So "if those are the ornaments, what's the tree?"
That was what a woman asked after I enumerated for a group many of the superfluous elements of the supposed stimulus package passed by the House of Representatives and dissected in the Senate.
In the common political vernacular, these superfluous elements are called ornaments on a Christmas tree.
The metaphor is that a big government spending bill is a stately fir that lends itself to decoration by politicians unable to resist the temptation to oblige favored political constituencies and sentiment by hanging ornaments from every branch.
The House stimulus bill was a pretty thing indeed, laden with hundreds of millions of dollars -- nickels and dimes anymore -- for anti-smoking campaigns, alcohol and substance abuse programs, efforts to reduce sexually transmitted diseases, fix-ups at the Smithsonian and tax credits on film costs for Hollywood movie producers.
All worthy, perhaps. All either nobly intended or defensible payoffs to vital political supporters. And all politics as usual.
None was strictly a matter of a direct stimulus to the crisis-ridden American economy.
All were ripe for criticism from Republicans that rendered futile President Obama's new desire for bipartisanship.
So, again, to the question: Where's the tree? Where's the stimulus in the stimulus?
First, there will be some -- some -- in billions sent to state governments primarily to bail them out of budget troubles. The most direct stimulus would come in money to expand Medicaid, the state-federal partnership providing health insurance for the welfare poor and many of the working poor.
By offering new billions in Medicaid matching money, the stimulus bill will encourage states to devise ways to multiply the money to provide newly unemployed people with health care and inject new dollars into hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and community-based and home-based health care.
Second, there will be the purest form of stimulus in the $90 billion or more likely to be injected directly and in the short term for infrastructure projects that are called "shovel-ready," meaning set to go right away. When people get work they wouldn't otherwise get on building or widening or resurfacing a highway, that indeed qualifies as stimulus.
Those people get paychecks. Taxes come out of those paychecks. The money gets spent, then re-circulated. People get to work faster on better, wider roads.
Third, and this happens to be the Republicans' favorite, there will be money straight to your pocket. It will be in the form of personal tax cuts, likely to kick in by June, probably $500 for an individual taxpayer making less than $75,000 and $1,000 for couples with household incomes of less than $150,000.
These won't be stimulus checks this time, at least by the latest thinking. They'll be a few extra dollars every pay period. The idea is that we'll grow economically if we all put another $40 or so into play each month.
Beyond that, all kinds of targeted tax credits are being bandied about, designed to stimulate you to spend money that you wouldn't spend otherwise -- and do so strategically, even wisely.
One idea is to let you write off the state sales taxes and interest payments on a new car you would buy this calendar year. Another would let you write off some of the costs of adding insulation to your home or putting in new energy-efficient windows, water heaters and air conditioners.
So, yes, there's actually a fine tree available here for our beholding. All we need is to be a bit more understated -- minimalist, in fact -- in our decorations.
John Brummett, an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock, is author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.