As you might expect, Marzi's young experiences involved things like standing in long lines in the bitter cold, waiting for the opportunity to buy a little bit of meat from a tiny shop that doesn't have enough for everyone, and rushing out to another shop to buy as much toilet-paper as possible as soon as the neighborhood gets news that there's been a delivery. Marzi's experience involved being downwind from Chernobyl and not knowing whether she would be permanently affected, despite the precautions he family took. She also recounts getting fine new refrigerators from Russia (and having almost nothing to fill them with) and seeing her parents hoarding cash (including US dollars) to buy things on the black market in case of emergencies.
Yet even the seemingly-unfamiliar components of the story recount universal human experiences. Marzi was happy with her cloth doll until her friend got a Barbie doll. As always, the joy of having stuff is relative, not absolute. If you're reading this, you probably have a phone and the means to occasionally buy nice clothing and a Barbie doll -- and you don't think much of it. But the key wasn't so much that Marzi's friend had all of these things, it was that she had them and the other kids at her school didn't. (I'm sure I don't have to provide you with any illustrations of how this applies to your own childhood, and possibly also adulthood.)
Marzi's friend's parents worked in the meat industry, hence had the opportunity to buy themselves as much meat as they wanted, including some to sell on the black market and/or sell preferentially in exchange for kickbacks. So they could shop in the one big store in their town that was always fully-stocked with anything you could want -- but where they only accepted payment in US dollars.
This is the part, naturally, that brings to mind a brilliant observation by Jared Diamond:
[T]he values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs.This is one of the main reasons why -- for Americans -- the private sector is the only true sector, as I discussed earlier. It's why Americans today have a pathological fear of public sector providing any kind of goods or services.
A related story was featured in the book The Collapse of Belief, which I reviewed at Main Street Plaza:
Years ago, during the Soviet reign in Eastern Europe, a visiting diplomat from that region had his belief in the superiority of communism collapse when he first entered an American supermarket. He thought the store was fake at first. "If it were real," he said, "there would be long lines of people to buy all that food." But when he instructed his driver to take him across town to another store not on the planned route, he saw the same thing, and his conviction cracked.It's a neat tale of how new evidence can help you think outside of the box, which is the point of the whole book. Yet, ironically, (though the book is good overall) this particular story pats its American audience on the back for thinking squarely inside the American box. America has giant stores chock-full of any goods you could possibly want -- always plentiful and inexpensive! That's what makes America great!! That's why we won the Cold War! Boo-yeah, go team!!
The tales of lines and shortages under a centrally-run economy are, of course, true. But look where clinging stubbornly to this triumph has led us.
Yes, America is the land where you can buy anything you could possibly imagine at any time of day or night. Consumer spending is practically the measure of the strength of the economy. If we're surrounded by crumbling public infrastructure, the electrical grid, rail network, and waterworks have had no improvements beyond emergency patching for thirty years, aging bridges are in danger of collapsing, the young population continues to slip behind in terms of the getting the education necessary to contribute to current and future technology, etc., at least we can always go to Target.
It's part of the reason why reasonable health care reform is such a battle in the United States. People can invent stories of waiting in long lines for a tiny ration of health care under "socialized medicine" and Americans are primed to believe them. It doesn't matter that it's as simple as in the tale of the diplomat above to step outside the US and see that the stories aren't true. It doesn't matter that such tales don't even make sense when you think about them for two minutes, or that US healthcare is among the most expensive in the world, by a lot, for the same treatments, or that the closest thing I've seen to the "waiting in long lines for a pitiful scrap of health care" is the model where people hold out until their problem is an emergency, and then go wait in line to have it treated at the emergency room because they don't have any health insurance. Communism made Marzi's family have to wait in a long line to get a few sausages -- while their American counterparts had as many sausages as they wanted -- so why should "socialized medicine" be any different?
Maybe it's difficult to keep past triumphs in their proper perspective when planning for the future.
See also Rethinking economics 1: the private sector is the only true sector and Rethinking Economics 2: Lessons from Switzerland!!.