America’s attempts to help the former Soviet Union have proven exceptionally frustrating. Nearly all government officials. Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, realize that something ought to be done. The possibility that continued economic crises will mean a return to a belligerent totalitarian state is both reasonable and justifiably dreaded. Even the most coldhearted lifelong anticommunist cannot enjoy seeing mobs of angry Russians protesting in the streets.
Unfortunately, we are stupefied about what is to be done. Clearly, save a sudden catastrophe, a traditional Marshall Plan-type foreign aid package is unacceptable. Rebuilding the old Soviet system would require trillions in government aid at a time when demands for domestic investment cannot be ignored. Even a worldwide effort involving Japan and Germany would be insufficient and risky for the respective governments. Private sector help ultimately may be the solution, but presently this is a drop in the proverbial bucket. In short, the current situation resembles a picture of horrified bystanders helplessly watching a sinking ship loaded with toxic chemicals.
The situation is not, however, as hopeless as it may initially appear. The problem is that we have conceptualized the U.S.-former Soviet Union relationship in terms of either outright gifts or trade involving tangible commodities. Past experience leads us to think instinctively of handouts or trading, say, food or trucks for metals or oil. We have already mentioned the futility of cash advances. And, given that exports either are scarce within Russia or would take years to become commercially available, trade is not a quick solution. There is also the problem of introducing capitalist economics into a bureaucratic state still populated by those who believe free markets to be exploitation.
The secret is to think in terms of services, not the typical tangible items of trade. We must ask, “What exportable service does the former Soviet Union possess that is of value to the United States?” Once we take this approach, and expend some modest thought, the answer is plain—the Soviet Union rightfully enjoys the reputation of the world’s foremost expert in the arts of oppression and citizen control. What Saudi Arabia is to oil, what Japan is to consumer electronics, the Kremlin is to ruthless citizen control, especially of citizens at the bottom of the economic heap. A program of brutal repression stamped “Made in the U.S.S.R.” is the equivalent of “Made in France” on a bottle of perfume or “Ten-Day Tour of Fabulous Bangkok” for sex-starved Japanese businessmen. Among connoisseurs of such matters, the Soviet label proclaims the genuine article, a commitment to effectiveness not to be confused with cheap imitations from, say. Red China or some Johnny-come-lately Islamic fundamentalist state. Indeed, a passion for excellence in the arts of citizen control long predates the communist regime. As the Shah unfortunately discovered, quality in such matters cannot be achieved in a mere decade.
At this point the reader may ask, “Why would anybody want to buy repression, even if of the highest grade? After all, the end of repression was what the Cold War was about. We spent billions to rid ourselves of it.” Such a reader, clearly, must be unaware of what has been transpiring in the American judicial system. We are, to put it mildly, overwhelmed with criminality—our prisons are overcrowded, our courts are overwhelmed, and our police are outmanned and outgunned in the war against violent hooliganism. What we need is oppression, albeit of a more focused variety than the traditional product, and the former Soviet Union now possesses an enormous over-supply of that product. To borrow a slogan from the early 1960’s, the oppression gap must be closed.
The easiest way to begin is concretely, with prisons. Though precise figures are not available, it must be true that the collapse of Marxism has resulted in a surplus of empty cells and unemployed guards, wardens, and psychiatric counselors. Not only could our use of underutilized space and infrastructure relieve overcrowding in American prisons, but a transfer of inmates to the Soviet Union would save the American taxpayers hundreds of millions while revitalizing a traditional mainstay of the Soviet economy. Rather than pay $30,000 or more to house a prisoner in Joliet, the Federal Bureau of Prisons could pay, say, Russian jailers maybe $5,000. Given their great and cost-effective skill at housing guests of the state, even $5,000 per year per inmate would generate sufficient profit to heat up hundreds of local economies. Money would also arrive from gifts sent abroad by friends and relatives of inmates. The black market in imported American cigarettes and jeans would provide valuable lessons in trade and marketing. Housing American prisoners in Siberia would amount to a multibillion- dollar aid program undertaken gleefully by the people of America. So profitable might this enterprise become that Russian jailers would surely keep their guests for extended stays by insisting on full rehabilitation. No muddleheaded bleeding-heart time off for good behavior or early release programs. Delegations of ex-KGB members armed with colorful brochures would roam U.S. courts drumming up business much like Midwestern small-town economic development committees chase California high-tech industries. The Russians would quickly become the Motel 6 of the private prison industry—the feared low-cost provider.
On the other side of the ledger, lower taxes at home would permit additional purchases of luxury goods, such as imported vodka, caviar, and sable coats. Some American consumers might buy Russian to express their solidarity with this venture in international cooperation. Empty correctional facilities would be recycled into theme parks, tourist attractions, or budget motels where former employees could have less stressful positions. That the incarcerated felon community was at least 6,000 miles away would also mean that we would have little to fear from weekend release programs or an occasional escapee. United States judges, thanks to the Russian postal service, would be spared the frivolous appeals endlessly offered up by jailhouse lawyers. Meanwhile, criminal lawyers would be gone weeks at a time to see their clients, not a trivial consideration in the needed reform of our legal system. Some may never return given the hardships of travel to remote gulags and of dealings with those lacking a respect for fine legal argument.
This “Felon Exchange Program” is only the first step in utilizing our former enemy’s special expertise. Thousands of unemployed and underemployed ex-Soviet officials could also be sent to the United States as mentors and role models to hard-pressed local police departments and district attorneys. This equivalent of the Peace Corps, perhaps called the Lavrenti Beria Memorial People- to-People Program, would provide fresh ideas in such areas as gaining confessions from reluctant prisoners, infiltrating the criminal community, keeping comprehensive records on potential troublemakers, making correctional facilities economically self-supporting, and organizing trials for the maximum public impact. By American standards these advisors would receive modest wages, but they would surely send part of their paychecks back to the Motherland, providing further financial help to our new friend. Moreover, given the material benefits of American life, plus the knowledge that they were helping their homeland’s economy by fulfilling 125 percent of their prisoner quota, these rent-an-Ivans would invigorate American law enforcement. We can only imagine the fear among antisocial elements when they hear “The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming!” The prospect of confronting police officers unschooled in the American system of criminal rights and unable to speak English could frighten into retirement many urban predators. Mere talk of Comrade Ivan riding into town, a la Clint Eastwood, might restore law and order (Hollywood would surely jump at the opportunity to make films with titles such as A Fistful of Rubles).
Contributions could also be made to our problems of large-scale unruliness and breakdown of public order. As the fallout from the Los Angeles riots over the Rodney King verdict reveal, we are fairly inept at maintaining civil society under difficult conditions. Nor are we skilled at preserving harmony among antagonistic but physically close groups. Fortunately, as recent turmoil in Eastern Europe shows, ex-Soviet officials possess an underappreciated knack for keeping the peace in potentially explosive societies. This expertise should be employed before it atrophies. We could rent former KGB special state security units at bargain-basement rates. For a fraction of the cost of mobilizing the National Guard or paying police overtime, we efficiently solve our own problems while helping a friend.
United States public officials would gladly pay thousands to attend conflict management seminars and workshops offered by ex-commissars with long experience in places such as East Germany, Poland, and the Asian republics. Guided educational tours, a great financial windfall for isolated, unattractive Russian localities, could also be offered. One can already envision Intertourist marketing “Ten Relocation Centers in Ten Days With Exciting On-Your-Own Side Trips” at the yearly conclaves of public officials. Big-city mayors nervous about upcoming long hot summers could gain valuable “hands-on” job training from their counterparts who “got the job done” when domestic discord struck Armenia, the Ukraine, or Georgia. The cost of such helping-hand exchanges and trips, while a boon for the former Soviet Union, are minuscule compared to the cost of a mismanaged urban disturbance.
There are also handsome psychological dividends, an infusion of collective self-esteem, for our demoralized former enemy. Imagine the pride of Moscovites upon seeing on TV advanced elements of the Red Army providing fraternal assistance at the request of local authorities to restore law and order in a riot-torn Philadelphia. Streets jammed with hundreds of Korean and Indian shopkeepers displaying their eternal friendship by waving little red flags while others hold homemade banners thanking their liberators. Pictures in Pravda of elderly shut-ins and children venturing into public parks for the first time in years under the vigilant gaze of their newfound protectors. Former Russian military leaders could again feel the traditional pride, as well as the financial benefits, of putting down ethnic unrest and crushing unruly elements. Equally important, Soviet troops stationed in Newark, Oakland, Detroit, and other potential trouble spots are no threat to Russian democracy.
All in all, it should be obvious that our former enemy has something of great value to us. The problem of helping the former Soviet Union is financially and politically solvable. A ten or fifteen billion-dollar transfer may seem enormous by the yardsticks of foreign aid, but it is minor by the standards of criminal justice. We would be contracting out much of our police work to somebody who can do the job better for perhaps a tenth of the price. A perfect example of Ricardo’s Law in action. We also would be building democracy and capitalism while getting something in return. There would be no stigma of charity, no charade over long-term loans never to be repaid, and no whining about helping foreigners while Americans go hungry. The whole operation is straight business: we get security while the Russians get to live better and feel useful. We simply export our great surplus commodity—criminals—to the one society whose economy can benefit from this exchange.