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#15 - JRL 7168
From: John Wilhelm <jhw@ams.org>
Subject: Bergson--A Dissent
Date: Mon, 5 May 2003


This past January the academic journal Europe-Asia Studies (formerly Soviet Studies) published my piece on "The Failure of the American Sovietological Economics Profession" in which I take a rather different view of Abram Bergson's contribution to our scholarship of the Soviet economy than the views expressed in the recent obituaries from the New York Times, The Boston Globe and Harvard Crimson republished on Johnson's Russia List (In JRL 7154 April 25, JRL 7155 April 26 and JRL 7163 May 1 respectively).

While it is true as the Boston Globe's obituary pointed out that "Dr. Bergson pioneered methods to estimate the superpower's [that is the Soviet Union's--jhw] income and industrial production that became standard usage for the CIA and academia," it simply is not true as Padma Desai is quoted as stating in the New York Times that in doing so Bergson "raised the level of the field" of studying the Soviet economy.

On the contrary, it is my contention that in pioneering the techniques that became the standard for Soviet national income comparisons, Bergson and his proteges bear a heavy responsibility for the failure of the American academic and intelligence communities to have gotten the Soviet economy right. As I argued in my piece, I believe that if one looks at the record, given what is well known now, and I would argue was also well known then, the techniques that Bergson et al. used in Soviet national income comparisons never got the Soviet economy right.

An example from Bergson's early work in this area illustrates the problem very well. As Naum Jasny, one of Bergson's harshest critics, pointed out Bergson "did not get so much knowledge of Soviet Reality during the many years he had devoted to the project [of Soviet national income studies--jhw] to avoid the great error of proclaiming 1937 a year of unexampled consumer prosperity."

Of course, Bergson's defense in his later public statements and published works of CIA estimates of the relative size of the Soviet economy was a more recent glaring example of how poorly he understood Soviet reality. I do not see how, in light of the obvious overestimation of the East German economy by the CIA and what we now know about Soviet economic realities, CIA estimates can be given any credence.

The truth of the matter is that that there were anomalies in the CIA's estimates of the Soviet economy which should have alerted the profession, including a Bergson, to the deficiencies of the techniques being used by those in American academia and the CIA to study Soviet national income. An simple example of this is illustrated by the following quotation by Igor Birman taken from my failure piece.

"Finally, let me submit another very simple consideration. American agriculture produces more than does the Soviet. Though our population is smaller, we eat much better and export food, whereas the USSR imports it. Nevertheless let's assume the two agricultures' sizes are equal. American agriculture is something like 3% of GNP. In regard to Soviet agriculture, it is not so clear; estimates vary. According to the CIA, in 1976, Soviet agriculture produced 16.7% of GNP. From this you may easily conclude that the total Soviet GNP was at most five and a half times less than [this is, about 18%] of the American."

The nature of the problem here was well summarized by Naum Jasny in a 1956 Soviet Studies article when in referring to the deficiencies of the Rand Corporation's work on the Soviet economy, in which Bergson was a consultant, he stated that:

"The principle reason...is that Rand's work does not show permanent, honest and ruthless fight for the truth, for overcoming the bias in oneself, that is indispensable for good results. Frank recognition of one's errors, a habit unknown to most students of the Soviet economy in the US, is an indispensable component of this attitude."

One of the more recent examples of this failure is the report in the early 1990s to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence by a committee of academic specialists headed by Professor James R. Millar evaluating CIA estimates of the Soviet economy. In their report the committee asked the question as to whether CIA techniques corresponded to "best practice" which in essence meant applying techniques, as the committee acknowledged, of Soviet national income comparisons which originated with Bergson. The committee never asked the question of the suitability of "best practice" itself. And in dealing with the CIA's failure to foresee the Soviet economic and political collapse, the committee never dealt with the assessments of Igor Birman which got both of these right.

Given that the Soviet Union is now gone and that Bergson is also no longer with us, all this would not matter were it not for the fact, which I discuss in my piece, that the problem represents more serious methodological problems in economics as a discipline which sorely impact on our ability to assess the outside world in an increasingly interdependent one. On this score, I find Samuelson's and Solow's praise of Bergson's accomplishments in the area of the Soviet economy to be quite disturbing. That praise reflects the type of professional malpractice on the part of Nobel Economics Laureates of which I complained in my piece on Russian Economic Reform Failure (JRL 6459 September 27, 2002), especially on the part of Joseph Stiglitz to which I received a number of positive responses from more informed observers of the Russian scene than him.

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