Sunday, August 2, 2009

Cash From Clunkers

The commentary "Cash From Clunkers" in the August 2, 2009 Wall Street Journal ridicules the cash for clunkers program by saying "Let’s have a $4,500 subsidy for everything."

The author does not understand basic economics. If the goal is to increase employment (and thus incomes, output, and economic growth), then it actually does make sense to increase purchases of newly produced goods and services - even if they are millions of pink plastic flamingos.

And there are numerous benefits of destroying an existing product and replacing it with something better. For example, the replacement of single paned windows with energy efficient ones can result in lower energy costs to the homeowner. And replacing a gas guzzling car with a fuel efficient auto can save the owner fuel and maintenance expenses. (By the author's logic, a dilapidated building should never be torn down and replaced.)

According to the WSJ article:
Americans are streaming back into auto showrooms, and one reason is the “cash for clunkers” subsidy. Democrats are naturally claiming this is a great success, while Republicans are claiming that because the program has run out of clunker cash so quickly, this proves government can’t run the health-care system. How do we elect these people? What the clunker policy really proves is that Americans aren’t stupid and will let some other taxpayer buy them a free lunch if given the chance.

The buying spree is good for the car companies, if only for the short term and for certain car models. It’s good, too, for folks who’ve been sitting on an older car or truck but weren’t sure they had the cash to trade it in for something new. Now they get a taxpayer subsidy of up to $4,500, which on some models can be 25% of the purchase price. It’s hardly surprising that Peter is willing to use a donation from his neighbor Paul, midwifed by Uncle Sugar, to class up his driveway.

On the other hand, this is crackpot economics. The subsidy won’t add to net national wealth, since it merely transfers money to one taxpayer’s pocket from someone else’s, and merely pays that taxpayer to destroy a perfectly serviceable asset in return for something he might have bought anyway. By this logic, everyone should burn the sofa and dining room set and refurnish the homestead every couple of years.

It isn’t clear this will even lead to more auto production over time, since the clunker cash may simply cause buyers to move their purchases forward. GDP will get a fillip in the third and perhaps fourth quarters, which will please the Obama Administration. But the test will be if auto sales hold up next year and into the future once the clunker checks go away. The debate over the subsidy may even have prolonged this year’s auto slump as buyers delayed their purchases waiting for the free lunch.

All of Washington professes to be surprised that the $1 billion allocated to the subsidy has been used up so quickly, but giving away money is one thing government knows how to do. The Clunkers who are in Congress are now patting themselves on the back for their great success, and the House quickly voted to pass out another $2 billion in clunker coupons. With a $1.8 trillion budget deficit, who’s going to notice this pocket change?

Clearly, we spoilsports need an attitude adjustment to Washington’s new economics. And since money is no object, let’s give everyone a $4,500 voucher for other consumer goods. Let’s have taxpayers subsidize the purchase of kitchen appliances, women’s clothing, the latest Big Bertha driver—our Taylor-made is certainly a clunker—and new fishing boats. These are hardly less deserving of subsidies than cars, and as long as everyone thinks we can conjure wealth out of $4,500 giveaways, let’s go all the way.

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