The meanest thing about inflation is that it is making so many haves and have nots. How does one distinguish between a have and a have not? It's done by a federal bureau in Washington, which sends you a registered letter when your standard of living falls below that of everyone else around you. If you are officially designated a have not you are eligible for all sorts of government benefits, though your credit rating in the private sector is marked "deadbeat."

I went to the Bureau of Haves and and Have Nots to talk to an official who was keeping score.

He was at his desk, with a large stack of files, stamping have or have not on the top of each folder.

"This must be tough work. It can't be much fun making a have into a have not."

"I don't make them into have nots. Inflation does that. For example, look at this file. This family makes $18,000 a year; they have a small house and a car. A few years ago there was no question that they belonged to the haves in this country. But now they must be considered part of the have nots. They're just not making it any more."

"But why?" I asked.

"They're living over their heads to keep up with the Joneses. The ironic part of it is that the Joneses are living over their heads to keep ahead of these people, and therefore we had to put the Joneses in the have not pile as well."

"The Joneses are also have nots?" I said, shocked.

"That is correct. When you get into double-digit inflation you'd be surprised how fast haves become have nots.

"This fellow here had all his money invested in the stock market. In one month he became a have not - and so, by the way, did his broker."

"How long has your bureau been in existence?"

"It started during the Roosevelt era when a majority of the people were have nots, and the haves could be counted on your fingers. Then World War II came, and the have nots were determined to come back from the armed forces and become haves. They did, by going to school and working their tails off. Many moved to the suburbs where they thought they had found the American dream. But although they were haves in other people's eyes, in their hearts they were have nots, because they were always afraid someone would take everything they had away from them.

"The post-World War II haves decided that because they were originally have nots, their children would lack nothing. So the kids were raised as first generation haves, and didn't know what it was like to do without. It ruined a lot of them, and I've heard many have parents say that if they had to do it all over again they would raise their children as have nots."

"Apparently, from your have not pile of folders many of them will soon have the opportunity."

The official said, "The problem is that a lot of haves could remain haves if they just weren't so worried about what other haves think about how they live."

"Do you find many have nots becoming haves?"

"All the time. I would say more than 50 percent of the children of have nots in this country eventually wind up as haves."

"What do you do with all the folders after you mark them?"

"We tally them and send the figures out to every politician in the country. At the moment the pols are still aiming all their rhetoric at the haves - but if inflation keeps making many more have nots, you'll be surprised how fast the politicians change their tune."