WHAT IS A recession?

Most economists define it as "the steady contraction of the national economy over a time span of no less than six months." But most people don't care what you call it when the economy spirals downward faster than Lindsey Lohan - all they care about is being able to pay their bills.

The problem is that getting the country out of a recession is difficult, partly because the economy is a fickle beast, and taming it does not come easy, and partly because more often than not the people in charge of running the country are idiots.

This isn't their fault, of course. A walk through the food court of any shopping mall will reveal that 90 percent of all people are idiots and the other 10 percent are trying to sell them something. Politicians are no better or worse than the rest of us.

That's why recessions seem to occur once every decade or so. See, when a smart person tries to fix something - like, say, a busted engine - he takes the whole thing apart, examines each piece carefully, determines what caused the breakdown in the first place and corrects the problem. Unfortunately, as a rule, smart people never last more than 27 minutes in any type of leadership role in this country, which is why every time a recession hits, instead of digging down and uncovering the root of the problem, our elected officials tell us to "go out and buy stuff."

The thinking is explained in Official Government Language:

1. People no buy stuff then economy go bad.

2. People do buy stuff then economy go good.

3. Ooh, cookies!

In other words, the American people are screwed. Recessions aren't going anywhere, so we all might as well get used to living with them. The good news is that, even when things look their bleakest, there are still a few things we all can do to make sure the political party opposite the one we belong to is who gets blamed for the whole mess.

After all, if there's one underlying principle that our entire American way of life is built upon, it's that blaming somebody else for our problems is far more important than other trivial matters, like actually solving them.

While you're busy pointing fingers at everybody from Big Oil to housing, you might want to try this thing called "saving."

The idea is that, if you put a little money aside each week instead of spending it on frivolities with no practical value, then one day when you really need it, a large sum of money will be available to spend on one huge frivolity with even less practical value than all the little ones combined. Coach bags and any electronic device that starts with a lower-case "i" immediately spring to mind.

Another thing you can do to survive these tough times is get creative with the necessities of life. We all need to eat, right? But with grocery stores marking up their prices to restaurant levels, who says we have to actually eat food? In 1729, Jonathan Swift wrote an essay titled "A Modest Proposal." Swift suggests that the adults of Ireland ease their economic troubles by selling children born into poverty as food for the rich.

I, OF course, am not doing anything so drastic as suggesting that Americans eat their young.

For one thing, most of America's children are so grotesquely overweight, the cholesterol in a single third-grader would be enough to cause a coronary in a blue whale. No, I propose that we eat Swift's essay, or for that matter, any old piece of literature that's been deemed a classic when, in reality, it's nothing more than a tool English teachers use to keep themselves from finding actual employment.

Finally, if you're unfortunate enough to lose your job as a result of outsourcing, drinking three martinis for breakfast in the company cafeteria or any of the 100 other symptoms of recession, rest assured there are still some industries that will always be looking for qualified employees, even in the toughest times.

Health care, education, mechanical techs - all are constantly browsing monster.com for the perfect resume. All you have to do is decide which of these professions you'd like to enter, log onto your computer and confidently fill out the application for unemployment found on most state Web sites. Then take your first check and go out and buy stuff. It's your civic duty. *

Gregg Podolski is a humor writer. Contact him at gpodolski@gmail.com.