I recently read that in Venezuala people are standing in lines to obtain their basic needs, including even a bar of soap. This sounded very familiar to me, and took me back to review my “privilege” of having lived under a number of different economic systems.
I recall that in September 1939, after Hitler invaded the western part of Poland, the Soviets, by prior agreement with the Germans, invaded the eastern part of Poland, and my little town fell under Soviet control. Before the Soviets arrived there were little stores that provided the basic needs of the population. We had local farmers who came once a week to make a market and brought in their products for sale. There were never any shortages. There were no banks, no Wall Street investments — the economy just worked. The day after the Soviet invasion, private initiative was banned, the stores were closed, the farmers could not make their open market, and a black market based on barter developed. Products were only available occasionally, and you had to stand in line to get them, perhaps to be told after a long wait that there was no more available that day. This did not mean that there was none available: often those who were selling a thing would hold some back from the regular distribution to sell at higher prices on the black market. Everyone was equal, but some were more equal than others: there were separate places where only administrators and members of the Communist Party could get food not available to the rest of the population. This was after we were told that we had been liberated from an oppressive system and had been experiencing hunger. But from the outset, it was clear to us that the new system was built on lies.
By 1941 the German invasion completely wiped out that system. The farmers were obligated to feed the German army, and Jews were denied access to any food or other supplies at all. There was no normal supply of food: people bribed and bartered for whatever they could get. Jews were separated into ghettos and were starved or eventually put to death in the extermination camps.
In 1945 the war ended, and the Soviets took over complete control of Belarus and reintroduced the Communist economic system. As former Polish citizens, we were repatriated in 1946 and we went through Poland closer to the border with Czechoslovakia then illegally through Czechoslovakia, Austria, and we were eventually settled in former military camps of the Austrian army near Linz. During that time we existed on supplies from the United Nations. This was not an economy at all, just the United Nations supplying the needs of refugees until they could settle.
In 1952 we arrived in the United States and were introduced to the American economic system. We got jobs, we traveled freely without needing permission (very unlike the Soviet area where every trip needed a permit). Here we benefitted from the freedom of the United States in every respect. Everything we needed was available, there were no lines to stand on, no need to wait. And we had freedom to speak as we pleased and to associate with whomever we chose.
Today people come to the US even though its economic system is imperfect, exploited by bankers and others for their own personal gains. I would like to quote Joe Klein who was was a guest speaker recently at the Commonwealth Club of California. Speaking of his experience in 46 years of journalism, when asked what he would like to highlight, he noted that wherever he went, the longest line for visas was always at the United States embassy.
I would say this: the United States reflects what it’s citizens contribute to it. The best advice I know about this was given by President John F. Kennedy when he said “[A]sk not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”