Russian People Shouldn't Do as We Say, but as We Do

Robert Scheer is a Times contributing editor. E-mail:

The host of CNN's "Talk Back Live" in Atlanta was about to toss me another question about the Monica Lewinsky scandal, so I wanted to stay focused. But the TV monitor in a corner of the Los Angeles studio kept distracting me with its continuing stock market report indicating my net worth was rapidly declining. "Why aren't we talking about the world financial crises," I sputtered when the camera came back to me, "instead of this nonsense about a stained dress?"

So there, my secret's out. I'm among the unwashed masses--I do care more about my pocketbook than the high affairs of state, as media voyeurs define it. Not that I'm a big player in the market, mind you, but that's where I put money for the kids' college tuition and my own retirement. Clinton could have had a dozen mistresses and lied about every one as long as he took care of my corner of the world economy. And yours.

Since my talking-head stint weeks ago, the economic situation has worsened with the collapse of the Russian economy. Yet influential voices, among them Newt Gingrich and the New York Times editorial page, argue that this is the wrong time for Clinton to travel to Moscow because of the Lewinsky problem. I disagree. If he is too weak or distracted, it is they who have distracted him.

I don't know exactly what he should do about the international meltdown that threatens to take our economy with it, but I do know he should stay focused on such matters, and so the media.

The Russia trip is profoundly important, and our Russia policy needs to respond to the crisis. First, the U.S. should stop insisting on the Russians paying homage to a free market theology that we don't practice in our own country. How long would a U.S. president last if he advocated "shock therapy"--meaning massive layoffs and other hardships for the citizenry?

We have a mixed economy with a huge public sector and extensive government regulation, like every other successful modern economy. Yet for most of the past decade, the Russians attempted to follow an Adam Smith free-market model of capitalism sold to them by professors like Harvard's Jeffrey Sachs. These tenured professors insist on job security in their own workplace but quite freely dispense the virtues of economic risk-taking to others.

Unbridled capitalism has been tried in Russia, and the resulting inequality between the super-rich and the rest of the population confirms the most dire Marxist predictions. There are plenty of successful Russian capitalists and indeed the leading one among them, tycoon Boris A. Berezovsky, orchestrated Boris Yeltsin's selection of Viktor S. Chernomyrdin as prime minister. But even they now recognize the need to deal with popular discontent over the enormously destabilizing inequity of the Russian economy.

The problem is not a shortage of innovative profit-seekers but rather the failure of the central government to raise taxes to balance its own budget. How that's done is the Russians' own affair, but we should understand that their elected parliament may insist on some sort of social safety net, as we have here.

It's easy to dismiss the demands of the Russian parliament as a return to the old ways, but those representatives are more in touch with voters than is the enormously unpopular Yeltsin. The U.S. has undermined Russian democracy by uncritically backing an autocratic leader, demeaning the legislative branch and the very notion of separation of powers, and dismissing popular sentiment in Russia when it rejects the simplistic model of free enterprise that we insist on exporting.

The only economic demand we have a right to make of the Russians is that they demonstrate the ability to collect taxes so that they can eventually repay our loans. Precisely how they set their house in order is their concern.

What we do have a right to insist on is that the Russians move much more energetically to join us in ridding the world of nuclear weapons, almost all of which are in the hands of our two nations.

If we spent only a small fraction of the cost of pursuing the Cold War on paying the Russians to eliminate this scourge, it would be the shrewdest expenditure in modern history. The Russians need dollars, and we should pay them billions to help rid the world of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons that can all too easily fall into the hands of terrorists.

The high stakes of a breakdown of political order in Russia and the need for the American president to act with confidence should be obvious even to the most obtuse Clinton-basher among us.

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