07/24/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Cash For Clunkers Redux

I posted last week on the turbulence that the now-passed Cash For Clunkers bill was going through as it made its way through a cantankerous Congress. Miraculously, the bill passed. Now, for some reason, the media is having a go at the bill, calling it everything from confusing, to useless, to environmentally insignificant, to economically petty.

I'll address some of these claims. First, as for those calling the bill confusing, well, I pity the fool. If you have a car that's less than 25 years old (i.e. bought 1984 or after) and that car gets 18 MPG or worse combined fuel efficiency, then you can trade that car in for a new car and get some government green for your effort. How much? Well, that depends. If your new car scores an fuel efficiency improvement of 4 MPG over your old car, then you get a $3,500 check. If your new car is 10 MPG more efficient than your old one, you get $4,500 in the mail. Yes, I know, that is so complex -- I almost had to do some addition to figure it out.

If you or someone you love is still having trouble understanding it -- or if you're still staring at the on-the-bricks beater that decorates your front lawn -- then I suggest you check out to get all the info. (If you're having trouble understanding this because Spanish is your preferred language then look here.)

Other criticisms of the bill boil down to the claim that the bill isn't an immaculately conceived and all-encompassing piece of legislative perfection. Bradford Plumber at The New Republic gripes that though the bill could boost auto sales by 10%, the improvement is actually small compared with Germany's auto industry jump of 40% after the passage of a comparable bill. What Mr. Plumber neglects to mention is that the American auto industry dwarfs its little German brother, which is why a 10% jump in US sales is staggering (especially during an industry crisis).

A few others have lamented that the program is too short (its first round lasts July to November) and, of course, some hard-line environmentalists are muttering about those old cars still being useful and that the new, more efficient, and more environment friendly vehicles the bill advances are wasteful. (I hear the drumbeat of "sustainability" pounding somewhere in the background.) This reminds me of Russel Kirk's formulation of the essential difference between conservatism and liberalism: the former is the art of the possible; the latter, the art of the ideal. People saying the bill doesn't do enough are in essence saying that the bill isn't perfect by their own private standard. This kind of thinking neglects (1) that the bill is part of a political process navigated by compromise and (2) that massive change in a country the size and complexity of the US begins with first steps, not first leaps.

The bill is an effective first round. If it goes well there will be a second round and a third, etc. It's true that you probably could keep that old P.O.S. that's vomitting all sorts of environmental unmentionables into the air, and you could save some money, and feel like you've done well by the impovershed nations of the world who can't afford a Prius let alone a 1986 hot pink Camaro. But the goal here is fleet replacement -- something that we're poised to achieve in a very short amount of time if financial incentives and automotive alternatives are available.

At the end of all this, I can only recommend that people check it out for themselves. Look here for the official bill website and search the site to find certified dealers you can talk to about up-greening your ride.