The Accidental Mathematician

Paint it red

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I grew up in a socialist country.

I’m reminded of it every time I hear that public health care is socialist, or that financial regulation is socialist, or that regulating the auto industry is socialist, or that taxation is “spreading the wealth” and therefore socialist. I don’t get the impression that this refers to the “socialism” of the Scandinavian variety. More likely, it refers to the Soviet Union and its then-satellite countries – exactly where I was born.

I suppose I should recognize those various socialist things – oppose them, even – as marks of the failed system that I grew up with. But I don’t. Instead, I try to find a way to explain life under socialism to someone who doesn’t know it and I come up short every time. It’s not just explaining why apples are not like oranges. It’s explaining why apples are not like hockey and oranges are not like patio furniture.

Yes, we did have more political repression and government regulation. Yes, we had censorship, rationing and fewer consumer articles. People understand that. But then you mention to someone the high prevalence of tooth decay, and they respond, “sure, I bet you didn’t have fluoridated water”, and then you don’t know if you’ll be able to answer that in less than half an hour, so you smile, say that it was actually a little bit more complicated, and change the subject.

Take for example taxation. Do you think it’s socialist? If so, you’ll be interested to know that neither my parents nor I had ever filed a personal tax return before I left Poland at the age of 23. Taxation as it is known in the Western world was almost nonexistent in socialist countries. Just think about it. Most of the economy was state-owned, so why would the state try to tax something it owns to begin with? The public sector employees – the vast majority of the population – did not pay taxes, either. Poland allowed a small private sector: family-owned small farms, produce stands, private medical and dental offices, handcraft, and so on. I think those businesses were taxed. Of course, the private sector was intended to be only temporary and was expected to disappear once the transition to socialism was fully completed. There were no sales taxes. We did have some incidental taxes, for example on inheritance. That’s about it.

Is “spreading the wealth” socialist? Where I grew up, there was no wealth to be spread. The Eastern European socialist countries were, for the most part, poor as a church mouse. Poland’s economy was devastated in WWII, rebuilt less than optimally, then drained and mismanaged throughout the socialist years. What we had was empty shops, shortages of food and sanitary products, run-down crowded apartments with frequent power and water outages. Everyone had a flashlight and a supply of candles at home because the power might go out at any time. The outages could last the whole day or more, so it was common practice to keep pots, buckets and bathtubs filled with water whenever utility work was scheduled. Did you know that in a water outage you can still flush a toilet by pouring water from a bucket directly into the bowl? Well, now you do.

Speaking of accommodation, here’s a recent photo of my undergraduate dorm.

Back then, of course, we didn’t have satellite dishes. What you should imagine instead is plastic and mesh grocery bags hanging out from almost every window, with preserve jars and plastic-wrapped food packages clearly visible. There were only a few shared refrigerators in a dorm housing about 500 students, so most of us kept our food fresh by hanging it out the window whenever it was cold enough outside. The jars, plastic bags and aluminum foil protected the food from the rain and dirt. Most of the packaging would be washed and reused.

After graduating with a Master’s degree, I worked as a junior researcher in the math department and lived in the building that you can see here in the back.

I was initially assigned to a shared bedroom; once my roommate moved out, I applied for a single bedroom and got it. Each bedroom had a sink, but the kitchens and bathrooms were communal as in the dorm, one on each floor. There were families with children living there. If you had one child, your family was entitled to one bedroom. If you had two children, you were entitled to two bedrooms, not necessarily on the same floor. People lived like that for decades, and so would I if I had not left. The expected waiting period for public housing was 20 years or more and a junior researcher’s salary did not pay for a decent private rental apartment in a large city.

You think that’s bad? According to one report, a census of a major factory’s workers in 1957 showed that only 1% of families had hot running water at home, less than 50% of families had cold running water, and 75% did not have a toilet in the building. Does this begin to answer the question about the teeth?

As for the shortages of food and other articles, there was a whole culture around it in the 1980s. You’d walk into a grocery store and the shelves would be completely empty – or else there would be long rows of canola oil and vinegar bottles on display, because that’s all there was in stock. Many articles were rationed at various times, including sugar, meat and meat products, milk, butter, flour and other selected grain products, alcohol, chocolate, cigarettes, soap, laundry detergent, toilet paper, gasoline, and more. This does not cover all articles that were subject to shortages – products such as coffee and oranges were also hard to get, but they were not rationed because they were not considered essential enough. (Yes, I know. Coffee is essential.)

The typical diet was heavily dependent on meat. That was the tradition and there weren’t many alternatives to choose from. And meat was in very short supply. People would often start lining up many hours before the butcher’s shop would open, bringing blankets and tea in thermoses, waiting for the delivery that might or might not come. Queuing up at the butcher’s could be a full-time job, sometimes a paid one, as there were people who got paid to line up on behalf of others who couldn’t miss work.

But here’s something about rationing that you might not know. You may remember that the origins of the Solidarity trade union go back to an agreement between the government and the striking workers at the Gdansk shipyard that ended the nation-wide strikes in the summer of 1980. (See here for the full text in Polish.) The Gdansk workers had presented the government with a list of 21 demands. Number one was the right to form independent (of the government) trade unions – this led to the creation and legalization of Solidarity. Number 13 on the same list was meat rationing, which indeed was introduced in February 1981. The rationing system was expanded to cover other products later on, except for sugar which had already been rationed since 1976.

Yes, you’ve read this right. Walesa and the reform movement demanded meat rationing. Of course they also demanded an increase in supply, see items 10 and 11 on the list. But since it was clear enough that the supply would not meet the demand any time soon, the rationing would introduce an element of fairness to the process.

When I think of socialism, I also think of people who defended it. I don’t mean in official media, and I don’t mean government or party officials. They were my kin and my friends’ kin. They defended socialism in our private conversations, not because they were worried about getting reported by a family member – that did not happen much in my days – but because they genuinely believed that its advantages outweighed the disadvantages. They would cite public education, public health care, almost universal employment, the elimination of the most extreme poverty. If that came at the expense of political freedom, so be it. They believed that it was worth the price.

They were of course skipping over the same point that many Americans are missing right now: it is possible to have public health care without political repression and low living standards for everyone. That has been demonstrated in many countries including Canada. It wasn’t necessarily an option for Poland, stuck between a rock and a hard place, devastated by the war and strong-armed by the Soviet Union. We couldn’t have it all.

But there’s no reason why America couldn’t.

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