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What’s the best model of resource optimization?

The market has been predicting the coming collapse of China ever since it joined the WTO in the early 2000s and people started paying attention to it*. The logic being, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, China would be next: the free market must surely assure the best societal outcome. But with the re-emergence of China thereafter, and, especially, that it is still ‘going strong’ now, on top of the slowdown (‘secular stagnation’ or whatever you want to call it) of the developed world, I think the verdict of what the best model of resource optimization is, is still out. 

The Soviet models of resource optimization in the 1960s and 1970s were very sophisticated for their time (and even ours): In the late 1950s, Kitov proposed the first ever national computer network for civilians; in the early 1960s, Kantorovich invented linear programming (and got the Nobel prize in Economics); shortly after Glushkov introduced cybernetics. 

Kitov’s idea was for civilian organizations to use functioning military computer ‘complexes’ for economic planning (whenever the latter are idle, for example during the night). Kantorovich brought in linear programming which substantially improved the efficiency of some industries (he is the central character in a very well written book about the Soviet planning system called ‘Red Plenty’). Glushkov combined these two ideas and his OGAS (The All-State Automated System for the Gathering and Processing of Information for the Accounting, Planning and Governance of the National Economy) was intended to become a real-time, decentralized, computer network of Soviet factories. The idea was very similar to a version of today’s permissioned blockchain: the central computer in Moscow would grant authorizations but users could then contact each other without going through Moscow.

The Soviet planning system failed not necessarily because it would not work (limited, though, as it was in terms of computational power and availability of data) but because of politics: Khruschev, who had taken over after WW2 and denounced the brutality of Stalin, was ousted by Brezhnev. The early researchers were pushed aside (in fact, those Brezhnev years were characterized by fierce competition among scientists for preferential political treatment). One could say, the Soviets’ model of resource optimization failed because it was not socialist enough (compared to how the Internet took root in the US on the back of well-regulated state funding and collaboration amongst researchers). In other words, the 1970s Soviet Union was a political rather than a technical failure. 

I should know, I guess. I grew up in one of the Soviet satellites. My father was in charge of a Glushkov-style information data centre within a large fertilizer factory. When we were kids, we used to build paper houses with the square punched cards he would sometimes bring home from work. Later on, when I became a teenager, my father would teach computer programming as an extracurricular activity in my local school (I never learned how to program – I preferred to spend my time playing Pacman instead!). At that time, Bulgaria used to produce the PC, Pravetz (a clone of Apple II), which was instrumental in the economy of all the countries within the Soviet sphere of influence.

By the time I was graduating from high school, though, things had begun deteriorating significantly: even though everyone had a job, ‘no one was working’ and there was not much to buy as the shops lacked even the essentials. Upon graduation and shortly after the ‘Iron Curtain’ fell down, I left to study in America. 

Eventually, I ended up spending much more time in the ‘trial and error’ economy of the developed world, working at the heart of the ‘free market’ in New York and London. I am certainly not unique in that sense as many people have done this exact same thing, but it does allow me to make an observation about the merits of the planned economy vs the free market.

My point is the following. The problem of the planned economy was not so much technical misallocation of resources, but, ironically, one of proper distribution of the surplus. The Soviet system did not exactly create an extreme inequality, like the one there is now in America (even though some people at the top of the Party did get exorbitantly rich) but instead of using the production surplus for the betterment of the life of the population NOW, politicians continued to be obsessed with further re-investment for the future. There was perhaps a justification for that but it was purely ideological, a military industrial competition with America, nothing to do with reality on the ground.

So, while the Soviets were perhaps winning that competition (Sputnik, Gagarin, Mir, etc.), the plight of the common people was not getting better. And while they ‘couldn’t’ simply go in the street and protest or vote the ruling party out, they expressed their anger by simply pretending to work. Of course, that eventually hurt them more as the surplus naturally started dwindling, productivity collapsed and the quality of the finished products deteriorated. The question is, given a chance, would the planned optimization process have worked? If Glushkov’s decentralized network with minimum input from humans had been developed further, would the outcome now be different?

There is a lesson here somewhere not just for China but also America. Both have created massive surpluses using the two opposing optimization solutions. And both are running the risk of squandering that surplus, in a similar fashion to the Soviet Union of the 1980s, if they don’t start distributing it to the population at large for general consumption. In both cases this means transferring more income to ‘labour’: in China away from the state (corporates), in America away from the capital (owners). But because the differences at the core of the two systems, it is easier for China to do this consciously; in America, the optimization process of the free market, unfortunately, ensures that the capital vs labour inequality goes further to the extreme.

So, can China then pull it off? 

While I am not privy to the intricacies of their ‘planned’ resource optimization model, just like in the Soviet Union, the risks there seem more political. But after an additional 50 years of Moore’s law providing computational power and after digitalization has allowed access to data the Soviets could never even dream of, China stands a much better chance of making it than the Soviet Union ever did.

*I actually use “The Coming Collapse of China”, Gordon Chang, 2001 as a reference point