Putting things in perspective is a fitting exercise at year's end. So it is useful to have the balanced analysis of the Soviet economy just put out by the Joint Economic Committee of Congress. As one might have expected, things are not as good in the land of communism as Soviet bureaucrats make them out to be. Nor are they as bad as the US administration would have the world believe.
The essential message of the study, done for Congress by the CIA, is that the USSR is not a weak giant ready to disintegrate with just a wee nudge from the West. As committee chairman Rep. Henry Reuss put it, the Soviet economy ''far from being on the verge of collapse has experienced major growth.'' In fact that growth has amounted to a fairly respectable 4.8 percent annual rate over the past 30 years. Russians are considerably better off today. Real consumption per capita has tripled in that period.
These are overall facts that ought to be borne in mind as the West also weighs what are obviously serious deficiencies: The Soviet regime is still unable to provide its people with enough decent housing, high-protein food, and other consumer goods that are common in every other industrialized country. The standard of living is below that of even most of Eastern Europe not to mention the Western nations. Growth has slowed to less than 3 percent in recent years because of poor harvests.
So Yuri Andropov has his work cut out for him. If his predecessor's broad mandate was to bring stability to Soviet life, his will be to reform the overcentralized, overbureaucra-tized system enough to permit a smoother, more efficient functioning of the economy - and a more vigorous and contented society. It cannot but appall him and his Politburo colleagues that, among other negative indices, mortality rates are on the rise in the Soviet Union, reportedly because of the high consumption of alcohol.
American policymakers, for their part, would do well not to exaggerate Soviet weaknesses or the political utility of waging economic warfare against the Eastern bloc. The CIA analysis confirms that the USSR has slightly increased military spending as a percentage of GNP in the past few years, and few knowledgeable analysts doubt that it will continue to spend what it feels is necessary to keep up with the West - even if this means postponing consumer expectations.
The main point to be made, perhaps, is that both the East and the West are spending too much on arms. Both have serious economic problems. Both could benefit from more cooperation and less confrontation in order to do something about them.