For years, economists, labor leaders and businessmen told us that a little bit of inflation is good for us.

They said our inflation rate of 4 to 7 percent was being "balanced out" by productivity increases of 3 to 4 percent a year. Nobody worried about it.

We didn't become concerned until the rate of inflation began to escalate even as productivity declined.

Only then was inflation regarded as the country's biggest problem -- even more urgent than unemployment. Nothing is a quick to revive interest in that old-time economic religion as double-digit inflation.

Politicians who wanted to project an image of statesmanship and responsibility told us it was belt-tightening time. We would have to drive up interest rates, impose stricter credit terms, cut government spending at all levels, buy less from abroad and keep taxes high to cool off the pace of business activity.

To bring prices down, we were willing to let the number of jobless go up.

Curiously, the immediate result was the opposite of what the government wanted. As interest rates and inflation soared, people bought more, not less. They knew prices would be higher tomorrow. Business boomed. There was no slowdown.

When the downturn was a year overdue, something that looked like an abandoned puppy arrived on our doorstep. It was a whimpering little thing that sometimes answered to the name "Recession" but wagged its tail to show that it meant us no harm.

Then we reached out to pet it, and it snapped at us.

And for the first time we realized that the beast had a mean streak in it. Jobs were evaporating, people were signing up for unemployment benefits, times were hard.

As in all times of stress, we looked to our politicians and our government for leadership. And both responded predictably. The agreement on a balanced budget that was put together after months of hard work came apart in a twinkling as Congress, the administration and both political parties broke into a wild race to see which could be first to offer the biggest tax reductions. Inflation was forgotten. There was an election ahead, and priorities were suddenly turned upside down.

Meanwhile spending kept going up. "Led by some of its most illustrious economizers," the Senate restored $572 million for revenue sharing that had been previously voted down, then turned its attention to adding $7 billion more for the Pentagon, plus miscellaneous sums for other projects.

In May, we bought $4 million more from abroad than we exported. Part of the increase was for more foreign cars. Oil imports rose to $7 million.

The old-time economic religion was suddenly passe. With the inflation graph having shown only the tiniest of downward squiggles, our politicians suddenly lost interest in inflation and went racing off hell-bent for election. s

So the outlook now is for an unbalanced budget, for lower taxes that are not really lower (as page 1 explained yesterday), and for continuing stagflation because we stopped taking the inflation medicine too soon.

As if to emphasize how little things change in good times or bad, government contractors continue to lavish money on the public servants who spend our tax dollars. The ink was hardly dry on the last of the series of articles that Washington Post staff writers Ted Gup and Jonathan Neumann wrote about these abuses than Columbia Research Corp., a firm that holds several million dollars worth of Navy contracts, gave a big party.

CRC has its offices in the same building that houses the Naval Sea Systems Command. It is headed by a retired vice admiral who used to run Navsea.

Adm. H. G. Rickover put out a memo urging Navy personnel not to attend the party. The purpose of the party, he wrote, "is to gain favor with customers responsible for spending government money . . . (It is) intended to influence Navy officials to award business to them." Gup and Neumann report, "The consulting firm ignored him, saying the party was just business as usual."

Joe Theismann and other Redskins were paid to attend the party and sign autographs. The Redskinettes were hired to stand outside and invite people in for free champagne.

The cost of all this will be recovered, of course, from the government contracts that result from it.

So it's business as usual as the nation tries to figure out how to create an inflation-fighting recession that will not cause anybody to lose his job, tighten his belt, change his way of lifeor curtail his spending. Between now and election day, politicians will be telling us that they have found the magic formula for accomplishing this.

Campaign promises are inspiring and the oatory is stirring. It's a great show. But if you know what's good for you, you'll pin your wallet to your undershirt. Otherwise somebody is sure to lift it while you're busy applauding.