There are professions that are too hazardous for a loving parent to contemplate for a child, and economist stands at the top of our list, right beside guide to Mt. Everest and New York City bomb-disposal expert. We would not bring up our boy to be an economist, even if he could teach us how to balance our checkbook.
Actually, balancing a checkbook has nothing to do with it. Milton Friedman explained that the other day on "Meet the Press."
"Arithmetic is one thing, economics is another," Friedman declared.
He was smiling as he spoke - that tight little, please-don't-kill-the-messenger smile economists are wearing these days while they break the bad news to us.
"We are not goint to be able to avoid a recession" - there! Friedman just came out and said it.
And we mustn't forget the second half of the bulletin: "Inflation will get to over 10 percent next year." Even Friedman couldn't smile when he pronounced those words.
Hard, hard times for the Adam Smiths! The wise economist will head for the South Pacific with all due speed and advise the remoter natives on balancing payments in the coconut trade until this whole, well, readjustment blows over.
The economist, more brave than wise, who sticks around and hopes to survive his prophecies must make it very clear what exactly an economists is. An economist is the third man at the scene of a fender-bender - the fellow who comes out of his house and says: "I told them they needed a stop sign there, and maybe a flashing yellow light on the other corner. I told them."
Or, as Friedman put it, "We have followed very bad policies," leaving the air ringing with the economist's favorite unspoken words: They never listen to me.
Like all tribal witch doctors in time of drought, the economist must dance a very narrow line. In claiming his innocence of the catastrophe, he cannot go too far and imply his impotence. He may say, as Friedman did on this occasion, "I have no magic formula." But if he wants to continue collecting his consultant's fees, he must come up with something that sort of looks like The Answer.
The public can tell when a solution is about to be announced because the economist will assume an expression that says: "This is going to hurt a little." Also, he will suddenly start using the pronoun "we," as in "we all" - as in, "We all are going to have to pay a price."
A very brave economist may venture a little humor at this point. Friedman, pluckily showing his own teeth, dared to observe: "There isn't a tooth fairy that's going to pick up the bill, you know." After a tense moment somebody laughed - just barely. We have a feeling that, if inflation had risen one more percent, Friedman would have been a goner.
Why do we have inflation? Why will we have recession? Some rude person is bound to ask. The economist who has not fled by now to the Fijis will desperately need a fall guy. Apart from pointing to other economists - which is considered bad form and can backfire - the economist has three ready-made villains: Big Business, Big Labor, Big Government.
A lot of people have gone arm-weary, beating up on the oil companies. Too many citizens belong to one union or another. We and Friedman recommend that economists, for the moment, waggle their best accusing finger at the government - in Friedman's phrase, "the major source of instability."
Sooner or later a troublemaker, failing to understand that prosperity is as boring to an economist as fair weather to a meteorologist, will say: "That's some grim picture you're painting for us."
Again Friedman has the answer for economists who want to survive the angry mobs. "I believe it's a very cheerful picture," he countered, "in the long run."
"In the long run . . . " - has an economist ever known a better friend than that phrase?
Walt Whitman Rostow in his new book, "The World Economy: History and Prospect," takes the "long-run" view - past inflation, past recession.
We are, Rostow thinks, at the beginning of a long-term growth cycle called "the fifth Kondraieff upswing." "The necessary alterations in the pattern of investment," Rostow expects, "will not occur without conscious government policy." And who will write that policy? You guessed it.
Some day, half a Kondraieff upswing from now, if that lad with the abacus is still hanging around the house, doing nothing, then you might say you know, casually: "Have you ever thought of being an economist?"