WHILE THERE HAS been much discussion about Yuri Andropov's determination to inject new life into the Soviet economy, it is unlikely that he will bring about the fundamental reforms necessary to accomplish this.
Thus far Andropov has emphasized the need to restore economic discipline and "order." By attacking absenteeism and alcoholism, he hopes to boost productivity.
As one senior writer for Pravda puts it, "In the past even when a worker wanted to, it was impossible for him to put in a full and meaningful eight-hour day at most factories. Typically, the necessary components were not available for the worker to process. Then when the components did arrive, the machinery would malfunction because of a lack of the necessary maintenance."
He adds: "The worker was lucky if he or she could put in three constructive hours out of those eight."
The Soviet newspaper Sotsialisticheskaia industriia described just such a situation at an ammonia factory in the Urals. It was forced to close down all of November and December of 1981 and idle 2,700 workers because of a lack of the necessary railroad cars to transport supplies and finished products.
There is no doubt that the reinstitution of "order" can produce some short-run gains. But it is unlikely to solve basic Soviet economic problems.
Indeed, there is the possiblity that Andropov's anti-corruption drive may actually succeed too well. Unquestionably, corruption in the Soviet Union was having a corrosive effect and was slowly leading to a form of anarchy. But now that the whistle has been blown, there is the danger that the clean-up may clean out not only the bad corruption but also the "good corruption."
In the Soviets' highly rigid system of centralized planning there must be some give, and unfortunately that also means some "take." Without modest corruption there can be no flexibility. In other words, with state planning, the benefits of a modest amount of corruption may actually outweigh the costs.
Yet Andropov faces an even more basic challenge. If increased discipline alone cannot accomplish what he wants, will he attack the very system of central planning which he accepts so wholeheartedly?
His dilemma can best be demonstrated by examining Soviet agriculture. Undoubtedly bad weather has helped cause four bad harvests in a row since 1979. Yet even Leonid Brezhnev acknowledged before his death that weather alone was not the problem. Brezhnev was particularly upset by the fact that 20 to 25 percent of the food crop was left to rot in the field.
Stricter discipline could go a long way toward reducing this loss. But even if Soviet peasants should miraculously decide to gather up every ounce of grain and every last potato in the field, the likelihood is that the crops would still be ruined by weather.
The reason is that there are no crop storage facilities on most Soviet farms; those that do exist are an average of 250 to 300 miles from the farm fields. To compound the problem, more than a quarter of Soviet farms have no hard-road surface to permit timely transportation and storage of heretofore ungathered grain or produce.
This inappropriate investment program does not lend itself to easy correction. Central planners tend to build projects that are best for them rather than for the farmer. Planners tend to be judged by how impressive their projects are: The bigger they are, the more impressive. But the bigger they are, the fewer projects there are likely to be.
There surely are fewer projects than if the peasants were allowed to make their own investments. Just how different the pattern might be is suggested by comparing the makeup of agricultural investment in the United States with that taking place in the Soviet Union.
Whereas about 75 percent of U.S. agricultural investment goes for machinery, in the Sovirns et Union the comparable figure is 50 percent. At the same time, 40 percent of Soviet agricultural investment goes for construction, compared with 25 percent in the United States. It is not necessary to insist that the American pattern is the only correct one to sense that the Soviets have been misdirecting their funds.
Andropov will not find his task any easier in dealing with industry. More disciplined work may lead to increased output of steel and an end to production declines. But is that such a good thing -- especially when what the Soviet Union needs is not more steel but new and more sophisticated products?
Similarly, it takes something other than discipline and centralized control to create high-tech growth and a responsive consumer goods industry.
One of the main characteristics of high tech and consumer goods industries is that it is not only necessary to have many inventors but many sources of capital. The Soviet Union has many good laboratories with good inventors, but capital is a monopoly of one bank -- Gosbank. If Gosbank turn down an investment proposal, there is no alternative.
Moreover, because the innovator knows that in a state-owned economy there can be no capital windfalls, he has considerably less incentive to push his project through from laboratory to production.
Thus, so long as investment decisions are made by central planners, it seems highly unlikely that the result in either agriculture or industry will be any different.
Abandoning central planning would, of course, challenge the very essence of the Soviet system. Yet if he is to make basic economic reforms, Andropov will have to come up with some alternative to central planning. This would probably mean the introduction of some variant of the market system.
But to be effective, the market system requires a meaningful price mechanism, and the existing Soviet price system has atrophied for lack of meaningful use.
Retail prices of most Soviet foods, for example, have not been increased since 1962. Then an attempted price increase set off riots. But while prices have not increased, costs have. That means that if market prices are to stimulate peasants to produce in any meaningful way, there would have to be a series of enormous price increases -- which would spell trouble in the Soviet Union.
Thus, Andropov faces a basic contradiction. To stimulate the peasants and factory managers and workers, he will have to decentralize important sectors of the economy. But this would run exactly counter to Andropov's already annunciated goal of increased discipline and reduced corruption, which so far means increases centralization.
Able as he is, it is hard to see how Andropov can resolve this dilemma.