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Published: 1/29/2008

Stimulus plan could help align priorities

As you drive around this city of ours, it's not hard to spot people in need.

Often when I see such evidence of America's economic woes, I think of a grimly funny cartoon from several years ago that depicts a ragged, emaciated man crawling across the desert begging for water. A politician (George W. perhaps?) points to the unfortunate individual and says: "Give that man a tax cut."

Even as the House debated the $150 billion stimulus bill last week, motorists could easily spot a man holding a "will work for food" sign next to a freeway exit ramp. "Give that man a tax cut," I thought."

A woman on Monroe Street held a cardboard sign saying: "Sleeping in car." Naturally my first thought was: "Give that woman a tax cut."

Just about any neighborhood had lots of "for sale" signs in front of homes, including many that represent a last-ditch effort to avoid foreclosure.

Driving through some of those neighborhoods, I thought: "Give these people tax cuts."

Of course there's nothing funny about difficult times, but that cartoon image won't go away.

In recent weeks, many a tax-cut enthusiast has debated other congressmen who preferred to funnel money through low-income families. Conservatives wanted the stimulus package aimed toward taxpayers, while liberals wanted to include people in the bottom rung of the economy who don't pay taxes.

So far, even before the Senate injects its own agenda, the stimulus bill is a textbook example of a Washington compromise - giving some bragging rights to the "trickle-down" conservatives and some to the "tax-and-spend" liberals. For the moderate lawmakers in between there's a need to throw a bone to the electorate.

It may be a case of too little, too late. It may be impossible to forestall a recession. And, even if the stimulus helps, it won't help quickly, because the first checks would go out in the late spring.

It's also likely that much of the stimulus money will go to people who don't need much help - such as those who want to buy half-million-dollar houses that might now be financed by FHA, and business owners wanting generous depreciation rules.

Meanwhile, there's not a lot for some who need help now, including the unemployed and homeowners facing imminent foreclosure.

Perhaps worse, the economic jolt might come too late, when a recovery is well under way. That could create a glut of consumer dollars, increasing inflationary pressure and making the Fed's job even more difficult.

And, in any case, we are still left with a great need to solve the problems that are hurting us - rapidly rising energy and raw-materials prices, spiraling medical costs, and job losses because of cheap foreign labor. We desperately need long-range plans for energy and health care.

On top of that, we need to shore up our Social Security and Medicare systems before it's too late, and we need to find ways to make our financial-services industry less greedy and crooked. We also need to start fixing our antiquated bridges, water systems, and highways.

The stimulus package is far from perfect. But it's better than nothing. And it may generate some healthy debate about our national priorities.



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