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Sheldon Filger Headshot

"Cash for Clunkers" Is Really Economics for Dummies

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In confronting a crisis of epic proportions, one can do the heavy work of crafting a well conceived, comprehensive strategy. But why bother, when short-term gimmicks are politically more feasible. Thus we have this absurd counter-cyclical gimmick, the so-called "cash for clunkers" boondoggle, being offered by the Washington establishment as their "answer" to the massive problems confronting the automobile industry, not only in America but globally as well.

Throughout the world, a vast car manufacturing infrastructure has been constructed at great expense and high leverage, designed for global demand of almost one hundred million cars per year. However, the Global Economic Crisis has unleashed massive demand destruction in many key categories of consumer durables. In the case of autos, worldwide demand is currently just above fifty million units per annum, rendering it almost impossible for most automobile manufacturers to generate a profit, whether they are located in Detroit, Tokyo or Stuttgart. The challenge is massive, global and complex. Yet, the geniuses in Washington have come up with a solution that is small, local and simplistic beyond all measure.

The concept of the "cash for clunkers" program is very simple and superficially enticing, as are most gimmicks. Trade in the old jalopy that was on the verge of being junked anyways, since it had no trade-in value on the open market. The federal government will fund a $4,500 credit that will go towards the purchase of a shiny new automobile, thus stimulating the economy. As to be expected, the response from those with dilapidated vehicles on the verge of being dropped off at the local scrap yard has been substantial, in the process depleting the original one billion dollar appropriation for the program. Also not a surprise, the politicians rushed to provide another $2 billion for the program, to the delight of car dealerships across the land.

While on the surface the program may be seen as an economic stimulus initiative at work, no one should be fooled into believing that this is a carefully designed, long-term strategic answer to the worst economic contraction to occur in the United States since the Great Depression. And most notably, the supposedly strong response to the program actually betrays its supercilious essence. For one thing, four of the the five most popular cars being purchased under "cash for clunkers" are foreign brands, meaning the impact on the domestic auto industry is minor at best.

Beyond the fact that domestic car manufacturers are only partially benefiting from the program, it must also be remembered that every dollar of credit being distributed under the program's auspices is from U.S. taxpayers, at a time of massive, multi-trillion dollar deficits. Using borrowed money to subsidize the purchase of foreign made automobiles, along with domestic models, does not make much economic sense. However, there is another aspect to this program that has thus far escaped scrutiny.

A major driver of the Global Economic Crisis was the stampede of consumers who were enticed into buying new homes they could not afford, due to the Federal Reserve lowering interest rates beyond prudent levels. This created a real estate bubble, and we all know the consequences of that. Now, with "cash for clunkers," it just may be possible that many of the consumers taking advantage of the credit largesse from Washington are those with incomes that were inadequate for a new car purchase, but have been persuaded by their own government to take the plunge on a new automobile loan, courtesy of this deficit-financed program. What happens if many of these new car owners end up defaulting on their auto loans, as the recession deepens? This is by no means a small possibility, given the current dynamics of the nation's most severe economic contraction since the 1930s. In effect, the American taxpayer may be financing a new wave of consumer loan defaults down the line, further exacerbating what some are now calling the Great Recession.

"Cash for Clunkers" is really a showroom lemon, masquerading as brilliant economic policy. The politicians may think it is ingenious; my own view is that it is symptomatic of the intellectual bankruptcy that has come to dominate Washington's response to the nation's descent into financial and economic doom.