This could be the worst year for inflation since 1981. That's bad news for you, bad news for me and bad news for the Bush administration.

It means prices and interest rates will go up. It means fewer homes will be bought, fewer cars will be sold and Congress will find it harder than ever to trim the federal budget deficit.No one is talking recession yet. Nor should they be. But the economic evidence so far is mostly on the negative side.

"It is now clear," says William Dunkelberg, dean of business at Temple University, "that 1989 will deliver a substantially higher inflation rate than 1988."

Dunkelberg surveyed more than 2,000 small companies for the National Federation of Independent Business and found that 30 percent plan price increases in the first half of 1989. That's the highest percentage since the economy began expanding in late 1982.

The inflation rate has been creeping up since 1986. It was 4.4 percent in 1987 and 4.4 percent again in 1988. Anyone who doubts it will top 5 percent in 1989 hasn't been paying attention.

Consider this:

- Producer prices, led by food and fuel, jumped 12.7 percent in January on an annual basis. The index won't stay that high every month, but it's an ominous sign for the future.

- The prime rate charged by banks on commercial loans has risen to 11 percent. A year ago it was 8.5 percent. Rates on 30-year mortgages are headed toward 11 percent, maybe higher.

- President Bush did nothing to dampen inflation fears in his Feb. 9 speech to a joint session of Congress. He talked about his priorities for spending, said little about his priorities for spending less.

The speech wasn't exactly a dud, although the stock market treated it like one. It was more an exercise in wishful thinking - his proposal to reduce the capital gains tax from 28 percent to 15 percent, his promise to accelerate military spending again in 1991 after a modest slowdown in 1990, his pledge not to raise taxes.

Even his offer to negotiate "night and day" with congressional Democrats won't amount to much if the Democrats are unwilling to slash popular programs and Bush is unwilling to raise revenues.

In a sense, the Republicans have been lucky on inflation - much luckier than Jimmy Carter, who got stung by high oil prices in the 1970s. But their luck may be running out.

Dunkelberg points out, for example, that rising labor costs in a tight manpower market are likely to "add some steam" to inflation this year. The minimum wage is almost sure to go up - it's been stuck on $3.35 an hour since 1981 - and the shortage of skilled workers will push up wages and salaries at the other end of the scale.

So much money is rolling around at the top of this economy that it's only a matter of time before the spear carriers in the ranks demand their share, too.

And that could have wages and prices chasing each other again.

The worst scenario would be a Scrooge-like squeeze on the money supply by the Federal Reserve Board, which worries about inflation, followed by a refusal by wary consumers to borrow and buy until prices and interest rates come down.

You're hearing this from a professional optimist who normally sees prosperity in every shopping mall, but the psychology of buy-now can be treacherous when it begins to turn the other way.