It’s beginning to look like we’re caught in an unfolding nightmare. And what’s making it worse is that no one seems to know how far into it we are, how long it’s going to last and how battered we’re going to be in the course of it.

I’m referring, of course, to our economy, which has seemingly hurtled in its descent like some mad downhill racer.

First, when the subprime bubble burst, the consensus was that this was containable and wouldn’t affect much more than that particular sector. Wrong.

As major banks and investment banks started taking massive hits due to their exposure, a couple of things became clear. One is that they had no idea what they had gotten into and, second, no one had any idea of how deep and far-reaching were the tentacles of this debacle.

Soon credit started drying up. Hedge funds (those marvelously unregulated safeguarders of our financial system) started going belly up, and nations like Dubai and Singapore started owning stakes in American icons like Citigroup and Merrill Lynch. But that’s the extent of it, the economists said. Wrong.

Now it’s not only the subprime market that has disintegrated, but also creditworthy mortgage owners are going into foreclosure at an accelerating pace. Good risks are more and more at risk.

But even so, the economists said, the tanking housing market is controllable and won’t spin the economy into recession. Wrong.

But even if we go into a recession, the economists said, it’s likely to be short and not terribly severe. Wrong.

Not only are we likely in a recession (your guess is as good as mine, but probably also as good as Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s) but now whispers of something that’s even more dreaded than recession are starting to be murmured. In a word, stagflation.

If recessions were given names like hurricanes, guess what this one’s name is likely to be. Hint: It starts with a ‘K,’ has 7 letters and ends with an ‘a.’

Where, oh where, is Brownie when you need someone who will do a heckuva job, the kind of job that makes a president proud?

Hardly any president in recent memory has been more pilloried than Jimmy Carter, who presided over the economy the last time that stagflation hit. Many readers will remember how devastating the late 70s were, with inflation spiraling out of control and an economy so sluggish it hardly moved.

Connoisseurs of irony will no doubt find delicious the prospect of our first MBA president presiding over the recrudescence of stagflation. But I’m sure that someone will be cited nonetheless for doing a heckuva job.

Inflation has shown signs of starting to catch fire in a way it hasn’t for years. What has always mystified me when the inflation rate is figured by the government is that food prices and energy prices are excluded from the calculation. Hmmm … I don’t know about you, but besides my mortgage the expenses that figure largest in my family’s budget are food and energy costs. And one thing I do know for sure is that these two items are going up faster than most other measures, including that not-so-incidental one called salary.

In any case, this would seem like a good time for a business built on guarantees, one like the life insurance business. In the midst of a stomach-churning scenario people want something sure and solid to hold onto. Time for marketers to dust off that message.

There’s no doubt that we’re in for a rocky ride. The fact that no one knows how rocky it’s going to be may make you want to pull the covers over your head and hope that we’re not time-traveling back to the 70s.