No one asked, but I’ve got a suggestion for that stimulus package

By JAYSON JACOBY, Baker City Herald January 16, 2009 04:26 pm

The federal government is getting ready to write another 12-digit check, ostensibly to benefit the taxpayers. Which is to say you and me, who will of course subsidize this endeavor whether we brand it as brilliance or folly. If I were a shopkeeper I’m not sure I’d accept this as legal tender, though, even if the feds can produce two pieces of ID.

So far as I can tell the account lacks overdraft protection. It certainly hasn’t any taxpayer protection, and yet I’m certain the creditors, in a pinch, will be able to acquire our addresses as readily as the IRS can.

I suppose I ought to feel thankful that the people we elected have decided it’s time to return to us, in some fashion, a portion of the money they’ve taken. But I can’t muster much gratitude.

It seems to me that the government might have spared itself, and us, quite a lot of trouble if it had just let us keep more of our money to start with. I don’t believe, at any rate, that the dollars I earned have gained anything since the government enticed them to run off on me.

We at least would have tossed most of that currency into the stream of commerce, which deposits its valuable flotsam on countless privately owned beaches as it flows along toward the vast sump that is the federal Treasury.

Washington, D.C., was built atop a swamp, after all.

The government, of course, has proved time and again that, when quantity is the only measure, it can sling money around with the best of them. Except I cling to the notion that accuracy matters, too, and the politicians who play quarterback with our wealth, it seems to me, are as apt to hit a blitzing linebacker between the numbers as a tight end.

(The politicians can’t tackle, either, so the return, like as not, is going all the way to the end zone.)

President-elect Obama and his supporters insist, as President Bush and his backers did late last summer, that these stimulus plans are necessary to rescue the economy.

They might well be right. But the figures they lay out in their speeches are so vast that when I hear them I invariably think not of dollar bills but of considerably smaller items. Amoeba, for instance.

I can comprehend a gathering of 800 billion single-celled organisms, mainly because I’ve never seen one alone, and it’s always easier to imagine something you’ve not actually seen.

But I struggle with the notion of 800 billion dollars because I can open my wallet and see 10 bucks tucked between the leather folds, and the scale of extrapolation necessary to get from there to the sums the politicians debate with such glibness frankly makes me queasy.

(Fortunately I needn’t consider such equations often, as I rarely have 10 bucks in my wallet. This leaves plenty of stretching out room for the lint.)

The politicians seem intent on persuading the public that each of us is a soldier in this battle against recession. They imply that we all have an equal stake in the outcome of this fight, whether we own a thick slice of America’s economic pie, or feel fortunate to claim on occasion a crumb of its crust.

I hate to disappoint our representatives, but I’ve been casting a pretty wide net, reading and listening, and I see little evidence that the sort of camaraderie which they cite is common.

I’ll wager that a solid majority of Americans feel their government has no real interest in their opinions on the economy, and would in fact prefer they kept quiet, showed a little gratitude and grabbed onto the floating rescue ring the government has heaved into the stormy sea.

I feel that way myself.

No one in power has ever asked me whether I wanted to surrender so large a percentage of my earnings, or would I like to hold back a bit more so I can buy one of those 42-inch plasma TVs.

I don’t expect anyone from Washington will seek my counsel on the most direct and safest path out of our current mess, either.

I’m not easily offended, though.

Also, I’m neither ashamed to have opinions, nor reluctant to offer them.

And so, here’s what I’d like Obama and Congress to do: Give the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest some money.

I don’t want to come across as greedy, so let’s say half a million dollars.

This shouldn’t pose a problem. I won’t attempt the calculations because decimals and percentages confuse me, but I’m pretty sure that $500,000, out of the whole stimulus package, is roughly equivalent to a pauper’s pocket change.

Here’s what I want the Wallowa-Whitman to do with the money: Hire people to fix every hiking trail in the Elkhorn Mountains.

There’s only about 100 miles, so half a million ought to be plenty.

Also, this is one of those “shovel-ready” projects the politicians prattle on about — although for most trail work an adze hoe or other flat-bladed implement is a more useful tool than a shovel.

I’m not talking about rebuilding the trails, either.

What I mean is taking care of what we’ve already paid to build — physically taxing but otherwise simple work such as cutting the windfalls, cleaning out the waterbars, and rolling off the path any loose rocks bigger than, say, a cantaloupe.

High school or college students could handle most of these tasks. The Wallowa-Whitman probably would need to hire an experienced contractor to refurbish certain trails, such as the Elkhorn Crest between Marble Pass and Cracker Saddle.

The whole project could be done this year, even accounting for lingering snowdrifts and the brief alpine summer.

My plan probably wouldn’t create any long-term jobs, so I doubt President Obama will think much of it. I sympathize with him — his first year in office will be tumultuous, but if he can staunch the hemorrhaging economy he will at least earn some political capital.

And approval ratings that don’t read like a Baker County cold snap.

But another thing about the president is he has two daughters, as I do, and I’ll bet he’s had to lug them around on his back.

I’m hoping he’ll understand, then, how a pleasant hike in the woods can become a grueling ordeal when you have to clamber over a dozen logs and carefully cross a precipitous, washed out gully with a toddler, who likes to shift her weight without warning, strapped into your backpack.

My youngest, Olivia, turns two on June 1, which happens to be about when the prime hiking season starts in the Elkhorns.

And as I’m sure the president can attest, she’s not getting any lighter.

Or less wiggly.

So whatever you can do about those trails, sir, well at least one dad would sure appreciate some smooth trails come summer.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.