Superclunkers for Clunkers

09/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Scott Page Professor Complex Systems, Political Science, and Economics University of Michigan

I used to drive a 1984 Toyota Landcruiser with a Chevy straight six engine. It had a manual choke, hubs that had to be locked by hand to engage the four-wheel drive, and space heaters under the front seats. It had nearly 200,000 miles on it and got between 14 and 15 miles to the gallon.

It was, in the words of our Federal Government, a clunker.

If I still had that car, I could trade it in for $4500 towards the purchase of a new car or truck, provided that the new vehicle got at least 18mpg. Though the government's offer would be enticing, I don't think I could pull the trigger. And I mean that literally. All cars traded in as part of Cash For Clunkers get driven out to the back lot and forever put to rest.

What I did (and what I would probably do again) was sell my Landcruiser for below market value to a family with two kids and a third on the way that was driving what could only be called a superclunker: an old rusted out beater that burned oil, lacked brakes, and was perpetually breaking down. By selling them my vehicle at below market cost, I was providing that family with safe, dependable transportation to and from work and day care.

The family that bought my car was not an anomaly. Many families currently driving superclunkers would love a clunker. Allowing people with superclunkers to trade up to clunkers would put children in safer cars, provide people with more dependable transportation, and reduce gas consumption.

We should stop the senseless killing of clunkers and instead institute a "Superclunkers for Clunkers" program.

In a Superclunkers for Clunkers program anyone below the poverty line would be allowed to trade in their old superclunker free of charge and get a refurbished clunker. Such a program wouldn't be free -- it might cost between $350 and $450 to have a mechanic give the desired clunker the once over. Even so, the cost of the program would be a drop in the bucket. Even if one in ten of the clunkers were swapped out for a superclunker (assuredly a high estimate), the total cost of the program would be a mere one percent of the Cash for Clunkers program. And almost all that money would go to mechanics, i.e. American Labor. And for that cost 75,000 families would have safer, cleaner rides. And not just any families either -- we're talking the poorest of the poor.

Superclunkers for clunkers. An idea whose time has come.