Boris Yeltsin is the George Bush of the Soviet Union. Criticizing the steep price increases in the government's latest economic reform plan, he says: "We must find another transition to the market economy that does not lead to a deterioration in the standard of living." Free capitalism. No price increases. No unemployment. Read my lipskies.

In Washington they're virtually forming Yeltsin for President PACs. We're now in the third phase of fashionable Gorbo-skepticism. In phase one, Gorbachev was the brilliant mastermind of a nefarious plot to lull the West into foolish complaisance through phony, Potemkin reforms. When it became clear that the changes in the Soviet empire were fundamental, not phony, Gorbo was demoted from mastermind to irrelevant spectator: a cork bobbing in the sea of history, merely presiding over communism's inevitable collapse. That was phase two. Now we're in phase three: Gorbachev is a transitional figure, a Kerensky, who unleashed forces he can't control and has outlived his usefulness.

Maybe so. But why the relish over Gorbachev's economic troubles? Although the latest round of reforms can be legitimately criticized for both ineptitude and timidity, it's not as if anyone -- certainly including Boris Yeltsin -- has any great idea how to rescue the Soviet economy.

Gorbachev pretty clearly would like to go all the way to free-market capitalism. His economic problem is that you can't get there from here, at least not without vast disruption and suffering. His political problem is how to get people to take the chemotherapy. Gorbachev's economic half-measures are causing his political problems, but full "shock therapy" would not solve them. Quite the opposite: it would make the short-run problems worse. Soviet economists estimate that the latest reform will throw 10 million people out of work. Shock therapy might cost 40 million jobs.

If we want the Soviet Union to move more boldly toward free-market capitalism, why aren't we doing more to encourage that leap? Yet the subject of serious economic assistance for the Soviets is not even on the agenda. Having spent trillions of dollars bringing the Cold War to this point, we seem unwilling to spend any money securing its demise in the only foolproof way: by turning the Soviet Union into a democratic, capitalist society.

It's not a question of "helping Gorbachev." The promise of massive economic assistance could be made contingent on all the things we want to happen: shock-therapy economics, military cutbacks, an end to the subsidy of Cuba, freedom for the Baltic republics and so on. If Gorbachev goes along, he's our man for sure. If he balks, widespread awareness of this standing offer would hasten his departure.

Would massive financial aid to the Soviet Union just be money down the rathole? The money needn't be wasted, if it promotes rapid adjustment to a free market economy rather than shoring up the current mess. American business executives eyeing the Soviet market already clamor for loan guarantees and whatnot. But instead of subsidizing a lot of development projects that the market can judge better on its own, why not offer to help finance some kind of social safety net for a few years? People are being asked to give up guaranteed jobs, subsidized food and housing, etc. It would ease the political problem of getting them to take the plunge if they knew they would only plunge so far.

Or is the Soviet economic disaster just too massive and hopeless for any amount of Western assistance to make any difference? Some knowledgeable people think so, and they may be right. But if so -- if the Soviet economy is like a dead lake, so polluted that it can never revive -- then perestroika has been a disservice to the Soviet people. It only made things worse.

No one making U.S. policy admits to being that pessimistic. Jeffrey Sachs, a Harvard economics professor who has been advising the Polish government, thinks that aid of something like $30 billion a year for three or four years could make a real difference in the prospects for successfully establishing capitalism in the Soviet Union. That's a lot of money. And, yes, there's no reason other prosperous Western nations shouldn't shoulder some, or even most, of the load. But does the United States wish to continue as leader of the free world or does it not? If it does, it can't balk at a challenge like this simply because of the cost.

Four years of $30 billion amounts to $480 per U.S. citizen. That's less per person, in real terms, than the Marshall Plan -- and the United States is four times as rich now. Whatever the merits of massive aid to the Soviet Union, the size of the project, not those merits, is what makes it so unthinkable for the United States in 1990. If $120 billion over the next few years could help capitalism and democracy take root in the Soviet Union, this would save the United States far more than $120 billion in defense costs in the long run.

So the question may be whether we are capable of making a short-term economic sacrifice for our own long-term self-interest. But then, that always seems to be the question these days.