Economic stimulus by the government can take many forms.

Economic stimulus by the government can take many forms.

There are the thousand and one subsidies and tax breaks meant to create jobs and foster new industries, although more often than not those end up padding the bottom lines of existing industries that are better at competing for the ear of Congress than at competing in the marketplace.

On a grander scale, we’ve seen the 2009-10 federal stimulus plan – with more tax breaks – which did some good for roads and bridges and arguably kept the country from sliding back into recession or even worse, a spiral of deflation. But Congress has no stomach for any more of it.

So maybe the Federal Reserve could lower interest rates, right? Not when rates are already at rock bottom. The Fed instead jumped into “quantitative easing,” buying up $600 billion of U.S. bonds. To the great disappointment of the stock market, the Fed is keeping its word and ending that program this month. It’s kind of like those bulging reservoirs upstream on the Missouri River. The Fed can only add so much to its balance sheet before things get dicey and even unmanageable.

But the economy is clearly in another soft patch, and really the opposite of government stimulus is going on when you consider how many state and local government jobs are now being cut month after month. Taking away a paycheck ripples destructively across a community.

With Congress and the Fed on the sidelines, what’s left?

This week, we got a new twist. Citing the drop in oil production in strife-torn Libya, the U.S. and other governments say they are dipping into their petroleum reserves, putting tens of millions of barrels on the market in the coming weeks. Analysts at J.P. Morgan say that means oil will sell for about $100 a barrel in the third quarter, rather than a previously projected $130. Goldman Sachs puts it a little higher.

Still, that works a lot like tax cut for consumers. American drivers might grouse about the price of gas, but they won’t reduce their driving more than marginally even when prices are high. Those prices have been drifting down for weeks, but they are still about 85 cents a gallon higher than they were a year ago. This week’s moves are expected to send gas prices down even more this summer.

Economists talk about the “wealth effect.” In one example, if the value of your home rises noticeably year after year, you feel wealthier and are actually inclined to spend more (which is part of how we got into this mess). There’s not much of a home-related wealth effect going on right now. Will filling up the family jalopy for $5 less than it cost last week be enough to lift the mood? We’ll see.