Step right up to bizarre, ladies and gentlemen: Before this year gets any weirder, it's time to hand out the Midyear Rukeyser Economic Awards for 1991.
ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR - Madonna. At a time when American ingenuity seemed clouded by foreign competition, she reinvented herself more rapidly than Detroit used to change tail-fin styles. In the art of "telling it like it is," she made Howard Cosell look like Cas-par Milquetoast. Her skill at advertising and promotion was unparalleled. She's a better singer than Lee Iacocca. And she clearly has no peer at stripping down to essentials.THE "GOSH, MY DADDY TOLD ME ABOUT THESE" AWARD - To the U.S. recession, which finally arrived officially after a record peacetime recovery stretching nearly eight years. While tough times were nothing new to the nation's poor - a category that lately had expanded to include automakers and real-estate developers - an actual recession was a new experience to millions who entered the work force in the booming 1980s. You mean things don't go up forever? It must be Ronald Reagan's fault.
WORST PREDICTOR OF THE YEAR - Saddam Hussein. He forecast "the mother of all battles," and produced the grandson of all retreats. He forecast "Arab unity," and produced only the embarrassed pygmies, Yasser Arafat and King Hussein. He forecast a Western economy-destroying surge in the oil price, and produced a world oversupply. If they ever get smart and throw him out in Baghdad, this guy could clearly find work in technical market analysis.
THE "IT'S GOT TO BE AROUND HERE SOMEWHERE" AWARD - To President Bush's economic program. Originally, it seemed evident enough; he was going to restrain the growth of government spending (sorry about that) and make sure that existing excessive federal spending was not validated by any new taxes (well, nobody's perfect). Now, other than a less-than-earthshaking plan to give bankers more freedom, and a rally-to-the-barricades cry in opposition to racial quotas, the Bush economic program seems to consist primarily of "we're doing all right in the polls, aren't we?" Besides, Congress hasn't had a decent new idea in years, so why worry? Kuwait is a lot juicier subject than economic growth, anyhow.
THE FABULOUS INVALID AWARD - To the stock market. Counted out a decade ago by best-selling gloomsters, counted out four years ago by wave and cycle theorists, counted out nine months ago by portentous economists, a market that had more than quadrupled in the past decade went on to even higher records in 1991 - suggesting that, once again, the end of the world will be a little late this year. Will stocks ever falter again? Positively. When they do, will hysteria reign and learned pundits announce that this time the market's really finished for good? It's a sure thing.
WORST IDEA OF THE YEAR - Twenty-four-hour stock trading. Can't anybody shut those computers off and let us get some sleep?
GOLDEN OLDIE OF THE YEAR - Eleven and a half years after gold was selling at more than twice its present price (even before you adjust for inflation), the unreconstructed "hard money" crowd is yet again spinning its favorite platter this summer: "Gold is about to launch a major bull market. This is a recording." (And if 1979 ever comes back . . .)
MOST IMPROBABLE INVESTMENT PROMOTERS OF THE YEAR - Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, rivals at home but united in soliciting Yankee dollars to bail out the anti-capitalist debacle in the world's biggest country. Still reluctant to go all the way in admitting the errors of their previous ways, they nonetheless have thrown the final shovelfuls of dirt on the ideological grave of Karl Marx.
CONGRESSIONAL NIGHTMARE OF THE YEAR - The growing public support for constitutional limitations on legislators' terms, as the most effective way to move America from status quo to dynamism in the 21st century. (One national poll found a stunning 83 percent of those surveyed said they would support a law limiting members of Congress to no more than 12 years in office.) Rotation in office? Why, golly, that's got to be downright un-American, doesn't it?