Slightly more than thirty years ago, in October 1928, the first Five-Year Plan was launched. For three decades the resources of a vast country, the energies of a large and talented population, and the capacity of a most elaborate and centralized organization, have been mobilized as no country has been mobilized before, for the attainment of supremacy in the twin fields of industrial power and military might. The avowed goal—to “catch up with and overtake America” in per capita output—is now being daily proclaimed to be within easy reach; but even in the early years of the plan era, when it was only dimly seen, the eyes of the leaders were already fixed upon it.
Clear though the objective has been, it is not easy to measure the distance traversed by the Soviet economy in the three decades. There are, first, the facade of propaganda and the curtain of secrecy to contend with. Although incomparably more statistical information has been published in the last few years than in the preceding twenty (but still less than before that), the data are far from satisfactory for purposes of careful analysis. Important gaps in information remain; much of the data are difficult to interpret for lack of explanation of their derivation; and many statistics are of questionable reliability or are even known seriously to distort what they purport to reflect. The last refers particularly to summary measures of economic growth.
A second difficulty arises from the character of Soviet economic growth, namely, its great unevenness. In some areas progress has been exceedingly rapid, in others there has been very little growth or none at all, and in some respects there has even been retrogression. The economically efficient and inefficient, the technically advanced and backward, are constantly found side by side, often under the same roof. While to a certain extent this unevenness of development was unintended, generally it is the result of consciously adopted and pursued priorities; in any case it makes a balanced appraisal more difficult.
Thirdly, and closely linked, is the “index number problem,” which makes its appearance whenever we ask—as we inevitably do—such comprehensive questions as: How much has total industrial production increased? Was there any improvement in levels of consumption, and if so, to what extent? How rapidly has the national income grown? The 150 answers to such questions depend on the relative importance, i.e. the “weights” assigned to the individual components while aggregating (combining) them. Since there is usually a number of possible weighting systems, each with a logic and rationale of its own, as well as a number of mathematical formulae to employ, different answers to the same question may be obtained depending on the method. And the more uneven the growth among the individual components, the greater the likelihood that the answers will differ significantly.
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