>Two German microeconomists tested the “widely accepted” hypothesis that “prices in a planned economy are arbitrarily set exchange ratios without any relation to relative scarcities or economic valuations [whereas] capitalist market prices are close to equilibrium levels.” They employed a technique that analyzes the distribution of an economy’s inputs among industries to measure how far the pattern diverges from that which would be expected to prevail under perfectly optimal neoclassical prices. Examining East German and West German data from 1987, they arrived at an “astonishing result”: the divergence was 16.1% in the West and 16.5% in the East, a trivial difference. The gap in the West’s favor, they wrote, was greatest in the manufacturing sectors, where something like competitive conditions may have existed. But in the bulk of the West German economy — which was then being hailed globally as Modell Deutschland — monopolies, taxes, subsidies, and so on actually left its price structure further from the “efficient” optimum than in the moribund Communist system behind the Berlin Wall.
>The neoclassical model also seemed belied by the largely failed experiments with more marketized versions of socialism in Eastern Europe. Beginning in the mid-1950s, reformist economists and intellectuals in the region had been pushing for the introduction of market mechanisms to rationalize production. Reforms were attempted in a number of countries with varying degrees of seriousness, including in the abortive Prague Spring. But the country that went furthest in this direction was Hungary, which inaugurated its “new economic mechanism” in 1968. Firms were still owned by the state, but now they were expected to buy and sell on the open market and maximize profits. The results were a disappointment. Although in the 1970s Hungary’s looser consumer economy earned it the foreign correspondent’s cliché “the happiest barracks in the Soviet bloc,” its dismal productivity growth did not improve and shortages were still common.