While George Bush and Michael Dukakis waste our time arguing about who is more patriotic and who has more respect for the law, the new conventional wisdom is that the real loser will be whoever wins the election. The theory is that the economy is heading for such an inevitable collapse that the next president will be a one-term chump.But there's increasing evidence, so far little-noticed, that this may be every bit as inaccurate as the previous conventional wisdom, which has told us for six years running that severe recession was just around the corner.
It's not that there will be no interruption in the extraordinary expansion of 1988, which has so confounded the "Crash of '87" gloomsters on Wall Street and even caused the erstwhile rosy scenarists at the White House to admit in embarrassment that they had, for once, predicted too little.
Quite the contrary. At a moment when even some slow-witted political orators have had to confess that the economy doesn't seem to be disintegrating after all, there are early signs of a slowdown that could, ironically, provide two kinds of fundamental hope: lower interest rates and a further extension of the recovery.
The signs have been masked because of the remarkable progress on jobs, the economic issue most central to elections. With unemployment at a l4-year low and a record percentage of the population at work, civilians can be forgiven for concluding that talk of a slowdown is premature.
But unemployment is always a lagging indicator. Even going into a recession, employers traditionally tend to avoid layoffs as long as possible. And when business picks up, they are usually cautious about new hiring in the early stages. In other words, the unemployment figures tell us more about where we've been than where we're going.
Elsewhere in the economy, though, there are indications that the inexorable rise in interest rates since late March, capped by the increases last month in both the discount and federal funds rates, may be beginning to bite - not to kill (sorry about that, panic platoon), but to bite.
For example, orders for so-called durable goods (big-ticket items that are expected to last for at least three years) slumped in July - the sharpest monthly decline in four years - and home sales, also spooked by higher interest rates, dropped for the first time in six months.
Significantly, consumers seem finally to be cutting back on spending (except on big items such as autos, where fears of future inflation are prompting continued buying). And a relatively obscure measurement that has an unusually good predictive record, the ratio of the government's index of coincident indicators to its index of lagging indicators, has been declining since December - foreshadowing slower growth ahead.
None of this is a blueprint for the kind of disaster that has led even such an astute observer as Wisconsin's retiring Sen. William Proxmire to avow that his fellow Democrats should pray for defeat in November. It could, in fact, be suggesting something far sunnier for Americans of all political hues: the possibility that - wonder of wonders - the Federal Reserve may actually have been doing the right thing.
One of chairman Alan Greenspan's illustrious predecessors opined that "the way to avoid a bust is to sit on a bulge in a boom." And that's exactly what the Fed has been trying to accomplish. By boldly raising rates on the eve of a presidential campaign, Greenspan has convinced skeptics that he is not an inflationary tool of the Republicans who appointed him. But the despairing assumption that these increases were merely the beginning of a long siege may well be too facile.
As the pace of economic growth ebbs over the next few months, the Fed not only may not need to move rates much higher, it could indeed find the chance to start moving them down again. The latest economic figures make clear that this is no academic pipe dream. A little tightness now, in response to the small blips on the inflation front, may mean some welcome looseness later - giving the economy a second wind, and the new president a healthier base than, based on present rhetoric, either candidate now deserves.