Ivan Pongracic, professor of economics at Hillsdale College, is set to appear Friday, Feb. 12 at 8 p.m. EST on Fox Business Network’s “Stossel With John Stossel” program, where he will discuss Sen. Bernie Sanders’, I‑Vt., democratic socialism from his perspective of growing up under a communist government.
“He was recommended to us by a frequent guest of the show, so we looked into him, liked what we saw and invited him on,” Stossel’s Executive Producer Michael Ricci said in an email.
Pongracic was born and raised in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, which was the second-largest city in Yugoslavia and is now the capital of Croatia, while the country was run by communist dictator Marshal Tito, who practiced socialist democratic economics, the same economic system favored by Sanders, the 2016 U.S. Democratic presidential candidate.
“It was a democratically socialist economy in the truest sense of the term. They had worker management where the workers controlled the factories, and the workers would democratically decide what the factory would do,” Pongracic said. “This was different from the rest of Eastern Europe, which had governmental central planning bureaus dictating what was to be done.”
Although Sanders shares the same economic policy as the former Yugoslavia, Pongracic said they are completely different in reality. He said the way Sanders’ supporters emphasize the democratic aspect of the policy is disingenuous in that it implies a system where the people choose to have their property taken and given to the government.
“Democratic socialism is in reality something like Yugoslavia or Venezuela — that would fit quite well. They have had government taking over more and more, nationalizing, socializing, but have shortages everywhere, with bread lines,” Pongracic said. “Sanders keep talking about Nordic countries as an example of socialism, and I think that’s dead wrong.”
Under Tito, Yugoslavia thrived, according the Pongracic. Until 1980, the year Tito died, the country had a high standard of living, people were content, and although there were no free elections, the government tolerated free speech.
“It wasn’t a bad time, actually,” Pongracic said.
After 1980, it became clear, however, that the socialist system was not sustainable. Yugoslavia was receiving large sums of money from the West, being an independent communist country — that is, being unconnected to the USSR and a buffer between East and West Europe. As the money dried up, the state began to collapse.
“I got to witness the slow-motion collapse of socialism, at least in the early years, in Yugoslavia. It made a big impression on me. I remember power outages of all sorts, waiting in line for coffee, detergent, and even milk,” Pongracic said. “You would have to wait for hours sometimes.”
Pongracic recalled traveling to nearby Westernized countries bordering Yugoslavia, such as Austria, Germany, and Italy for their toy stores and musical selection. He said the contrast between the market economies and Yugoslavia’s socialism were unbelievable.
“You go to a Western toy store and ‘wow.’ Heaven on earth. By 13, I was getting into music, and you could get everything you wanted in the West,” Pongracic said. “Not so in Yugoslavia.”
Pongracic’s family left Yugoslavia in 1984, the year of the Sarajevo Winter Olympics. He remembers the country’s rough shape, as represented by the lack of electricity throughout the country to the point where the Yugoslavian government was rationing electricity among its cities to save up for the Olympics.
According to Pongracic, government officials divided cities into three parts and turned off electricity for eight hours in one of the sections every third day. Pongracic’s section would lose power from 2 – 10 p.m.
“We lived on the 20th story of a building, and every once in awhile, I would have to carry my bike up the stairs when I returned home. Boy, was I cursing the commies then,” Pongracic said with a laugh.
His family fled Yugoslavia to the U.S. in 1984 due to his father’s intuition regarding the collapsing country. His father worked as a public auditor in the government of the Yugoslavian state of Croatia and, according to Pongracic, observed the rot in the system before anyone else.
“He ingrained into me that socialism is a system that is rotten and cannot aid people or create wealth,” Pongracic said.
In the weeks leading up to Pongracic’s family’s flight, his father warned his friends of Yugoslavia’s collapse, but according to Pongracic, they all laughed and didn’t believe what he was saying was possible. Then, in 1991, Croatia, Slovenia, and then Bosnia collapsed, leading to the downfall of the entire nation and confirming Pongracic’s father’s prediction.
Pongracic said his goal for his “Stossel” appearance is to teach viewers about the lesson Yugoslavia can teach the U.S. about socialism.
“To some extent it’s preaching to the choir, but the choir should know the gospel so they can preach the truth,” Pongracic said. “I think that’s the purpose here. I’m not really sure that most pro-market people know how to respond to Sanders.”
Pongracic’s intimate history with socialism resulted in his modern embrace of free-market economics, inspired also by his father’s friendship with Russell Kirk. His colleagues believe his understanding of socialism from the point of view of a victim is valuable in his role as a teacher of market economics.
“The fact that his family lived under a planned economy and experienced it directly gives him an outlook nobody else would have had,” Professor of Economics Gary Wolfram said. “Markets are the only systems capable of producing wealth for the masses, but we tend to forget that.”
Pongracic certainly will never forget the impact socialism had on his life, and although most of his memories are dark ones, of the problems with communism, he does have at least one memory of the Western superiority over Communism from within Yugoslavia.
“The U.S. hockey team, who defeated the Soviet Union in 1980, returned to Sarajevo in 1984 for the Winter Olympics that year,” Pongracic said. “They did not do nearly as well, but we shared a flight out of Yugoslavia with that team, which was pretty cool.”