Eastern Europe is changing fast. Freedom is old news, communism is a distant memory, and they have long settled into the grind of capitalism. In the 1990s, societies once forced to espouse Soviet economics embraced the capitalist work ethic with gusto — as if making up for lost time. While adjusting from the security of a totalitarian system to the insecurity of freedom, my friends there reported that younger and better-educated people jumped at this opportunity to get ahead — working longer, having fewer children, and buying more cars. On the other hand, older people missed the job security and sense of safety while walking down the streets that they remember from the “good old, bad old days.” And many less-educated young people who see the new system working against them joined angry and racist groups such as eastern Germany's skinheads. Now in the 21st century, more of capitalism's realities, limits, and frustrations are sinking in.
I remember visits to the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War. Back then life was bleak, gray, and demoralizing because of ongoing political repression and their unresponsive Soviet-style command economy. Someone would dictate how many of these and how much of that would be produced, ignoring the basic laws of supply and demand. It was a fiasco. On my early visits to Poland, people were taking their windshield wipers in with them at night. The government under-produced wipers, and the thieves knew it. They'd rip off somebody's wipers and sell them for a fortune on the black market.
But Eastern Europe has put itself on a fast track to catch up with the West. Today, with a solid supply-and-demand economy, the Poles are leaving their windshield wipers on their cars at night. Compared to the 1980s, Eastern Europe feels like a festival of pent-up entrepreneurial spirit. And for me, each visit is a case study in the fundamental wisdom of supply and demand.
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You are reading "Europe Spreads East", an entry posted on 10 August 2009 by Rick Steves.