GDANSK, POLAND -- Lech Walesa thinks Americans are missing a prime opportunity to invest in Poland, simply because they can't function without fax machines and car phones.
Between the lines in his recent interview with us was a message that is spoken more bluntly by other Poles -- that they will do whatever is necessary to attract U.S. business instead of German business.
The reunification of Germany concerns many of the Eastern Bloc countries that were occupied by the Nazis, but none more than Poland. The Nazis used Poland as their primary slaughterhouse. If there is to be a new prosperity in Poland, the Poles would rather share it with American entrepreneurs.
Walesa was expansive as he told us about the Polish desire to cultivate economic ties with the United States. The Poles have a lot to offer, he said, if only U.S. entrepreneurs could put up with some inconvenience.
"You Americans don't know how to make good business," Walesa chided. "You do business in a definite, technological way. You need telephones, you need faxes, you need planes to do business. And that's what we don't have. So you say it's difficult. But you can do good business here."
The Poles are famous throughout the Eastern Bloc for their low-tech successes. Circumstances have taught them that they have no choice but to do things the hard way, given the business choices made for them under communist regimes. Walesa told his two "favorite" examples:
"The great and beautiful Katowice Iron Works was built there just because Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev happened to drop a pen on that exact spot on the map!
"Another such iron works used to be called Lenin Iron Works and was built near Krakow. And the reason was to create a large working class to oppose the Krakow intellectuals (who were generally anti-communist). Factories based on such principles can never be competitive."
One of the early and inevitable costs of the quick Polish conversion to capitalism has been unemployment. Work was guaranteed under communism, even if there was nothing for the worker to do. Now more than 500,000 Poles are out of work. But there has been a sharp decrease in absenteeism, and a willingness to take menial jobs at lower wages. In the American business formula, those are pluses.
The Polish finance minister called the overnight conversion to capitalism "shock therapy." Others call it the "big bang theory" of economic transformation.
So far it has been surprisingly successful. Polish currency has held strong against the U.S. dollar. Hyper-inflation has been tamed. Last year it was 1,266 percent. By March, it was 5 percent a month.
The government dropped many price subsidies, including one on bread, which had kept the price so low that Poles used bread as pig feed. Prices rose rapidly but then leveled off, and now the stores are full of food and other necessities.
No other country has attempted such an economic conversion. Now Walesa hopes American entrepreneurs will have as much faith in the Poles as the Poles have in themselves.