Book Review: Red Plenty

Red Plenty
By Francis Spufford
Faber and Faber, 2010.

Who would've thought that one could write a novel about Soviet central planning? A journal paper or a scholarly monograph, certainly. But a novel? Yet that is the format that Francis Spufford has selected for his book Red Plenty. The book begins with Khrushchev's promise that communism would outproduce capitalism, then moves on to the mathematicians and economists who tried to make central planning work scientifically. Tragic consequences sometimes ensued, as consumers rioted over the (higher) prices and (lower) salaries demanded by the linear programming equations.

Meanwhile, Gosplan employees had to react to unanticipated problems, and factory managers had to figure out how to make plan and earn their expected production bonus. Sometimes , they could only do it through unofficial channels like the tolkash, a "pusher" or reverse-salesman. Instead of trying to convince consumers to buy his products on behalf of his employer, he tries to convince factories to sell him what his clients need in order to make Plan.

Vivid depiction of Soviet life

Central planning is the theme that links the stories together, but the book is episodic in nature. Spufford uses his characters to explore specific aspect of the economic system, following them only as long as necessary to make his point, and then moving on to the next episode. A character might appear again to show the effects of developments over a period of time, but nobody makes more than a couple of appearances. Khrushchev's return appearance comes only after he's been disgraced and taken out of power, as though to put a coda on the failed dreams of Red Plenty. Short intercalary chapters step back from the fictionalized world and describe actual developments in the Soviet economy, bridging the snapshots in time.

Using this technique, Spufford creates a vivid tableau of Soviet life during the 1950s and 1960s. It is clear that he has done a lot of background reading to prepare himself for this task. Several survey books on daily life in the Soviet Union seem to have formed the basis for many of his personal sketches, and though the author often shifts years or decades to simplify the narrative, very little is completely fabricated for dramatic purposes. Quite often, I would have, and find explanations in the endnotes.

Thus, the endnotes should not be considered optional reading. Indeed, they round out the text with fascinating commentary. For example, the narrative shows Khrushchev demoted to being driven around in a Moskvich after his ouster as party chief. Spufford then comments in the endnotes that the Moskvich 412 (in bright orange) was often the grand prize on a British television game show, due to limits on the cash value of prizes. When the Khrushchev thaw opens up new possibilities for playwrights, the 1950s play Moscow Does not Believe in Tears makes an appearance. The endnotes point out that this is not the 1930s novel, nor the 1980s film — and also that Spufford knows of it by reputation only, having never managed to obtain a copy of the play.

Through the endnotes, we learn of the Palace of Culture that could be found even in provincial cities east of the Urals. We get a glimpse of the Soviet party organization, from the Politburo all the way down to the young Komsomol members who were bused into the 1959 American exhibition in Moscow to pick arguments with the American tour guides. We encounter abacuses in Soviet stores. A deputy director at Gosplan is described as bringing back unique trinkets from his overseas trips, from Comecon countries as well as from Western market economies. The endnotes point out only that handicrafts continued to exist in Comecon countries, but it is all the more ironic to make the purchaser be a Gosplan director, for the Soviet economic was famously non-consumer-oriented.

Medicine was considered a low-status occupation and thus one that was suitable for women. Soviet maternity wards were dreadfully equipped with painkillers, largely due to the doctrine of drug-free natural childbirth through psychoprophylaxis. The story is not complete without the endnotes, which point out that Dr. Lamaze was a French communist who was inspired by the ideas he saw in Russia into developing the "phenomenally successful" natural childbirth techniques that bear his name.

The book also uses well-documented historical events as the setting for some keen observations. The opening episodes of the book in 1959 stand out for the incisiveness with which they dissect the dogmas of the economic competition. When Khrushchev visits the United States, for example, he finds cookie-cutter suburban houses and fast-food hamburgers — wonderful models for an industrializing Soviet Union to emulate! Henry Cabot Lodge speaks proudly of the "welfare state," seeking to demonstrate to his guest that their two countries really had a great deal in common. As Galina, the young Komsomol student, spars verbally with the tour guide Roger Taylor at the American exhibition, the façade of civility is ruthlessly stripped away until the two are left with only the ugly truths that belied their nations' propaganda. Galina would not have access to the consumer riches on show, and Roger Taylor would still be Negro in a country that did not provide liberty and justice to all.

Central planning

Spufford explicitly invokes the tradition of the Russian skazki that begin not with "Once upon a time," but with "In a certain land." That was a fairytale Russia, where harvests were bounteous and the backwardness of Russia long since overcome. The communist ideal of an economy that was so rich that everyone would get what they needed, without hardships, was just another kind of fairytale. Today, it seems obvious in retrospect that central planning cannot work in its pure form. But nobody knew that until it was tried. No previous government had ever before attempted to plan an entire economy centrally.

As Spufford points out, even the figures calculated after the end of the Cold War show that Soviet growth in the 1950s outstripped that of every major economy except Japan. 5% does not seem like astonishing growth compared to today's emerging markets, but it was quite respectable for a Soviet economy that had already industrialized under Stalin. The problem was that this growth had been accomplished largely by throwing more capital at the problem, not by productivity or technological improvements. And it was all handicapped by a system with perverse incentives, where chemical machinery was priced by weight because all products in the chemical industry were priced by weight, where transport distance was maximized rather than minimized for efficiency, because distance was considered to be the final output of the transportation industry.

The academics sought to rationalize these incentives, using linear programming to work out the optimal allocation of inputs. Indeed, linear programming would later win a joint Soviet-American Nobel Prize in Economics in 1975, with many remarks made at the Nobel banquet about the common problems faced by centrally-planned and market economies. In the dream of the linear programmers, "shadow prices" would come out of the equations and work their way through the economic model to produce outputs that are every bit as optimal as those of a market economy. Indeed, a centrally-planned economy would outperform a market economy, since a centrally-planned economy could actually reach optimal production. A market economy, by contrast, could only approximate optimality, because competition would cause a great deal of duplicate effort.

But real life war far messier. In a world where the Plan was still kept on paper ledgers, unanticipated events would cause many parts of the Plan to be recalculated and create a big headache. A reduction in one production quota would impact all the industries depending on that product, which would impact all the industries depending on those, etc. Similarly, an increase in one production quota would ripple upstream to all the supplies necessary to produce that product. But there was one industry that was one-sided: the consumer, the ultimate sink for all output, and one that also happened to produce nothing. Shortchanging the consumer would not affect any other part of the Plan. It was no surprise that the central planner always ended up shortchanging the consumer.

Meanwhile, factory managers faced a deliberately sharp bonus scale, in which the difference between producing 99% and 103% of output could amount of 40% of their earnings. (This leveraged payoff is not unlike that provided by stock options, which are also used to motivate managers.) Thus, managers had every incentive to do what it took to exceed Plan, even (Spufford hypothesizes) sabotaging the machinery so that they could get a new machine and meet Plan the next year. The episode of the tolkash shows how deals were struck outside of the Plan, superimposing a gray market on top of the planned economy in order to make things work out. These two chapters are delicious in their irony, but they also seem to be the most fictionalized parts of the book. The endnotes indicate that the vital figure of the tolkash relies on materials from the 1930s, documented only elliptically in the 1970s. And sabotage seems rather too strong an action to posit on weak evidence — there must be better-documented examples of Plan gamesmanship.

Tantalizing, but frustratingly incomplete

Fiction can often sharpen our understanding of a factual phenomenon by stripping away the confounding factors and focusing our attention on the most salient points. But Red Plenty never really explains what happened to make central planning fail. In his eagerness to bring the characters to life, Spufford has relegated the story of central planning to a secondary role. We are introduced to the two contending schemes, of centralized computer planning vs. decentralization with real prices. But this battle for the soul of socialism turns into a jumble because the contending schemes appear only in glimpses here and there, rather than as central elements of the story. Many crucial events take place in the intercalary chapters, and important arguments are resolved in a single sentence. The interested reader is left wondering, "What happened?"

We discover that the Plan tends to take shortcuts because it was too difficult to update multiple paper ledgers, but this comes after we were introduced to the idea of using computers. So why didn't they use the computers? We find out that the pricing signals in the Plan are wrong, but why was this never corrected for business-to-business sales? (The consumer riots only explain why this could not be done for consumer goods.) In one episode, the reformers are working excitedly to save the planned economy, but after a summary intercalary chapter, the reformers are suddenly licking their wounds. An argument takes place at a conference — an argument that follows a previous argument that we did not observe, and with the barest of supporting context. We have Vitalyvitch, the inventor of linear programming, supporting a decentralized economy. But "shadow prices" would seem to make a centrally-planned economy actually possible. So if anyone supported decentralization, shouldn't it have been a rival of Vitalyvitch? It's not just a little bit bewildering.

Spufford is very intrigued by science and technology, and seeks to describe them poetically. He anthropomorphizes the vacuum tube, sings the praises of digital logic, and tells a cellular history of lung cancer. But he never quite manages to pull it together into a cohesive whole. We are left with a very disjointed set of ideas, taking place out of order, with large gaps in the narrative. Perhaps I am expecting too much from what is, after all, a novel. But given the theme and the characters, I can perhaps be forgiven for being disappointed. What about that bravado coming out of the graduate student trying to impress a woman at the party, with visions of mathematics improving the Soviet economy?

We know that the Soviet Union failed to deliver on its economic vision. But why? Spufford points out that the Party grew more conservative as it grew older, becoming less willing to make radical changes that upset the balance. Is that the answer? A failure of vision doomed the Soviet economy? But it doesn't appear to have been ideology, because Spufford shows that Brezhnev accepted optimal pricing. In other words, the results from the computers would be used as a politically-palatable version of the Invisible Hand of the Market, without interference from the planners. Clearly, this didn't happen, because the Soviet Union collapsed. Agan, why?

In the acknowledgments, Spufford writes that he originally intended the book as "a much more conventional piece of non-fiction." It seems, then, that he got distracted by the intriguing tidbits he picked up along the way about Soviet society and daily life — and he ended up writing a novel about those instead. The story of central planning thus became a backdrop, serving primarily to drop us into a period in Soviet history.

There is much to recommend in this book, particularly the vivid depictions of Soviet life. You really feel like the story is set in the real Soviet Union, that these could be real people — even though they are actually composites or fictionalized versions of their real-life counterparts. Just don't expect to find out why the Soviet economy failed. We are given several plausible ideas, but it never quite comes together. In that sense, it is perhaps best read as a fairy tale. After all, fairy tales don't tell us why they don't come true — they simply ask us to imagine an alternate reality where they could be true.