In simpler days a man could get elected president by making sufficiently eloquent and imaginative promises of prosperity. A chicken in every pot. A car (or maybe two) in every garage.
By contrast, one of the tests for presidential competence now reads: Can this candidate start a decent recession?
The prevailing notion of the day is tht, before we can ever enjoy prosperity again, we must have a good, rousing recession first -- a theory which leads to a new and very strange use of the word "healthy."
A healthy recession is defined as one that loses the fewest jobs for the shortest period of time while reducing inflation by the maximum number of digits.
Simple, you say -- like serving a double fault on set point, or burning toast in the morning when you're really sleepy. Still, it's not quite that easy.
Starting a recession on purpose is more like fighting one forest fire by setting another one against it. And oh, my, has President Carter, our chief fire chief, ever been scratching away at those matches! But it's a truly tricky business, and nothing has seemed to catch in the way of a welcome catastrophe.
Mr. Carter began by trying to jawbone the country into a recession. For almost a year now the White House has kept announcing: "It's coming. Next quarter for sure." And then the next quarter arrived and -- big disappointment. Employment steady. Installment buying still out of sight. No recession.
A man who couldn't start a recession couldn't grow crabgrass, to say nothing of getting the Russians out of Afghanistan -- or so the President's political enemies began to mutter.
Then, when the prime interest rates shot up, everybody said: "At last. He's done it." And there was a small round of applause for our intrepid prosperity-fighter as automobile sales crashed, new housing collapsed, and the plastic curled up on all the credit cards.
But hold on. Are we absolutely certain the dismal mission has been accomplished? Some people say the interest rates are coming down, and that will spoil everything. Others say that Mr. Carter has started too big a recession. Will he be able to turn it around in time to take credit for a recovery before the election?
Part of the problem is that nobody knows exactly where a recession stands on the economic Richter scale. We all understand that it's on the far side of a "downward adjustment" and on the near side of a "full-scale depression" -- but where's that? And how do you know when you're there?
Last week the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan announced that its "consumer attitude index" had hit a record low. Almost 70 percent of the families polled believed that "business conditions" are worse than a year ago.
Is the recession, then, a state of mind? Does its existence depend on a public perception that it exists?
Count us out. We rebel against an approach that turns even a recession into a matter of "credibility."
We're tired of those perverse headlines that regard the recession as an event devoutly to be wished for. IF this is the moral equivalent of war, call us an economic pacifist. It all seems like fumbling into a "conventional" war, and then congratulating ourselves because it isn't nuclear.
Isn't there another way? That's our question to the economists.
The fact is, we've had enough of appreciating what a sophisticated art is involved in fine-tuning us all into a mild case of poverty.
We only hope that the recession -- if and when it comes -- doesn't last as long as the anticipation of it. We can hardly wait for some naive clod who never heard of a healthy recession to come along and kick the tires and pound the hood and generally ham-hand our stalled economy into -- what is that word? -- a boom. Dismiss him as an economic Neanderthal if you will. The lout will get our vote.