Poland and the U.S. are like two trains passing each other in opposite directions.
Poland broke the shackles of Soviet domination two decades ago with the rise of Lech Walesa and the Solidarity labor movement. Free for the first time since World War II, Poland cast off its yoke of government control and central planning in favor of an American-style free enterprise system.
Today, Poland is the European Union’s largest eastern economy, the only member of the 27-nation bloc to avoid a recession in 2009. While most of European economies are in the tank, Poland’s gross domestic product expanded by four percent this year.
By contrast, the U.S. economy is struggling. According to an in-depth analysis by the Associated Press, our economic recovery is the weakest since World War II, and consumer spending has never been as slack.
Most troubling, President Obama and his allies believe the way to restore prosperity is more government intervention, higher taxes and more regulation.
But government intrusion never works, and as the Polish people know all too well, it leads to shortages, higher prices and lost opportunities.
Poles are hungry to learn about the innovation and creativity of our market-based economy. In fact, they eagerly invited Washington Business Week leaders to come to their country to show teachers and students first hand how private-sector businesses operate.
Business Week, started in 1975 by the Association of Washington Business, is a series of week-long business “boot camps” in colleges and universities where high school students get hands-on experience in what it’s like to run a business, create new products, compete in the global marketplace, and make decisions that change people’s lives. Since its inception, Business Week has spread to 22 states, Australia and Poland.
During the school year, Polish students follow a very structured academic curriculum. But with Business Week’s mix of American educators, students and business leaders, they learn how to unleash their creative abilities — something that was totally suppressed by the former Communist government.
Just a few blocks from the Gdansk technical school where Business Week takes place is the Solidarity Museum. The museum is a stark reminder of life under a system of government control, restricted freedoms and mediocrity. One of the museum’s displays is a series of empty grocery shelves, a haunting reminder of the time when poor working people in Poland had only a meager selection of rationed food, clothing and household supplies.
Polish students see our nation as a beacon of hope, but they feel that bright light is dimming. Poles embrace the need to protect the environment, worker safety and conserve resources, but they don’t understand why our government is inhibiting the private sector’s ability to innovate and solve problems.
They see Ford as emblematic of the way our system works. When a desperate Bill Ford recruited Alan Mulally from Boeing in 2006, Ford was heading for a $12.7-billion loss. Poor management and an uninspired model line had Ford on the verge of losing its No. 2 sales spot in the U.S. to Toyota. Four years after Mulally arrived, Ford reported a $6.6-billion profit — the biggest in the sector that year — and Toyota ads were comparing its cars with Fords, not Hondas.
Mulally’s leadership led to one of the greatest turnarounds in business history, and it happened without a federal government bailout.
Poles are puzzled at the path our nation is taking. They see more government control of the market, government picking winners and losers, and government planning what consumers will get and what they won’t. They remember what that was like.
America’s economic freedoms inspired a revolution in Poland. Now the Poles wonder if we’ve lost our way and are on the wrong track.