Moscow — The joke here goes that a Soviet leader, reviewing the troops on Red Square, is suddenly distracted by the sight of four tough and burly men in gray business suits.
He turns to his KGB chief and, with a hint of admiration, asks: ''Are those your boys? ''
No, says the secret police chief. ''Not mine.''
''Not mine, either,'' says the Soviet defense minister.
Then the head of the Soviet Union's gargantuan state economic planning organization, Gosplan, steps forward and interrupts: ''They're my boys . . . and they are an awesome destructive force.''
The Soviet economy tops a daunting Kremlin policy agenda for the 1980s, and central planning - that awesome destructive force - is but one in a dense tangle of problems.
The economy is not going to collapse. For one thing, this country is oozing with natural riches - including hard-currency export commodities like energy, gold, and diamonds.
And in its own, often incredibly inefficient way, the Soviet Union will, no doubt, continue to ensure at least subsistence levels of food, clothing, and other staple goods and services to its roughly 270 million citizens.
The hitch is this: for a leadership facing rising consumer expectations at home and escalating competition with the United States abroad, mere performance as usual is deemed no longer good enough.
Though the Kremlin has gone out of its way in recent months to signal new concern for the Soviet consumer, it is the heightened tension with Washington that most drives Moscow's concern over the economy.
Twice in the past 18 months, the country's top career military man - armed forces Chief of Staff Nikolai Ogarkov - has publicly stated the obvious: A superpower can't be truly strong in the latter half of the 20th century if its economy is weak.
For one thing, Marshal Ogarkov points out, you can't be ready for a war if your economy isn't ready to supply one. ''The armed forces can operate successfully only when they can rely on a powerful scientific, technical, and economic base and on its steady functioning in wartime.''
Yet beyond this, the superpower arms race has more and more become a superpower technology race: ''The basic scientific progress in weapons systems is renewed every 10 to 12 years,'' the marshal notes.
To live in the Soviet Union for three years is to be reminded almost daily of what, by both of Marshal Ogarkov's criteria, is a pervasive Soviet weakness.
Technologically, Russia lags well behind the United States and remains slow to innovate.
Go into a shop or an office here, and you're much more likely to hear the clacking wooden beads of an abacus than the whisper of an electronic calculator.
Personal computers? The Soviets have produced a small batch of imitation US models that might best be called ''red Apples,'' but they're in use virtually nowhere in the economy, and literally nowhere in the school system.
Recently, I toured a special math and science high school run in concert with Moscow University. There were no ''red Apples,'' only one terminal for the university computer and it was normally open to students two days a week.
Mechanization? One of the achievements of the Soviet system is that there is no unemployment. But one reason - witness the armies of men and women, young and old, sweeping streets, repaving, or chipping ice from them - is that a host of tasks throughout the economy are far less mechanized here than in the West.
Miniaturization? Here there has been some progress. But from computers to electric typewriters and from tape recorders to missiles, bulk and bigness remain Soviet trademarks.
A current joke here tells of a Moscow factory's search for the appropriate slogan - or slogans, there is no shortage - to spur Soviet catch-up with the West's production of microchips. After much hemming and hawing, an activist comes up with the perfect answer:
''Soviet microchips: the biggest microchips in the world!''
Moscow planners and political leaders are keenly aware of all these problems - more keenly aware, and for a considerably longer time already, than is often assumed - and they are visibly scurrying to do something about them.
When Yuri Andropov took over, he redoubled efforts begun during Leonid Brezhnev's last years to ''give a new technological turn'' to the economy. A recent party decree moved to correct one particularly damaging fault in the traditional central planning guidelines in an economy still almost exclusively steered from the center. In the past industries often stood to lose money if they rocked the production boat and risked short-term plan fulfillment with technological innovation. The new decree is designed to compensate costs incurred in the switchover.
Under Brezhnev, in 1979, a more general move was made to shift plan targets for many industries away from mere volume. Bigger was no longer automatically better.
In fact, at least some of the targeted industries have simply ignored the decree. And the main substitute planning index introduced in the 1979 decision - the amount of value added to a product at each stage in its production - has produced distortions and bottlenecks of its own.
Indeed, a major snag in shoring up this planned economy seems the very fact that it is a planned economy.
Some of the problems with central planning are trivial, if amusing:
Moscow commands a huge fleet of trucks that, theoretically, spray water on the streets in warm weather and, with a switch of machinery, plow snow in winter. But central planners' wall calendars, not the weather, determine the precise day of the switchover. So on the inevitable days of unseasonable cold before winter officially punches in, the trucks find themselves spraying not water, but ice, as if at halftime in a citywide hockey game.
Or, there are the repeated instances when factories relentlessly ''fulfill plan'' for production of consumer products Soviet consumers don't want - like synthetic fabrics, or homely Soviet shoes, or the model of television set that, in Leningrad some time back, took to catching fire when summer weather ''slowed air circulation.''
Planners' minds, inevitably, work more slowly than consumers'.
A tougher problem is that planning an economy as complex as the Soviet one, in a nation as huge as the Soviet Union, virtually ensures mutually reinforcing inefficiencies.
There are not enough trucks or crate nails, for instance, so vegetables don't get packed and shipped. They rot. A factory gets too little steel, or gets it too late, so its entire production suffers.
Only the distant planners keep the big picture in mind. Go progressively down through levels of management, ending with the individual farm or factory or shop , and there is progressively more single-minded preoccupation with just meeting one's own particular plan target.
The nail manufacturer meets plan by turning out thousands of nails. It is not his worry when, or whether, they get where they're supposed to go.
The truck driver, or train conductor, can meet plan simply by carrying nails or other cargo the requisite distance in the requisite time - for instance, by toting material from the factory to construction sites hundreds of miles distant , rather than to ones a few miles away.
The inevitable result is that individual factory or farm managers take to hoarding all sorts of materials in hopes of having them on hand when needed - thus exacerbating bottlenecks further.
At year's end, everybody blames everybody else.
Which brings us to the main hitch: Soviet people, the way they are ruled, and the way they think.
They lack initiative, commitment to quality workmanship, imagination, or the urge to innovate. They take the path of least resistance. They fulfill plan - the simpler the plan, the better, no matter how inefficient for the economy as a whole.
Show up at any Moscow shop a minute before lunch break - more often, even five minutes before - and no one will stretch the rules to let you in.
But come back after lunch and you'll find shelves full of consumer products that are at best functional and unattractively finished, at worst not in working order by the time you get them home.
The general nonchalance about product quality leads Soviet consumers of all ages and descriptions to automatically assume that any foreign item is more reliable than its domestic counterpart.
One area in which ''quality uncontrol'' is especially evident is the distinctly Soviet institution called the ''remont.'' Literally, the word means ''a repair,'' and buildings of all sizes and descriptions get it with reassuring regularity, in some cases starting only a few years after construction. My wife and I ''remonted'' our apartment here: a task that - due to a Soviet work schedule that generally included two hours' talk, one hour's cigarette smoking, two hours lunch, and maybe two hours work each day - took months. One day, three workers teamed for three hours to remove old kitchen tiles. Having half-finished , they then broke for an equally long lunch. My exasperated wife decided to remove the other half. It took her 58 minutes.
Two of some two dozen remont workers - an electrician and a carpenter - displayed initiative and genuine pride in their jobs. They were the exceptions.
As in almost all other spheres of Soviet life, the initial response to any special request - moving a water heater a few feet, for instance, to keep it from spewing hot ash into a bathtub - was ''nelzya.'' Impossible.
After varying degrees of dispute, the workers involved would invariably reveal that ''impossible'' was a relative term, its degree depending on how much extra cash or other bribe was offered.
Defy these rules, and work suddenly goes more slowly. Workers suddenly find themselves needed by another, presumably more lucrative customer. The Soviet press indicates factory managers have much the same problem. As a ranking official puts it privately, ''There are many instances when managers pay 'bonuses' just to get people to work.''
After our remont was technically over, I stopped in at an official labor placement agency for an article I was researching. The woman in charge let me leaf through her file of jobs on offer, which, as it happened, included these:
''Construction work on apartments for foreign representatives. . . .
''Taking into consideration high demands on quality in working on building projects for foreigners, there will be a 25 percent bonus for all workers.''
Bonuses can do only so much. They do work sometimes. For example, an increase in state purchase prices for livestock has been one explanation - better weather is the main one - for recent Soviet success in ending the chronic meat and milk shortages of the past few years.
But there are limits to the effects of mere monetary incentive: For one thing , there is the chicken-and-egg problem that extra pocket money is useful only if consumer items that workers want to buy are available. One reason the agricultural ''incentives'' have had some effect is that they are disbursed, in part, in the form of feed grains and other ''in-kind'' payments farmers need and want.
Another major problem is this: The aftereffects of world war and domestic purges, and the need to shift energy and other extractive projects to the forbidding expanses of Siberia, have helped create overall labor shortages in many industries. A truly enormous exodus from countryside to city in the past several decades has created a similar effect down on the farm.
Thus if a manager genuinely uses incentives - that is, if he pays people who work better a lot more than people who do not - then he risks losing the offended workers to a less demanding employer. A small-circulation book by a journalist in Soviet Latvia recounts the tribulations of a collective-farm chief there - among them that, with labor short and a plan to be met, he wouldn't dare fire workers even if they did more drinking than working on the job. ''The indispensable drunkard,'' lamented the author.
Finally, and most seriously, is the bias of the entire Soviet system - economic, political, social - against individual initiative. Even senior officials are beginning slowly, privately to acknowledge the problem, though they tend to trace its causes to czarist and feudal traditions the revolution could not instantly overturn.
The very Russian language hints at the enormity of the problem. When people pass a particularly long line in front of a shop here, they inevitably stop and try to find out what is on sale. In Russian, they ask, ''Chto dayut? '' - literally, ''What are they giving us?''
Pervading the Soviet style of government is a similar approach: almost of schoolmaster to adolescent. A Soviet policeman has the right to stop a motorist and fine him for not keeping his car clean.
The Soviet Constitution - Article 44 - notes that all citizens are guaranteed the ''right to (state) housing.'' The article continues: ''Citizens of the USSR shall take good care of the housing allocated to them.''
A changing Soviet people does, gradually, seem to be showing more initiative - but within the framework of a comfortable covenant with authority that channels this drive and imagination into improving one's own insular existence.
Thus, a Soviet journalist I know explains how his wife, like most other Russians, has gotten used to making under-the-counter deals for products and services the planned economy imperfectly provides.
Now, he says, she has come up with another solution: leaving a rather well-paying job at a medical research institute to work at a public clinic. The pay is much less. But, he explains, ''People will come up to her there and say, 'Next week we will have nice imported boots at the store where I work . . . or tangerines. . . .'
''With this information, my wife will be able to show up and get these products at (state-subsidized) official prices, rather than pay more under the counter.''
In a market economy - with its accompanying disciplinary scourges of unemployment and competition, and with its more realistic supply-and-demand pricing for inputs at all levels - individual decisions, like the ones taken by this Soviet journalist's wife, are part of what makes the economy work and modernize.
Here, such decisions are planned by men in gray suits - ''very well-paid men in gray suits,'' adds the young Soviet official who first told me the joke about their ''awesome destructive force.''
And the most pervasive side effect is that the overwhelming majority of Soviet people have got used to the system, its comfortable removal of responsibility from all but the central planners. The Western assumption - at least my own assumption when I arrived in the Soviet Union - was that ordinary Soviet workers and farm directors and plant managers were straining for release from the rigidity of a command economy. Give them freedom, and they'll grab at it. They'll show initiative.
This just is not the case. Or, at the very least, the response is far from immediate. Thus, when the Soviets formally unveiled a national Food Program last year that was partly designed to shift decisionmaking power from central authorities to regional and local ones, the central bureaucrats proved to be but one of the early obstacles. As public statements from various senior officials made clear, newly created regional organizations have often proven reluctant to assume their new powers, for evident fear of the new responsibilities that are part of the package.
Another Western assumption - less credible to a foreign resident here the longer he stays - is that the Soviet military is isolated from such problems.
The quality of individual products - from trucks to missiles - may indeed be greater in the large chunk of the economy under military supervision. The best scientists and technicians may, indeed, be claimed by the military as well. A Soviet specialist, in a remarkably straight-forward criticism of the economy in Pravda last year, went so far as to lament that military products were the only area in which Moscow could truly compete on world markets. But whether the Soviets can fully compete with their main rival, the US, is more problematic.
The men on the factory floor, ordinary Soviets who have worked in the military sector say, are not wildly different from Soviet men anywhere else in terms of the pride or initiative they are apt to show on the job. They're just more disciplined.
And to judge by one very visible aspect of the ''military'' economy - the crews of uniformed youths regularly called on to help pave roads or lay water pipes in Moscow and other cities - the men in khaki are every bit as fond of the chatty, intermittent approach to work.
Technologically, the Soviets are still playing catch-up in the military sphere as well. True, their rocket firepower is awesome. And guidance systems are improving. Moscow also seems to be approaching an equivalent of the radar-dodging US cruise missile, with its miniaturized direction apparatus, more quickly than the Americans had hoped. But the first step was American.
One reason the Soviets are so reluctant to deal away their huge land-based ballistic missiles - inefficient overkill, military style - is an abiding sense here that security depends on matching superiority in size and numbers with the US advantage in the technology race.
This may not always be true. But for the foreseeable future, it seems unlikely you'll find US spies stealing Soviet microchips instead of the other way around.
Most important - and disturbing, for the West - the Soviet military seems not greatly better off than the civilians in making quick, considered decisions of the type impossible without a sense of individual responsibility and initiative.
The Keystone-Kop nature of the Soviets' handling of the Korean Air Line tragedy from Minute 1 to Day 6 - when Moscow finally and unequivocally admitted it had shot down the plane - seems ample indication of this.
Next: a changing political system