Thursday, April 2, 2015

Red Plenty

In many ways, Francis Spufford's Red Plenty reads like a first-rate "hard" science fiction novel. The reader is dropped onto an alien planet... familiar in many ways, inhabited by humans who possess most of the characteristic psychology of earthbound humans: love, curiosity, greed, lust, conscience. But their social system is quite peculiar; it plays by unfamiliar rules. The planet's rulers seem to think that total control is possible, that every transaction can be planned by a central authority, and yet at every turn their crazy imperfect human subjects undermine the whole project.

But it's not science fiction, it's real history: the alien planet is the USSR, late 1950s-60s. Genre-wise, the book should be classified as a historical novel: the main events it depicts are real, as are many of the characters. There are also many pages of scholarly footnotes– so on second thought, maybe it is postmodern history masquerading as fiction. Structurally, the narrative is constructed as a series of loosely connected vignettes. The writing is consistently beautiful and efficient– traits that could never be used to describe the Soviet society that Spufford depicts.

Whatever else it may be, Red Plenty must certainly be the best novel ever written about the socialist calculation debate and general equilibrium theory, and probably the best overall exposition of the issues raised by that debate in any genre. Could a computer really run a complex, modern economy better than a decentralized market? Could the computer be used to set the prices for the optimal central plan, and then let folks implement it locally, leading to prosperity that would eventually overtake the capitalist West? A Nobel prize-winning Soviet economist named Leonid Kantorovich thought so... or did he? Maybe his economic reform really was the capitalist camel's nose under the socialist tent, as his hardliner opponents claimed. Spufford holds his cards close, so the reader might wonder whether our narrator believes Kantorovich's promise of Red Plenty was a missed opportunity, or a total chimera... or perhaps a tragic historical joke.

Spufford does reveal his hand, I think, and it happens early in the book, in one of his italicized expository chapter intros. The fatal economic flaw with central planning was never really about the inefficiencies of allocation associated with central planning, wasteful as they were, and frustrating as they must have been for everyday Soviet citizens, lined up in queues for bread and meat. No, the fatal flaw was that Soviet economic growth rested on increasingly intensive application of resources to production, rather than productivity growth due to technological dynamism. In this sense the socialist calculation debate was a sideshow in the competition between capitalism and socialism.

Before we bourgeois economists get too cocky, however, it's worth reminding ourselves that we really have no rigorous account of technological progress, even under capitalism. It is a residual, not just empirically but conceptually.

And there's a lot more: Spufford's novel bubbles over with ideas. For instance, there's the irony that a system of central planning inevitably results in the devolution of power to the local level as an unintended consequence. The reason is that by setting the wrong prices (or no prices), central planning creates rents, and rents bring rent-seekers, and local market power. The novel's wheeler-dealer/ black marketeer Chekuskin is the exemplar of such a purveyor and exploiter of local knowledge.

And then there is the story of Soviet science, which despite the triumphs of Soviet space exploration and an extraordinary system of mathematical and technical education (STEM!) was hamstrung by ideology and bureaucratic control– a point driven home here through a parallel story of the pernicious influence of Lysenkoism on Soviet biological science.

Still, when all is said and done, ideas do not a great novel make. One needs poetry, and a compelling story, and vivid characters. In Red Plenty you get them all in spades. Chekuskin is worthy of Bulgakov. A fellow named Khrushchev is particularly vividly drawn. And I defy you not to fall in love with the brilliant and defiant biologist Zoya Vaynshteyn.

Read it!


  1. Selling Burned-Out Lightbulbs
    Karl Marx revealed that business owners are leeches on society, draining away the wealth that rightfully belongs to the workers. At least, the workers who have jobs.

    The unemployed are free from this exploitation. Are they grateful?

    The following should remind you of health care and the "free" provision of basic, human needs.

    The Soviet Union was officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. They were officially worker's states. They had 70 years to perfect a system that valued worker's rights and happiness above all else. But, the power of the Communist Party "nomenklatura" was placed above that happiness. The nomenklatura was much less than 1% of the population. The Soviet Union was praised long and hard by the NY Times.

    To support worker's rights, they assigned everyone to a job and they removed the inefficiencies of competition. Everyone produced according to a series of carefully researched and integrated 5-year plans. Production was carefully measured, and plant managers were held to account.

    Soviet workers developed the saying "They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work."

    The efficiencies of this worker's state were revealed in long lines for buying anything. People lined up to buy what was available, even if they did not immediately need it. They could usually trade it to friends for something they really wanted. Lines would form to buy cabbages when they were available.

    Authorities clamped down on widespread stealing of supplies. For example, they required factories to supply a burned-out lightbulb for each new one distributed. So, a market price developed for burned out light bulbs, to be sold to factories, so the factory could get fresh bulbs to replace stolen ones.

    The USSR fell apart, after many currency crises and "exchanges", each of which left people with savings reduced to 10% of their former buying power. Today, Russia's official line is that the people are poor because the capitalists in the US are stealing Russian wealth. They don't explain how.

    Leftists/Progressives assure the US populace that they have the same aims as the USSR did, and as Russia does now, but they will plan things much better. That is why Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are going broke under government control and planning.

    You won't understand what prosperity really is until you live in a society where officially no one wishes to exploit you and all of the basics in life are free.