Bryan Caplan  

Nutter Russia

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Warren Nutter (1923-1979) was a prescient detractor of the Soviet economy.  Only today, though, did I learn (through my colleague David Levy) that Nutter actually toured the USSR in 1956 - and shared his observations in U.S. News and World Report.  Two highlights:
Industrial expositions are dominated by displays of machinery, mostly of the "heavy" variety.

All this in an economy that apparently has not yet discovered the wheelbarrow - sledges and two-man litters are used instead - where the scythe is far more in evidence than the mower, where brooms are mostly bundles of twigs without handles, where the mop is a handless rag, etc.  In the drive for modernism, the Soviet system has apparently ignored the multitude of simple yet dramatic inventions so important in the economic development of other countries.
Nutter's punchline:
I must confess that I am more mystified than ever about how the Soviet economy can have achieved all that its leaders claim for it.  It puts a heavy strain on my imagination to picture one large isolated sector of the economy - namely, heavy industry - where all these signs of backwardness vanish, and industrial progress rivaling or exceeding that of the West reigns.
The article appeared on March 1, 1957.  David Levy speculated that a single dramatic event later that year discredited Nutter in his peer's eyes.  The event was Sputnik.  But if that's the real story, Nutter's peers were victims of availability bias.  Sputnik didn't prove the existence of "one large isolated sector" where the Soviets "rivaled or exceeded" the West.  It confirmed what every informed observer of the Soviet Union should have already known: The Politburo's willingness to pour massive resources into economically insignificant prestige projects to dazzle the gullible.

P.S. Nutter's original article is not online, but a Communist rebuttal is:

This year the Soviet people celebrate a splendid date-the 40th anniversary of the October Socialist Revolution. They will mark this genuinely nation-wide festival with remarkable achievements. In the course of these 40 years, of which no fewer than 18 were occupied with the Civil War, the Second World War and the subsequent rehabilitation of the economy, the onetime backward agrarian country has been transformed, on the basis of socialism, into a mighty industrial power. The great leap made by our country from the position of a backward country to that of a leading Power is convincing proof of the superiority of the socialist system...

That is why the ideologues of capitalism, as if acting according to command, are flooding the market with articles and books lauding capitalism and sneering at socialism...

As a typical example we can take an article by Professor Warren Nutter, which appeared in U.S. News & World Report.1 The very title of the article ("The True Story of Russia's Weakness"), its hostile, anti-Soviet tone, its shrillness, and the tendentious presentation-all betray the wishful thinking of its author and his paymasters: to see the U.S.S.R. weak. Without concealing their hatred for the Soviet Union, they try to confuse and deceive their readers, to conceal from them the real truth about its genuine strength and might.


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COMMENTS (15 to date)
Hyena writes:
its hostile, anti-Soviet tone, its shrillness, and the tendentious presentation-all betray the wishful thinking of its author and his paymasters: to see the U.S.S.R. weak.

I've always found Soviet propaganda interesting in how it manages to transform ideological questions into identity questions. Here you see "anti-Soviet tone" used in the same way one might "anti-semitic tone". It's part of how communists-in-communism saw themselves during the era: as a race of people crafted by ideology rather than genetics or psychology.

liberty writes:

Interesting point, Hyena. As I was reading the quote and your comment on it, I expected you to cite the "wishful thinking of its author and his paymasters" as evidence of identity over ideology, not just "anti-Soviet"

The Marxist concept of class struggle and property relations determining world-view and determining economic laws led (or allowed) Marxists (and thereafter Soviet citizens and journalists) to see any non-Marxist writing as the product of a person, a world-view, an identity, that was fundamentally at odds with the Marxist one - and hence at odds with their Soviet country and identity. Sorry for the long run-on sentence.


Charles R. Williams writes:

Let's never forget that the Potemkin village Soviet economy was built on the skeletons of millions of starved peasants and slave laborers. I suppose it is no longer possible to delude ourselves about the facts. But it is all too easy to put the facts out of our minds.

By the way US News consistently and persistently reported throughout the late fifties and sixties how weak and backward the Soviet economy really was. This article of Nutter's seems to be consistent with this emphasis and does not seem to be at all unusual.

Nelson Woodard writes:

I had the pleasure to attend a class taught by Warren Nutter as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia. Unfortunately, I was not very well informed at the time. After all these years, I still remember having the impression that Prof Nutter felt his views were dismissed and that he harbored some dissapointment with the world at large for having blinders on when viewing the Soviet Union. To this day, I can not understand how some one as smart as Samuelson had the Soviet Union so wrong.

William Barghest writes:

Yet this backward economy defeated 4/5 of the the German army.

Peter writes:

William,

The Nazi German Army (and economy) was not notably free market at the time. In fact, it was quite as deplorably repressive a state as the USSR, if not more so.

liberty writes:

William,

You should also read about how the average family in the Soviet Union survived during the war: many Soviet boys joined the army because there was no other way to EAT at the time. Stalin put nearly all economic resources into war production, so that many died of starvation during the period, and the rest suffered hunger and deprivation. One might also add that allied help (with ammunition, etc) in the second half, and Russia's natural winter in the first half, certainly helped.

William

The Soviets threw 20 million young men at the Germans - pure cannon fodder. Considering that the Wehrmacht was fighting on multiple fronts one of which was the massive Eastern front, the Soviet "achievement" is not much so

Floccina writes:

"It confirmed what every informed observer of the Soviet Union should have already known: The Politburo's willingness to pour massive resources into economically insignificant prestige projects to dazzle the gullible."

And we had to copy it, as Kennedy chose to send people to the moon. Just to show we could do it better.

I see a semi-parallel to day in the urgency to get the USA kids to score higher on intentional test as if the tests measured something important and how we must change to socialized medical care to get our life expectancy as high as Canada's as if it is a good measure of healthcare.

Tracy W writes:

William - population of Nazi Germany in 1940 - 70 million. Population of the USSR 196 million.

The USSR could be half as efficient per person as the Germans during WWII, and still comfortably out-produce them. In war, it's the absolute level of resources that matters, in terms of individual living standards per capita matters.

Scott Scheule writes:

And Germany was fighting a two-front war besides. Was Russia? (I honestly don't know--were the Japanese a problem on the eastern border?)

Zac Gochenour writes:

@Scott, Russia was not at war with Japan until 1945, some 3 months after Germany was defeated.

ajb writes:

After the Battle of Khalkin Gol on the Manchurian border was lost by the Japanese in 1939, the decision was made not to engage in offensives against the USSR. This allowed Stalin to shift Zhukov to the western front and his experience in the East helped him launch the successful counteroffensive against the Germans at the Battle of Moscow.

Scott Scheule writes:

Thank you, folks.

Frank Salmon writes:

Great comments all.
My understanding is that the the Russians retreated dramatically when Germany invaded. Hitler thought he had won, not realising that the whole Russian Army was in Moscow. Hitler then diverted half his invading force south to the oil fields of the middle east.
So only half the German force met the might of the Russian army at Moscow. This stalled the campaign - and then winter set in, for which they were not prepared.
The rest, as they say, is history.....

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