Productivity: Yuri Andropov's lament

It is one of the ironies of these times that a giant US Steel Corporation has provided an example of what the leader of the Soviet Union wishes could happen in his country, but can't.

US Steel announced that it was closing down three of its plants and closing out portions of several others. The labor unions, which had refused to take cuts in wages and benefits to help keep the plants going, protested. Politicians in the affected areas, where an estimated 15,430 jobs will be lost, lamented. But US Steel shares went up on the security exchanges the next day.

Two days later a speech written by, or for, ailing Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, was read on his behalf at a formal meeting in Moscow of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

The speech makes fascinating reading. It confirms officially what has been reported previously about Mr. Andropov's ideas for improving the performance of the Soviet economy. It also tells us quite a lot about the actual state of that economy.

For example, the speech disclosed that buyers at a recent Soviet wholesale fair refused to accept a half-million TV sets, a million and a half clocks and watches, and 160,000 refrigerators which Soviet industry had built for the 1984 Soviet market.

Mr. Andropov called it ''intolerable'' that ''high-quality raw and primary materials are wasted on the manufacture of products that are unmarketable.''

He gave as the reason the buyers refused to accept products offered at the fair ''the disparity between the quality and assortment of these goods and the demands made by the buyers.''

In other words, Soviet industry is ''fulfilling its quotas'' in numerical terms, but of such poor quality that even official ''trade organizations,'' which in the Soviet Union are the main customers, refuse to accept the goods.

Mr. Andropov said that an urgent task for Soviet industry is to ''saturate the market with the necessary manufactured goods.'' But, ''industry is extremely slow in readjusting itself to the manufacture of modern consumer goods.''

Why is Soviet industry so slow? Here is Mr. Andropov's explanation.

''Our planning agencies, ministries, and departments have not yet come up with the necessary solutions to ensure that the productive, scientific, and technological potential available in the country be used fully and most efficiently. . . .

''The organization of the entire package of scientific and technological work is far from being efficient. Some industries are marking time and failing to fulfill plans to introduce new equipment, the scope of these plans themselves leaving much to be desired.''

This was a tremendous indictment of the whole Soviet system. Mr. Andropov aimed it at ''our planning agencies, ministries, and departments.'' That means the whole structure of government in Moscow. It also means the top level of bureaucrats, and hence also the top level of members of the Communist Party itself.

It takes little reading between the lines to realize that Mr. Andropov would like to do to the Soviet economy what Deng Xiaoping has been doing to the Chinese economy - restore the marketplace and financial incentives.

A remark in an earlier part of the speech seems to deserve additional attention. The Soviets are beginning their 12th five-year plan. Mr. Andropov was commenting on the quality of the plan. He asserted that ''everything necessary has been envisaged to maintain the country's defense capacity at a proper level.'' He called for ''strict implementation'' of this defense program as a ''patriotic duty.'' But that was about all he had to say on the subject of defense.

In 1946, Stalin launched the Soviet Union into the post-World War II world with a speech calling for major emphasis on guns. Stalin put consumer goods at the bottom of the priority list. Apparently Mr. Andropov has reversed priorities. He wants a market saturated with ''consumer goods'' of high quality.

None of the above proves that Mr. Andropov will be able to carry out a new revolution in the Soviet Union. He is challenging the system the ruling Communist Party has fastened upon his country. He wants to be able to do what US Steel did in the US last week: slough off obsolete plants and shift production over to those using the latest modern technology.

The process of conversion to modern technology is always painful. It is painful in American steel towns this week. It would be more painful in the Soviet Union - which is why Mr. Andropov is not likely to get far with his new revolution.

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