic system. He even hints at possible political consequences to a regime that denies to its most energetic citizens a satisfying outlet in their work, for such people; he says, "will invariably find other channels for their activity."