You shift uneasily on the thin paper that covers the examining table, staring down self-consciously at your bloated belly. The doctor is giving you a lecture about your weight.

If you don't lose pounds soon, he says, you will seriously endanger your health. Then he begins to list the possible consequences — heart disease, diabetes, cancer and the wear and tear on joints that could result in hip or knee replacements.

When he finishes at long last, he leaves the room for a moment, then returns with a prescription and a bag.

"I want to put you on a diet of rich, fatty foods and desserts," he says. "You're to take as many of these as you possibly can each day. I have some samples to get you started." He hands you the bag, which you now recognize is from a nearby fast-food restaurant.

Welcome to the surreal world of government solutions to a slowing economy.

Two years ago, for the first time since the worst year of the Depression, Americans had a negative savings rate. That is, they spent everything they earned, plus about 1 percent. At the time, The Associated Press quoted a Pew Research Center survey that said the people who have the most trouble saving are the young and the poor. "Some 42 percent of people 18 to 49 said they are likely to spend more than they can afford. Among those with household incomes below $30,000, some 45 percent said the same."

These are the people carrying the weight of debt around their middles — the ones who need help to gain financial health.

But now Congress and the president have agreed that the best way to jolt the nation's economy out of the doldrums is to provide taxpayers with rebate checks. These aren't targeted at just any taxpayers, mind you. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said it is vital that the rebates get into the hands of poor people and the middle class. One assumes young workers would qualify, as well. The trick, he told the House Budget Committee, is "putting money into the hands of households and firms that would spend it in the near term."

Think of it as a needle exchange program for those who carry credit cards like syringes, ducking into malls periodically for a quick fix. Many of these quick spenders are the ones who maxed out their credit cards, then borrowed against their homes — the millions who never pay off their consumer debt but who budget, if at all, based on making minimum monthly payments.

They are the bloated ones with the financial equivalent of high blood pressure and indigestion, and their government is about to hand them a bacon cheeseburger. Not only that, they will be told to eat it quickly for the good of us all.

My question is, once they hit the mall for this quick fix, where will the next one come from? And once the economy feels the relief of a short-term jolt, what will it do next? If this is a long-term economic slowdown, $100 billion worth of electronics and fashion accessories won't fix the problem any more than a cheeseburger would keep you from getting hungry again tomorrow.

And it certainly won't help anyone gain financial discipline.

On its Web site, the Consumer Credit Counseling Service has some advice for people getting those rebates. Congress and the president won't like to hear it. Simply put: Pay down debt, catch up with past-due payments, build up an emergency fund, use it to pad retirement accounts, invest in a good mutual fund, repair your home or car, make your house energy efficient, make an extra payment on your mortgage, put it toward a down payment for a house — or save it for something specific, such as a vacation, Christmas or a college education. Once you've done all that, take yourself to dinner.


Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret Morning News editorial page. E-mail: [email protected]