Getting the Soviet economy moving: Will bigger sticks, better carrots help?
Moscow — ''Nobody really works. . . .''
''People drink a lot. . . .''
''Local officials lack initiative, even when the ideas from the top are good. . . .''
''In some ways, our society must be the freest in the world. . . . Within certain known limits, you can get away with almost anything.''
The notion that the Soviet Union needs a dose of old-fashioned discipline must sound, to the Westerner, like saying Detroit could use some unemployment, or Las Vegas, a few more nightclubs.
Yet many Soviets, from ordinary citizens to new Communist Party leader Yuri Andropov, seem to sense such a need if there is to be lasting improvement in the nation's economy.
The question is precisely what the new leadership intends to, or can practically, do about instances of inefficiency, corruption, shoddy workmanship, alcoholism, absenteeism, and bureaucratic inertia long officially seen as serious drains both on production and morale.
In a tone refreshingly more direct than that of his predecessor, Mr. Andropov has made explicit an economic principle strongly implied in Mr. Brezhnev's final years. The gist: The Soviet economy must come up with both better carrots and better sticks.
Mr. Andropov said in his first policy speech: ''Conditions, both economic and organizational, should be provided to encourage quality and productive work, initiative and enterprise.
''Conversely, shoddy work, inactivity, and irresponsibility should have an immediate and unavoidable effect on the earnings, official status, and moral prestige of workers.''
Suggesting a practical sense that the principle may be more easily stated than applied, Mr. Andropov added: ''I do not have any ready recipes. . . . One cannot get things moving by slogans alone.''
One of the Soviet Union's proudest boasts is also one of its boons for ''indiscipline'': It does not have the unemployment that is hitting Western economies.
The Soviets must cope generally with a labor shortage. From ordinary Russians and the official news media comes the plaint: Yes, workers drink. Some play hooky. But no, you can't just fire them. . . .
A Soviet writer has labeled one such worker ''the irreplaceable drunkard.''
Another problem is that inefficiency, laxity, and corruption tend to reinforce one another.
Managers may cut corners because inputs, human or manufactured, are in short supply. One reason ''incentives'' don't always sway workers is that extra cash often chases insufficient consumer goods. Consumer shortfalls encourage shifty storekeepers. ''It is all part of making a living,'' a young Muscovite says.
An official tells how his wife, who earned about 340 rubles a month at a medical institute, opted to work at a clinic for half the pay. ''There, people will come up and say, 'Next week, we'll have nice boots for sale,' . . . or tangerines, and set them aside.''
Ultimately, as Mr. Andropov has suggested, a key snag may be mere bureaucratic inertia.
It seems natural that officials who are apt to be demoted, retrained, or retired may resist reorganization. But the tendency to shun change because stagnation is simply less bother is a thornier problem.
In 1979, Moscow decreed a new planning index aimed at rewarding efficiency rather than mere bulk weight or quantity. Some ministries are said to have done little to implement the decision.
Earlier this year, Mr. Brezhnev oversaw adoption of a ''food program,'' giving slightly more latitude to local authorities, in the shape of regional ''associations.'' The leader of the Georgian Communist Party lamented in late October:
''Some leaders think it below their dignity to coordinate planning and finance matters with the regional associations. . . Indeed the associations themselves also frequently display . . . inertia, sluggishness in resolving acute questions, and a tendency not to intervene.''