I'VE NEVER BEEN so proud to be an American as I have been during this financial crisis.

This year alone, we have managed to scrape together trillions of dollars in disaster relief for busted bankers and down-on-their-luck financial titans.

I didn't even know we had it like that.

So far, about $8.5 trillion has been set aside in various rainy-day funds for ailing financial institutions and industries.

That may or may not count $34 billion that the auto industry is seeking and undoubtedly will get by the time the Obama administration takes the tiller.

It may or may not count the $20 billion worth of Citibank preferred stock we just bought or the up-to-$249 billion we've set aside to absorb losses in Citibank's portfolio of troubled assets.

This is chump change. They can glean that from the $700 billion Congress set aside in October in its TARP - Troubled Asset Relief Program.

You won't find it all in the budget book. Most of what has been dumped into this slop trough comes from the Federal Reserve and from some government agencies that don't report directly to us.

More than $5 trillion in loans and loan guarantees are from the Federal Reserve, which is a private bank that pools bank resources for rainy days like this. The Federal Housing Administration and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. have committed up to $2 trillion for mortgage and bank bailouts as needed.

But more than $1.1 trillion would come right out of the federal treasury if all of the funds we set aside for bailout are eventually tapped.

We opened that tap on March 15, when the treasury made a $29 billion loan to J.P. Morgan to back its purchase of Bear Stearns Cos.

On July 30, President Bush signed a bill granting $300 billion in loan authority to back low-cost mortages. All of this and more was committed before the "bailout" bill was passed in October.

This is not to mention $85 billion to buy AIG Insurance. That's such a moving target, we won't know how much it will eventually cost for years.

The tally for all of this is running up faster than the burger count outside McDonald's.

But I hope we never try to stuff this genie back in the bottle. It's going to be a lot harder for the government to cry poor-mouth from now on.

For just a fraction of what we may spend in this bailout, we could buy health insurance for the 45 million Americans who don't have it. Just $35 billion would finance public pre-schools for every 4-year-old in America.

We could defray college costs for low- to moderate-income Americans who are increasingly being priced out of the market for higher education.

The standard retort, of course, is that the bailout money, minus the billions in tax breaks for ailing businesses, is mostly in investments that may pay dividends by the time this crisis passes.

But providing health care is an investment. About 80 percent of all uninsured Americans work every day. Most of them would be in better health and more productive if they could afford regular medical care.

While we whine about jobs' going overseas and a workforce that can't compete with the education level of foreign workers, we are allowing college costs to soar beyond the means of most working families.

The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education in its "measuring up 2008" study estimated that college tuition and related costs have gone up three times faster than median family income since 1982.

A year in a relatively low-cost public college costs about 55 percent of the annual income of families whose earnings are in the lowest 20 percent.

That's my short list, just a few of the items that could pay for themselves in the long run.

So, if the federal government really wants to jump-start the economy, maybe it should spread its TARP wide enough to cover some taxpayers. *

Send e-mail to smithel@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns: http://go.philly.com/smith