Fiscal Stimulation for the Imagination

At the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, paper and ink are transformed into buying power.
At the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, paper and ink are transformed into buying power. (By Mark Wilson -- Getty Images)
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By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, August 19, 2009

I recently visited the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing to watch money being made. Call it a cheap thrill while waiting for some real economic stimulation.

"We print between 700 and 750 million dollars a day," said P.J., a tour guide. At that rate, it would take less than five minutes to stimulate my bank account, boost my consumer confidence and get me spending again.

Ooo la la.

Through windows along the tour route, I saw sheets of $100 bills coming out of a 52-foot-long, 12-foot-high monster of a printing press. It was the mother of all cash cows: nursing the Federal Reserve, feeding the big banks, sustaining a global network of ATMs that suckles 24-7.

A sign in the press room read: "We make money the old fashion way. We print it."

Shake that moneymaker, baby.

A stack of bills worth $32 million, shrink-wrapped and resembling loaves of bread, sat on a skid in a corner. I was mesmerized, "like a one-eyed cat peeping at a seafood store," to borrow a line from songwriter Jesse Stone's 1950s hit, "Shake, Rattle and Roll."

Pathetic. Scintillating.

Did you know that banknote paper is 75 percent cotton and 25 percent linen? Fabric pressed into paper, dyed green and called a dollar -- amassed in sufficient quantities -- can end poverty, cure disease, pay mortgages, car notes, school tuition.

It takes about 4 cents to make a dollar.

The bureau, located on 27 acres just off the Mall in Washington, printed the extra currency needed as a result of President Obama's $787 billion stimulus package. So why is so much of it stuck in bank vaults and languishing on skids instead of stimulating my wallet?

Alan S. Blinder, a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board and professor of economics at Princeton, wrote in The Washington Post last week: "The simple truth is that even the voracious U.S. government cannot spend $787 billion quickly."

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