Saturday, August 1, 2009

Cash for Clunkers = Horrible Economic Policy

In my 20 - plus years as an economist I have witnessed many taxpayer-financed programs that have have little or no merit - economically, morally or Constitutionally.
However, I think I may now be witnessing a program that confirms my deep belief that Americans are almost completely economically ignorant.
Recently the Obama Administration announced plans to steal $1 billion (plus interest) from future taxpayers to help current Americans buy a new car. The "Cash for Clunkers" program, as of today, has used up all $1 billion and now the socialists running our country are preparing to add upwards of $2 billion to this "successful" stimulus to our moribund automobile sector.
This program is steeped in economic stupidity for a variety of reasons. Here's why:
1. If you are a car buyer who thinks of this program as $4,500 of your money at work you are wrong. This is not a tax credit where the government tells you to deduct $4,500 from your 2009 tax bill (assuming your tax bill is at least $4,500). This is government telling you that it will take almost $4,500 from your fellow taxpayers and give it to you. If you take it, over 99% of this figure will constitute theft on your part. Legalized theft, but theft nonetheless.
To calculate how much of the $4,500 is "your money" all you have to do is look at what you typically pay in federal income taxes each year. The federal government collects about $2.5 trillion in taxes annually. You need to figure what percentage of $2.5 trillion you paid. Then, take that percentage out of $1 billion (the cost of the program so far). THAT is how much of the $4,500 that is your money, rather than your neighbors money. When you do the math you will probably see that out of $4,500, your "tax credit" is probably 7 or 8 cents and the rest is government plundering on your behalf.
2. If you think the program will stimulate the automobile sector, think again. Yes, over 220,000 new cars have been purchased so far. But that means 220,000 cars that were still running have also been taken off the market. In this program you have to trade in a car that is operable then the dealer destroys the engine and it leaves the supply part of the market for cars. 220,000 new cars driven away, 220,000 used cars, with value to someone (the poor, teenagers, parents looking for a car for a kid, etc.) leave. That is called a zero-sum event. With used cars now becoming more scarce - especially if the program continues - we will see a tighter supply for these cars and higher prices for poorer Americans who could have used an $800 car to get around in for a couple of years.
The 22,000 new ones also are a false stimulus. Many of these would have been bought anyway but the lucky people who were already in the market simply get to save money at our expense.
Of those who would not have bought a new one, now the government has encouraged them to buy. This looks like a good thing for our auto industry but what happens when this false stimulus ends? Do you think the car industry is going to add more workers for a temporary program? What happens to the people who went into debt - during a recession caused by too much debt - to buy a new car? The law of opportunity cost means they took money away from some other purpose to buy this car. That means less money for other sectors of the economy and debt incurred at a time when less debt would be a better idea.
3. The planet will not cool off as a result of this program, but more people will die from it. The Obama Administration launched this program in part to get pollution-belching cars off the road and help lower the temperature of Earth. Give me a break. Let's say I trade in my truck - that gets a polar bear harming 13 miles per gallon - for a new truck that gets 19 miles per gallon. Better yet, I trade it in for a car that gets 29 miles per gallon. So, I get an improvement of 16 miles per gallon by driving my new tin can. Will I drive more now that I get better mileage? Will I be less safe on the roads? Yes and yes.
It is a rational reaction to enjoy the better mileage by going to the beach, taking more frequent trips to the grocer and other trips - long and short - that I would not take in my current gas-guzzling truck.
One brief stop on Google will also help you uncover the hard data on the number of people who get killed by driving smaller cars.
These accidents have to be paid for by insurance, health care professionals and by consumers who have to spend more to fix small cars than bigger, safer ones. This is a real cost that few in government are talking about.
Finally, and perhaps most sadly, is the cost of raising our kids to think of government as Santa or the tooth fairy. For every adult who buys a new car under this program they are unwittingly sending a message to their kids that there is "free money" out there for the taking and that we should just go get it.
That, my friends, simply adds to the ranks of future voters who line up to steal other people's money on election day.
Enjoy your new car.