Jake Tully Russian History Blog
Above is an article from Pravda that addresses the inability of the USSR’s planned economy to meet consumer needs when it came to luxuries such as fashion. The main problems identified by the article are twofold: fashion trends are often fickle and unpredictable, but those designing the production plans also appeared to disregard some trends that seemed readily apparent.
Market forces in free markets or mixed economies are usually able to account for the first problem. The article gives old patterns coming back into style – “gabardine at the moment, cashmere, crepe, and certain others” – as an example of the unpredictability of fashion trends. In an economy governed chiefly by market forces, there is a huge amount of incentive for the supply side of the economy to accommodate changes like these. In the USSR in the seventies, “coats in the styles made by factories during the past two years… pile[d] up in stores and warehouses.” The article’s author chalks this up mainly to poor planning.
There is another side of this, though. The planning may not have been poor – instead, the planners may have decided that conforming to the changing tides of fashion was not worth the effort. After all, an article of clothing keeps you warm no matter the design. There is some evidence that the planners did choose to ignore the apparent trends. According to the article, “More and more often now one can see women wearing long skirts in the theater and long coats on the streets.” However, maxi-length clothes made up only 20% of women’s clothing orders that year. This prompted women to turn to homemade articles to satisfy their demands.
The gulf of consumer choice between the USSR and Western countries of the time is legendary. Even ten years after this article was written, this gulf was apparent. Boris Yeltsin was reportedly astonished when he toured an American supermarket, remarking that even the Politburo did not have options like those at the average corner store supermarket (link at the end of post). It could be the position of economic planners that consumer choice is not truly a necessity or a mark of a strong economy. After all, I only buy one brand of pasta. But the article above does illustrate a unique problem faced in planned economies.