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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Cash for Clunkers Not Green Enough for Conservatives?

SDP's new traffic wunderfräulein, Miranda Flint, says Cash for Clunkers set off her enviro-spidey-sense. She just knew the program couldn't be as green as it seemed. And thank goodness, Fox News comes along to assure her she's right:

It takes energy to shred and recycle metals; plastic components often cannot be recycled and end up as landfill cover; and the engine fluids, refrigerants and other chemicals essential to operating products end up as hazardous wastes ["Does Cash for Clunkers Help the Environment? It's Debatable," Fox News, 2009.08.05].

When conservatives have to resort to arguing that a liberal policy successfully stimulates the economy but causes environmental harm and "does nothing to reduce America's dependence on oil," we liberals must be winning.

Ms. Flint should rest easy. (Demolition concerns in a moment.) First, not only has Cash for Clunkers provided much faster economic stimulus than expected, but it has also proved greener than expected:

Dealers estimated that they moved a quarter-million cars with the rebate money. The Transportation Department reported that of 120,000 rebate applications processed so far, the average gas mileage of cars being bought was 28.3 miles per gallon, for SUV’s 21.9 miles per gallon, and for trucks, 16.3 miles per gallon, all significantly higher than required to get a rebate.

“The statistics are much better than anybody dreamt they would be,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, who, with Senator Susan M. Collins, Republican of Maine, was the author of an early version of a “cash for clunkers” bill that would have required bigger improvements. The actual mileage gain seen so far, she said was not due to the details of the law but “the good judgment of the American people” [Nick Bunkley and Derrick Henry, "As 'Clunker' Rebates Help Ford, Aid May Be Extended," New York Times, 2009.08.04]

But what about the messy, stinky, leaky scrapping process? Sure, it takes energy to tear apart a car, and the process can release all sorts of engine fluids and other chemicals. But that happens with or without Cash for Clunkers. Much as I hate to think about it, my 1993 Jeep Wrangler will someday go to the scrap heap. (It will probably just fall apart beneath me on the highway someday, spewing its parts and fluids all over the road, rather than letting anyone haul it away to the old clunkers' home.) The same environmental impact accrues whether we scrap these gas guzzlers now or five, ten, twenty years down the road. Scrapping them now incurs that salvage cost now and saves us 5–20 years of operating emissions.

I would also speculate that scrapping them now means more recycling. Suppose I did Cash-for-Clunkerize my Jeep today. Some salvage yard would have a whole heap of 1993 Jeep Wrangler parts to resell. And the market for 1993 Jeep Wrangler parts will only get smaller. The sooner my parts are available, the more chance the salvage yard will have to sell them and make some money rather than having Jeep bits rusting and polluting their pristine junkyards.

Cash for Clunkers is making the conservatives mad because it is working so spectacularly well on every front. It's boosting the economy. It's making long-term improvements in fuel efficiency. It's providing a simple and vivid counterargument to all that "gummint can't do nothin' right" talk that GOP games-players have to sell to hide the fact that they can't come up with policies that do work.

But I thank Ms. Flint for her concern about the environment. Now I wonder what she thinks about that big nasty foreign oil pipeline being dug through our fair state....

Update 14:40 CDT: Alas, Ms. Flint misrepresents my argument:

Mr. Heidelberger at The Madville Times responds to my post by arguing that even though destroying vehicles probably does harm the environment, it's alright because it boosts the economy. Cory is beginning to sound a lot like a Republican!

Well, Ms. Flint is correct that Republicans tend to embrace economic gains without due regard for environmental impacts. But what I said was that we incur the same impacts of junking these cars now as we would years down the road. Fifty years from now (big picture, Miranda), the landfills will be as junked up as if we hadn't done Cash for Clunkers. But by junking the clunkers now, we eliminate the environmental impact of their continued use. The gain over a non-Cash-for-Clunkers scenario may be small, but it is still a gain. More to the point, Ms. Flint has not proven net environmental harm greater than if Cash for Clunkers had not passed.


  1. I just recently saw the process by which the engine has to be "destroyed" for any Cash for Clunker cars (pretty cool, look it up) so the dealer can't resell them.

    Are there any limitations on what salvage yards can do with them?

  2. As I understand it, the drivetrain has to be rendered unusable—the point is to get the less efficient off the road for good. But if it's not a part that makes the car go, the salvage yard can do whatever it wants.

    As for those junked drivetrains, I imagine one can always sell the metal for scrap, right?

  3. I don't think this program was thought out very well. Some of the vehicles being destroyed are better than those being driven by a lot of people who even with a $4500 credit will not be able to get something getting better fuel mileage.

    Setting up some kind of a second tier exchange to get the REAL clunkers of the road might be better.
    If a person gets a more fuel efficient vehicle and the credit, then if somebody else has a vehicle that gets much worse mileage than the clunker "trade-in", get them a good repaired clunker and get the real gas hog junkers into scrap.

    Some minimal payback with no interest should also be part of the package...something like $25 per month for up to 10 years. If that kind of a payback busts the deal, they should not be buying a new vehicle anyway.

    While this program does obviously reduce fuel consumption and stimulate sales, it seems also to be incredibly wasteful and will first reward the people who did not look for fuel-efficient vehicles to begin with. Most of the "clunkers" we are driving get mileage high enough that getting rid of them doesn't make much sense.

    Move the better clunkers into the Vo-Tech schools to get the fuel mileage improved to provide vehicles for people who can never afford a new vehicle.

  4. Cash for Clunkers, the government CARS program, may not have a huge impact on worldwide greenhouse gases, but every little bit helps. We all have to start doing our part. The program is stimulating economic activity, clearing inventory off new car dealer's lots and getting many inefficient SUV's off the roads.

    This program is similar to some of the emails we've all received that urged Congress to bail out the people rather than Wall Street, the banks and industries. In other words, put the money in the people's hands first (after all, we're borrowing our own money anyway) which will jump start spending, which jump starts manufacturing, shipping and banking. In essence, it becomes "trickle-up" economics.

    One of the more interesting concepts I've heard was to give every employed person, between the age of 55 to 65, a million dollars each, if they would quit their job and retire, which would create millions of job openings, cause millions of homes to be purchased or paid off, auto loans to be paid off, vehicles purchased and cash invested in banks, stocks and annuities.

    Cost would be in the trillions, but we're already indebted in the trillions, and other than this latest cash for clunkers blip, most of us haven't seen or felt any stimulus.


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