Like Banquo's ghost in "Macbeth," many of the questions of this campaign sit as uninvited guests at the dinner table, all but unseen and unheard.
The questions are specific; the answers are not.
Who will help the Fauquier County commuter who can't afford the $5 a day it costs to drive to work in Washington?
How is the young couple going to afford that first house in Prince George's County with mortgage rates at 14 percent?
Who will supply the jobs for the inner-city kids who have not been trained in any marketable skill?
And the ultimate economic question: Does anyone out there have a serious, workable plan to end inflation?
If the answers to the economic challenges of the 1980s are not immediately apparent, blame the candidates first and the electorate second.
The economy today may be in its worstshape in any election year since Americans elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt to his first term, but neither the candidates nor the voters have made it the central issue of this campaign.
Double-digit inflation has eroded President Carter's footing far less than even his own advisers feared a few months ago. Few Americans will admit that the country's economic problems are their own fault, and many of them figure the president is not to blame either.
The promise of massive tax cuts has not bought many votes for Ronald Reagan. Most voters have trouble adding up Reagan's promises to lower personal income taxes by 10 percent a year, raise defense spending by 6 percent a year and simultaneously balance the budget.
John Anderson's persistent attacks on Carter's failed promises and Reagan's false ones have not moved him one inch closer either to the White House or the cause of the nation's economic ills. Anderson's 50-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax may be the closest thing to a courageous idea in the whole campaign; it may even be enacted some day, but it's not going to make him president.
The voters' rejection of both Anderson's higher taxes and Reagan's lower ones, and their seeming sympathy with the president, can tell a lot about the economics of the 1980s.
Chicken-in-every-pot promises don't cut it anymore. Not with the millions of middle-American voters who've learned in the last decade to swallow $1.30-a-gallon gasoline, 14 percent mortgages, $2-a-pound butter and the lump in the throat that comes from realizing that, as Mick Jagger puts it, "You can't always get what you want."
But they aren't ready to sing "small is beautiful" either. Knuckling down is one thing; knuckle sandwiches are another, and Anderson's 50-cents-a-gallon tax would feel like a smash in the teeth. The president learned last year that a call for sacrifice is not the moral equivalent of a call to arms -- and quickly found another theme.
The realization -- by both candidates and voters -- that there are no simple solutions to the economic dilemmas of the decade ahead is certainly one reason why neither the recession of 1980 nor the requisites of the 1980s is dominating the election debate.
The campaign also has been drawn away from a direct economic confrontation by the strategies and ideologies of the two major candidates.
Carter has largely pre-empted the traditional Republican economic agenda in the last two years, leaving to Anderson the liberal role as the candidate with a program for every problem.
When it comes to business and budgets, Jimmy Carter, the president, is still Jimmy Carter, the peanut grower -- a small-business person, with all the conservative economic instincts that have made his caste the backbone of the GOP.
Republicans are for balancing the budget, and Carter has come as close as any Republican recently.
Republicans fight inflation with tight money, and Carter's Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker has twisted the screws with such torque that now even the president is complaining.
Republicans are against government regulation, and Carter has unfettered the airlines, the banks, the broadcasting and communications industries and most energy prices.
So where does that leave Reagan? On the deregulation issue, Reagan has come out for ending what's left of controls on energy prices but has earned the endorsement of the Teamsters union and the trucking industry by opposing deregulation of motor freight.
To distinguish himself from the incumbent on economic issues, the GOP standard-bearer is stuck with the gold standard, the Laffer curve and the tax cut.
Reagan's tax-cut proposal has turned out to be the good news/bad news joke of his 1980 campaign.
The good news (for Reagan) is that since he first pledged a tax cut in July, Carter and Congress have accepted the basic idea, and a tax cut is now certain.
The bad news is that, because the Democrats embraced the issue, Reagan isn't getting nearly as much mileage out of cutting taxes as he expected.
Reagan had the right idea when he sensed the public's yearning for relief from burdensome taxes; but inflation concerns have ended up taking precedence this year, and voters fear a tax cut could aggravate that problem. It also was a far-right idea to tie the cuts to economist Arthur Laffer's illusive curve. If Laffer's theory is correct, Reagan's 10-percent-a-year cut in income taxes would be so good for the economy that total tax revenues actually would increase.
Republican congressional candidates didn't have much success in 1978 running on the Laffer-inspired Kemp-Roth tax-cut plan, and Reagan is having trouble using Laffer's argument to justify his tax-reduction plan instead of Carter's.
Strategically, Reagan's tax-cut timing didn't help either. By proclaiming his intent early on, the Republican gave the Democrats plenty of time to cut their own plan and tailor it to suit the electorate.
Portraying Reagan's flat 10 percent across-the-board reduction as flakey populist pie-in-the-sky meant only to buy votes, Carter offered a little less money back and a little more justification.
Acting again like a traditional Republican, Carter proposed to make most of his cuts where they would stimulate investment and savings. Once upon a time, Democrats would have denounced such a strategy and demanded a more egalitarian sharing of the wealth.
Reagan is not in a position to accuse Carter of selling out to business and instead has found his own proposal the target of attacks. "My tax cut is good because it will increase productivity," Carter could proclaim. "Your tax cut is bad because it will increase inflation."
Unable to explain how he could cut taxes as much as promised and still balance the budget, Reagan has had to soften his commitment. Once he talked of cutting taxes by 10 percent a year for the next three years; now he promises only the first year's reduction but insists he still believes in the second- and third-year cuts.
Insinuating -- as he has on other issues -- that Reagan doesn't know what he's talking about and can't be trusted to run the country, Carter has put his opponent on the defensive on economic policy.
He has done so despite a September Gallup poll showing that 44 percent of eligible voters think Reagan could run the economy best, compared with 29 percent who'd rather trust the job to Carter.
Too busy defending his own position to go on the attack, Reagan has so far been unable to force Carter to run on his record for the economy.
By usual standards, it's a tough record to run on.
Unemployment is at 7.5 percent, only a fraction below the 7.8 percent that Carter denounced when he was running for office.
Inflation has jumped from the 5-percent-a-year rate that Carter called "intolerable" under Jerry Ford to a 12 percent annual rate in the first eight months of this year.
At 14 percent, the prime interest rate today is higher than it ever was under any president before Carter.
Yet Carter's backers argue that things could be worse. The prime has come way down from its 20 percent peak in April. The consumer price index still is climbing at a 12.1 percent annual rate but is way down from the 18-percent-a-year rate of earlier this year. And unemployment is not nearly so high as economists feared it might go, thanks in part to the creation of a record 8.5 million new jobs during the Carter administration.
Compared with the rest of the world, the United States' economic numbers themselves are not nearly as bad as those of many other nations, and there is more to assessing the economy than just reading the fever charts.
The consumer price index overstates the impact of inflation, the White House contends.
The unemployment picture also is deceptive. The jobless rate runs up toward 20 percent in the OPEC-battered Michigan motor cities and is just as bad in the interest-decimated home building business. But in parts of the country, the jobless rate is no worse than the 4 percent in the Washington metropolitan area, just what Carter promised.
There is still political ammunition in the unemployment rates of places like the District of Columbia, but such ammunition would serve only in the weapons of a war that none of the candidates is fighting.
Nobody is declaring war on poverty in this campaign. Neither Carter nor Reagan nor Anderson is promising to find jobs for the black youths of 14th Street.
The unemployed steel workers of Youngstown and the lost legions of the shoemakers and shipbuilders are getting only a little more attention, despite all the rhetoric about "reindustrialization."
On that subject, the voters get a glimpse of one of the major economic policy issues of the decade ahead, but the candidates refuse to look it in the face.
The Republicans and Democrats fundamentally disagree on the role the government should play in aiding and protecting the nation's industries and workers from low-priced imports, high-priced energy, ballooning domestic costs and shrinking world markets.
Carter's plan is the closest thing to a traditional liberal program he has offered in the economic arena, though it is not much more ambitious than Anderson's agenda of tax incentives, research and development aid and government-industry-labor cooperation.
Once adamently opposed to bailing out Chrysler Corp., Reagan now is only dubious about it. He needs the electoral votes of states like Ohio and Michigan too badly to take an ideological stand on the issue.
Ditto on energy. Despite significant differences among the candidates, none of the three has made it a big issue.
Reagan would go farther than Carter and take off all controls on energy prices. "Supply-side economics" teaches Reagan that a free market would provide all the incentives needed to supply all the energy the nation can burn by tapping the oil of Alaska, the coal fields of Appalachia and the shale of the Rockies.
Reagan says there's no need for Carter's Synthetic Fuels Corporation, but no longer wants to tear it down as he would the Energy Department. He opposes Carter's "windfall profits" tax and says he will repeal it -- not now but sometime, after the budget is balanced. So much for that debate.
Nor have the candidates joined the issue of how to fight inflation. Reagan would like to blame it all on government spending, an answer too black-and-white to believe.Carter paints his anti-inflation strategy in such subtle shades of gray that it fades into obscurity, probably by design, given the success he's shown so far.
Neither the Democratic nor Republican platforms addresses the cyclical instabilities that have pushed mortgage interest rates onto a roller-coaster ride, thrown the stock market for a loop and made gambling on gold and silver look like a prudent investment.
The inflationary expectations that lead consumers to spend now rather than save for the future will have to be dealt with in some future presidential race, along with the persistent productivity lag that plagues U.S. industry, the role of the United States in the world economy and a host of other economic questions that are not being answered this year.