LOS ANGELES -- Economists sure know how to party.

At the kickoff dinner of the

Milken Institute Global Conference

here at the Beverly Hilton last week, there were no complimentary umbrella-garnished mai tais from the in-house Trader Vic's, and no serenade from the hotel's owner, Merv Griffin.

The conference, hosted by the one-time junk bond king,

Michael Milken

, focused on all the travail throughout the world. From Japan to Russia and points in between, economists competed to trumpet the most doomful metaphor they could muster. Strangely, between the eccentric get-to-know-you games and the deep thinking about Tokyo and Moscow, the rambunctious U.S. stock market never became much of a focus. Figure a bunch of dismal scientists would ignore something so trivial as

Dow

10K.

Much of the conference offered an odd mixture of game show and monkish symposium. For one ice-breaker, attendees got an economics quiz on paper, and were encouraged to team up with tablemates to summon answers to questions like "How much has

Fortune

500 employment changed since 1970?" and to demonstrate their well-rounded educations: "In the original

Topps

baseball card, is

Mickey Mantle

holding a bat or a glove?" (Answers: down 3.6 million; a bat.)

As with many of such conferences, timing is everything. As the Nikkei showed signs of new life, conference attendees heard all about the woes of Japan, in addition to sorrowful tales involving the rest of Asia and Russia. Few forum participants endorsed anything even resembling a recovery. Instead, they seemed to be engaged in a metaphor face-off.

How about: The Japanese banking system is like a car stalled in the gas station: there may be plenty of gas in the underground tank, but if the pump's broken, you'll never get any fuel and, even if you do, the driver may be 75 or older anyway. (Courtesy of Ronald Hill, a partner and director of research at

Brown Brothers Harriman

.)

Or: The Asian economic freefall is over, but the countries have landed on ledges, at various distances from the ground. (Courtesy of Linda Tsao-Yang, managing director of the

Asian Development Bank

.)

Or: The Asian crisis is like the smoking aftermath of a jumbo jet wreck -- now things have cooled enough so that we can approach the debris. (Courtesy of Jeffrey Winters, professor at

Northwestern University

.)

From metaphor wars to celebrity watching (it is L.A., after all) --

Rupert Murdoch

showed up in time to catch part of the morning session from a front-row seat and then see Milken deliver a keynote address -- a long, slide-laden speech using new research data to build an economic case for increased spending on Milken's twin charitable obsessions, education and medical research. He apologized for his professorial tone and history lesson of a lecture, saying he'd "had a lot of time to think" lately. The speech, with its lofty vision of the value of human capital, was the most optimistic 90 minutes of the day's proceedings.

The discussion of Russia's woes waited until after dinner, as if conferees needed a few stiff drinks before they could handle the debate. "Russia has a sprawling bureaucracy that has no time to collect taxes, because from 8 a.m. until midnight, it's collecting bribes," said Stephen Kotkin, director of

Princeton University's

Russian Studies program. Discussing the corruption in the 1996 elections, Nixon Center President Dimitri Simes said "we really have to ask ourselves: what were we smoking?" Long on mordant wit and short on concrete policy recommendations, the panelists agreed that Russia, too, was a pretty bad place these days -- and was unlikely to improve any time soon.

Meantime, even as the Dow blithely teased toward 10,000, there was curiously little talk of any -- yoo hoo! over here! -- bubble problems at home, or what might happen when said bubble pops. Instead, panelists mostly talked fondly about the U.S. economy, as if it were the grandkid with straight A's, instead of the funny uncle that might turn a little, well,

unpredictable

, at any moment.

"Now I know why my friends in investment banking like to go skiing,"

Dresdner Bank's

Klaus Friedrich joked after seeing a graph of the U.S. stock market's recent performance. "They like to see things going down once in a while."