Ivan vs. the West. Shopping wars. If you like beets and movies, Moscow's got the best prices; but if you're talking blue jeans or a car, the West fares a lot better
It's in the hours and the minutes of the day that one of the great rivalries of the 20th century may be played out. And it's in the shopping bags of the Smiths and the Ivanovs where the wins and losses might be tallied.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has set out to make the Soviet economic system competitive with the West. At the same time, he is holding to the view that a centrally planned economy, overseen by a communist party, is inherently superior to a capitalist system in a multiparty democracy.
Though partisans and ideologues can argue for hours on end the wisdom or folly of trying to reform communism, minutes might be a better measure.
Keith Bush of the United States-funded Radio Liberty has compiled an interesting measure of the cost of living in Moscow and four Western cities based on the minutes it takes an average worker to earn enough to put food on the table, gas in the tank, and keep a roof overhead.
It yields some insights into the problems facing the Soviet economy, as well as indicating some of the successes of the Soviet system. By placing Moscow, Washington, and Paris, for example, on a common scale of comparison - retail prices in terms of time worked - some of the difficulties in comparing cost-of-living between quite different societies are minimized.
In general, the survey indicates that the average Soviet worker spends more time, every working day, simply earning the money to pay for basic goods and services than his or her counterpart in Washington or Paris. Communist doctrine holds that in a workers' state, where the means of production are controlled by the state, workers should have more leisure time, and should have to spend less time working for the necessities of life.
The challenge facing Mr. Gorbachev may be as simple as shaving the time it takes for a Soviet worker to afford a loaf of bread or a cup of coffee. And it may be his greatest test.
What does the survey show?
If, for example, you like movies and beets, and don't like dogs or coffee, you're better off in Moscow.
If, on the other hand, you like meat for every meal, consider blue jeans your standard after-hours attire, and buy a new car every few years, you'd better think twice about defecting to the USSR.
Movies are indeed cheaper in Moscow. Tickets for the best seat in the house can be earned in Moscow in 28 minutes; in Washington, 40 minutes; and in Paris, 48 minutes.
And in Moscow, you would work only 9 minutes to afford a large, unwashed bunch of beets, probably shipped up from the Ukraine. In Washington, it would take 20 minutes; in Paris, 22.
Conventional wisdom holds that most food is more expensive in Moscow, and the survey tends to confirm this, if prices are compared in terms of time worked. Most meats were least expensive in Washington, mid-priced in Paris, and most costly in Moscow.
Fresh or frozen fish, on the other hand, can be cheaper by half in Moscow than in Washington, and nearly one-fourth of the cost in Paris. But when the fish is canned, the prices plummet in Washington and Paris compared with Moscow.
Why? Because industrial processes, transportation, and distribution systems in the Soviet Union are not very efficient. Moreover, there's no competition to keep prices down.
Ideology and inefficiency sometimes combine in skewing the figures. The Soviet Union produces sugar from beets grown in the Ukraine, but beets are sometimes left in the fields to rot because of transportation bottlenecks between the farms and the refineries. The Soviet Union also buys up much of the Cuban sugar crop, at prices well above the world market price, as a form of indirect subsidy for a client state in America's backyard. The result? Sugar in Moscow is nearly nine times as expensive as in Washington, and nearly five times as expensive as in Paris.
Because the Soviet Union's currency, the ruble, is not convertible - that is, not freely traded in world currency markets and freely exchanged with other currencies - the Soviet Union must pay for many imports in hard currency earned from, for example, sales of oil for US dollars.
Much of this hard currency must then be used to import wheat - most of it for baking, so that lesser-quality Soviet-grown wheat can be used for cattle feed. Moscow allocates the rest of the money for importing modern machinery from the West. What's left over is used for frills, such as imported chocolate.
Where the Muscovite comes out substantially better, however, is in housing. It takes him only 11 hours to afford the monthly rental on a small, unfurnished subsidized apartment. A Parisian needs to work 15 hours for the same kind of housing. A Washingtonian, however, must labor for more than a week (55 hours) to earn the monthly rent.