Commentary

Clunkering Down

“Cash-for-Clunkers” is over. Finally, a successful government program. Offer people $3 billion to buy new cars, and wonder of wonders, they rush to grab the $4500 checks. Uncle Sam had to shut down the program early since it ran out of money. President Barack Obama called the initiative “successful beyond anybody’s imagination.”

But now some in the auto industry are worried about the inevitable drop in sales, since the cash giveaway caused most everyone — at least, anyone interested in free money — to accelerate their purchase plans. Jeremy Anwyl, CEO of the automotive research group Edmunds.com, observes: “Nice party, but the hangover is awful.”

There’s also an impending downturn in the auto repair industry. Fewer used cars to sell and service. Fewer parts to trade. Moreover, there have been and will continue to be fewer other goods and services sold. After all, if you rushed to buy a new car, there’s a good chance you had to put off some other purchases.

The green eyeshade folks among us say the government shouldn’t waste money like this in the future. But in the new ultra-Keynesian, post-budget deficit age, we need to think outside of the box. We need to expand the ambit of “Cash-for-Clunkers.”

Let’s start big. The housing market remains in the doldrums. There’s a huge inventory of new and used homes pressing down prices, an excess capacity that threatens to flood the market at the faintest price uptick, and a lot of old, energy inefficient — and sometimes ugly — older dwellings. So why not a housing “Cash-for-Clunkers” program? Trade in your old, environmentally poor house for a brand new, energy efficient home and get a voucher for the value of your current property, plus $50,000. The developer would be responsible for putting the wrecking ball to your old residence; the government would keep the land for subsequent resale.

Then there should be “Cash-for-Clunkers” for home furnishings. Uncle Sam should pass out checks to anyone who trades in his wasteful furnace, heat pump, air conditioner, fan, washer, dryer, fridge, oven, dish washer, microwave, toaster, can opener, coffee maker, television, DVD player, radio, CD player, light, vacuum cleaner, computer, or other home appliance. (There’s currently a modest rebate program, with no trade-in requirement, for some major new appliances. We need to think more creatively.) Sellers would render the goods inoperative while the federal government, in another job-creating program, would collect and dispose of the trade-ins.

With the rise of the Kindle, online books are now a reality. So we need a “Cash-for-Clunkers” program for wasteful old books, which have occasioned the death of so many trees. Buy a Kindle and get a $20 check for every book you turn in while purchasing the new online version. Amazon.com would be responsible for creating central collection points, where you would dump your book, after tearing it in half to render it unusable. A similar program should be undertaken for newspapers — buy the Kindle and cancel your New York Times/Washington Post/Local Mullet Wrapper subscription, and get a check.

“Cash-for-Clunkers” also could be adapted for the antique and collectibles markets. A great deal of money, time, and resources are wasted as people visit antique shops and troll online for goods produced long ago and therefore the production of which creates no jobs today. Turn in your antique painting, chess set, silver service, china cabinet, stein, armoire, jewelry, and more, and the government will pay you the value of your item plus provide a voucher for ten percent of the purchase price of a modern replacement. Uncle Sam would take title of the goods, for possible display at the Smithsonian. Constructing several new buildings to house the government’s new acquisitions would generate additional jobs.

There also should be “Cash-for-Clunkers” for old clothes and shoes. Who knows how many leisure suits still clutter up old closets? Think of all the out-of-style dresses that women hang onto, hoping that the clothes will come back into fashion. Turn in those tattered Bermuda shorts and sadly aged pumps and get a check to buy replacements. Not only will jobs be created, but Americans will leap ahead of Europeans to lead the fashion parade.

The “Cash-for-Clunkers” concept could be used for airplanes. With the downturn in air travel there is a surplus of older, less fuel-efficient aircraft. Orders for new planes have been reduced as a result. The government should provide a (large) check whenever an airline trades in an old aircraft for a new (preferably Boeing) plane. The discards could be used by the Pentagon for target practice. We’d have a stronger national defense as well as less pollution, reduced fuel consumption, and more jobs.

Finally, “Cash-for-Clunkers” could be used to eliminate the build-up of old, fatty, and calorie-filled snack products in cabinets and refrigerators across America. Bring in your potato chips or M&Ms and get a check for their value, plus a coupon for use towards the purchase of apples, carrots, or Brussels sprouts. Surrendered foods would be given to the Surgeon General for use as part of a broad-ranging educational campaign against obesity.

The end of the “Cash-for-Clunkers” program bespeaks a lack of vision. Paying people to destroy their old cars was a stroke of genius. Let’s expand it to the rest of the economy.

And why stop with economics? Let’s also apply the concept to Capitol Hill. Toss out your clunker of a congressman and then — and only then — get some federal pork for your district. Talk about a “Cash-for-Clunkers” program that would benefit America!

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of Beyond Good Intentions: A Biblical View of Politics (Crossway).