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Perhaps a bit too stimulated

The government should not be in charge of the economy. The government is super-insecure and desperate to be liked, as anyone would be if his or her popularity got put to a public vote every few years. So when the government senses you might blame it for something -- such as the fact that you spent $1 million on a three-bedroom house, and now you owe a ridiculous $1 million for a lousy three-bedroom house -- it panics like a grandparent and sends you a small check in the mail. It calls this “fiscal stimulus”; my grandma called it, oddly, “gambling money.” Same idea. They both want a kiss.

No reasonable person would give us more money after what we’ve done with ours. They would tell us to put some cash in the bank and stop using the AmEx to make every appliance in our house either flat or made of stainless steel, as if we were preparing to trap “Superman II” villains. Instead, Democrats and Republicans -- in an election year when they disagree on everything -- have magically agreed on a “stimulus package,” which sounds like something available at a sketchy massage parlor.

You know this whole idea is a scam just by the fact that the government -- which could just scale back what it withholds from our paychecks for a few weeks -- is making such a big show of putting checks in the mail. I wouldn’t be surprised if they send Ed McMahon to our doors with those giant checks. Nothing would make me save for retirement more than seeing Ed McMahon in person and realizing that no matter what you do to your body, you might live into your mid-80s.

But the government doesn’t want us to bank that money or use it to pay off debts. It believes we will go out and spend the money, and that will make our houses worth a lot again. The idea is this: Say, for instance, I got $600, and I spent it on strippers. Those strippers would then buy clothes at Bebe, and the person who owns Bebe would buy the crappy house I overpaid for and get me out of the financial predicament caused by unscrupulous mortgage lenders and not by my addiction to strip joints.

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This might soften the recession if Milton Friedman hadn’t proved 50 years ago that most people base spending decisions on long-term income projections. Only poor people immediately spend checks they get in the mail. And if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that poor people aren’t going to save the economy. Also, if I know anything about the workings of the federal government, the process of writing and sending a $600 check is going to cost about $600.

The worst part is that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is also in the government. And apparently the people he wants to be liked by own a lot of stocks. So he drastically lowered interest rates twice in the last two weeks so that borrowing money is cheap and people will keep using that borrowed money to buy things like, perhaps, stocks. All of this would make Ron Paul really mad, if Ron Paul got mad instead of just goofily exasperated.

Unless we find a new bubble to invest in -- and may I boldly suggest reams and reams of freshly printed newspaper -- we’re not going to spend our way out of this recession. We got here for the same reason people always get in trouble, from prom night to the blackjack table to Iraq: We got over-excited. We ignored centuries of data saying real estate is a worse investment than stocks, and instead based our investment strategy on the fact that our neighbor totally just sold his house for a serious ton of money, for real. If only someone had invented an easy way to access investment history charts from our computers, this might never have happened.

So as fun as that stripper check sounds, we’d be smart not to take it, and to tell Bernanke that he’s good-looking and funny and we’ll love him no matter what he does or doesn’t do with short-term interest rates. We need to prevent our government from going deeper into debt, thus further devaluing our currency and risking the foreign investments that help support us. So homeowners need to accept that they’re not moving into a bigger house in three years, stock owners have to learn that their portfolios are going down for a while, and large tech companies have to stop paying hundreds of millions for social networking sites that kids get sick of after a while.

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An empire that believes spending is a patriotic act is perilously close to its end. But at least we will have left future civilizations the invention of the 10-year interest-only adjustable-rate sub-prime mortgage.

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jstein@latimescolumnists.com


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