Why Bill Has It Easier Than Boris

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At the New Year, President Clinton could well say that he would much rather have his problems than those of Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Mr. Yeltsin has a problem of rationing suffering, Mr. Clinton a problem of allocating benefits.

In the five years since the fall of communism, Russia's greatest growth in entrepreneurship has been in free-market crime and corruption. Criminal cartels decide what, if any, taxes they will pay. Favored foundations are tax exempt.

That means there's not enough money to pay wages, and 60 percent of workers and professionals have received no pay since September - nor have pensioners, except for war veterans. Gen. Alexander Lebed, recently in the United States for his first visit, warned that unpaid soldiers raised a danger of armed insurrection.

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Back at work in the Kremlin, Yeltsin promises to start the paychecks flowing. But that can only be at the price of inflation, which as of now is barely under control. And the resurgence of inflation would bring other dangers.

In this New Year interregnum, Clinton, by contrast, contemplates the opportunities in budgeting offered by a viable economy: for starters, a multi-year balanced budget while still providing tax breaks for the middle class, homeowners, and students.

The president could also propose scaling back the Social Security cost-of-living increase because of a reported 1.1 percentage point overestimation. Recouping the overestimation would provide about $1 trillion in a dozen years to pay for everything from more tax breaks to improvement in infrastructure and easing the impact of the welfare overhaul on those facing destitution.

But the word is that Clinton has decided against a downward adjustment in the COLA (cost-of-living adjustment). The cutback would have to come at the expense of pensioners - a potent voting bloc. Why does our president, facing no more reelection, care about a voting bloc? Well, maybe not for himself, but for his loyal sidekick, Vice President Al Gore. So, even before his second inauguration, Clinton is already thinking of his heir apparent, or so it would appear.

In Russia, the popular General Lebed has formed a new Popular Russian Republican Party, saying that Yeltsin is too sick to govern. So the incumbent grapples with keeping his presidency going.

Clinton expects to be around at the end of 1997, assuming that scandals won't rise up to smite him. Yeltsin can hardly know where he or Russia will be a year from now.

Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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