Cash for clunkers should be scrapped: James Pethokoukis

Mon Aug 3, 2009 12:42pm EDT

-- James Pethokoukis is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own.

By James Pethokoukis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Think of "cash for clunkers" as a sort of bizarro twin of that "bucks for banks" program from last autumn. You know, the one where Congress authorized $700 billion to keep financial clunkers on Wall Street up and running.

Thank goodness the automobile version won't be nearly as expensive for taxpayers, consisting of a mere $1 billion in incentives for individuals to trade in their old gas guzzlers for new, (at least slightly) more fuel-efficient vehicles.

And giving away free money turned out to be so wildly and unexpectedly popular that the House quickly passed a bill giving away another $2 billion before heading out on August holiday. Now it's up to the Senate to pass a similar extension before it takes the rest of the month off.

It shouldn't. Although there's no doubt the program encouraged a mad rush into automobile dealer showrooms, what will be the net effect of the deluge once it subsides? Probably not much.

An analysis by Macroeconomic Advisers forecasts that the program will affect only the timing of car sales, not total sales: "In particular, we expect that roughly half of the 250,000 in new sales would have occurred in the months following the conclusion of the program, and the other half would have occurred during the program period anyway. Therefore, we do not expect a boost to industry-wide production (or GDP) in response to this program."

In other words, the program gets much of its juice via stealing car sales from the near future rather than generating additional demand. In practice, it works much like tax policies and subsidies to encourage women to have more children. Studies have found that women may have children earlier than they would otherwise, but they don't necessarily have more kids.

The rebate program is also emblematic of the administration's unwise approaches to economic policymaking. It borrows money to generate economic activity, which in effect borrows growth from the future, since eventually that loan will have to be paid back through higher taxes.

It picks and promotes a particular industry in a sort of small-scale industrial policy. It also places an emphasis on consumer spending as a route to renewed prosperity over greater investment -- and isn't that how the American economy got in trouble in the first place?

And for those reasons, cash for clunkers isn't just a whimsically named government program that helps automakers clear out some inventory and generate a bit of quick cash flow, while also making average Americans feel they're finally getting their bailout.

If that's all it was, cash for clunkers wouldn't be such a big deal. Rather, it is evidence that no one in Washington is learning any economic lessons. And that is a very big deal.

(Editing by Martin Langfield)

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