The Soviet people: caught in a tangle of central plans
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.