Communism; Economics in the red; Soviet economy: an impeccably planned mess

Only when I had nearly skidded off the road was I satisfied the scene was not some bizarre, Soviet socialist dream: A small army of official trucks was serenely, systematically coating one of Moscow's main thoroughfares with ice.

''It's the Plan,'' explained a Soviet official, more amused than surprised that the display had coincided with a city-wide campaign for driver safety.

It was all quite simple really: In the window of warmth between Moscow winters, a fleet of water-spraying trucks prowls the capital at night attacking dirt and grime on the city streets. The sometimes sudden onset of cold is no deterrent.

Until the water trucks are called off their prey, replaced with an army of snowplows, they follow orders. And the orders are to spray -- even if, on bitingly cold nights before the appropriate senior bureaucrats decide winter has arrived, the water instantly and predictably turns to ice.

The Soviet socialist economy is an impeccably planned mess: a mix of enormous natural wealth (redeemed in hard currency by a willing West), of mismanagement, inefficiency, corruption, laziness.

World politics (with the exception of a West that snipes in words, yet generally helps in practice) is combining with accidents of Soviet history and weather to make things worse.

The nation has marked its third bad grain harvest in a row -- a streak unparalleled in postwar years. Production of meat and milk continue a gradual decline, aggravating what have become chronic shortages on Soviet shop counters.

Steel production is off target. A long increase in oil production in the world's top oil-producting state is leveling off. Coal output has fallen for the past three years. An ambitious nuclear power program is also behind schedule.

There have been intermittent power shortages in at least several parts of the country. ''Interruptions in power supplies are on the increase in many regions, '' Moscow Radio reported recently.

The political imperative to help bail out client states like Vietnam and Cuba -- and now Poland -- has teamed up with the need for large grain imports to create a short-term strain on Soviet hard-currency assets. Moscow, as a result, has been forced to unload large amounts of gold, diamonds, and oil on soft world markets. (One official recently appealed for increased gold output.)

And as President Brezhnev himself suggested in a March 16 speech, military spending continues to divert ''considerable'' resources from the civilian economy.

In pure economic terms, all this sounds worse than it probably is. Various Western economists have been predicting the collapse of the Soviet economy for some years.

They argue, rightly, that inefficiency and shortfalls are endemic to a system in which enormous, overlapping bureaucracies substitute for market forces in allocating goods. And even Soviet officials acknowledge that an imperious state Plan encourages emphasis of quantity over quality, the juggling of books, the cutting of corners.

It is Soviet officials, too, who lament the general dearth of anything resembling worker initiative. Indeed, when ''swindlers'' were recently convicted of taking over a state clothing factory to churn out all sorts of widely sought products for personal gain, one Soviet newspaper could not help adding:

''Honest officials in local -- and not only local -- industry might borrow from (the crooks') enterprise and resourcefulness.''

Yet aglance at a map of Siberia -- focus of Soviet economic development strategy -- serves as a reminder of this nation's truly immense national resources. To take one key example, the northern portion holds the world's largest known reserve of natural gas.

Development of the deposit entails a battle with permafrost, chronic inefficiency, problems in infrastructure, and delays in equipment deliveries. From past patterns, it seems safe to assume that completion of a lucrative gas-export pipeline to the West, and of five parallel conduits for domestic gas consumption, will lag behind schedule. It seems equally safe to asume that, somehow, the tasks will be accomplished.

And both here and in other areas of the economy, the West will almost surely help.

The original Kissinger vision of detente suggested that closer West-East economic ties would give the West leverage (economic and political) over Moscow. In many ways time has reversed the equation.

The West still does very little business with the Soviets in absolute terms, yet individual slivers (sometimes large slivers) of Western economies have come to count on the Soviet market, particularly at a time of domestic economic sluggishness.

To take one example, cancellation of the Siberian export pipeline could jolt West Germany's Mannesmann pipemaking concern. And even the Reagan administration , for all its tough words over Poland, has shown no sign yet of willingness to tamper with the one area of US-Soviet commercial dealings that would most hurt Moscow: grain trade.

Ultimately, however, the problems of the Soviet economy are not merely economic. They are political.

The Soviet system can deal with shortcomings only by hurling huge gobs of resources at them from above. It is axiomatic that the people at the top can hurl resources only in a few directions at once. Even if both superpowers declared their intention to disarm tomorrow, the Soviet military would still get top priority. (The Pentagon wouldn't close up shop, either.) The energy claim on the Soviets' gob of resources is also a given.

The problem now is how, with the leftovers, to satisfy the Soviet consumer. He does enjoy some advantages over many of his counterparts in the West. He is guaranteed work -- particularly at a time of flagging Soviet labor productivity and of manpower shortages in some sectors of the economy. Housing is incredibly cheap (that is, subsidized.) So is the price for bread and a range of other basic foods.

Yet if bread is cheap and in generally good supply, meat and milk are not. The typical consumer, under the state shop counter or from much more pricey private farm outlets, may secure occasional meals of meat. But this means digging into his ruble savings.

If apartments are cheap, they are also in short supply, despite a virtually constant state construction drive. And in Moscow at least, the kind of consumer frills (stylish clothing, cassette tape recorders, Rubik's Cubes) many seem to hanker for do not come from official outlets but only, at soaring prices, on an energetic black market.

The political choices open to the Brezhnev regime -- or to whatever follows -- each carry complications. The decision, so far, seems a tangled combination of piecemeal economic reform and a drive for discipline.

(Moscow students say they have heard that their required military service will be increased at the end of this year. If so, this is surely explained by a desire to shift more and more disciplined laborers to Siberia and to other priority economic areas.)

Many Soviet officials, meanwhile, argue that a widened program of oddly capitalist worker incentives might also make sense. President Brezhnev suggested as much in a recent speech, saying that satisfying consumer demand could be one factor in getting workers to produce more -- that is to make the entire system work better.

But as one Soviet economic expert notes privately, the problem remains that mere monetary incentives won't work without an enormous increase in desired goods and services for the extra cash to chase.

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