Turning My Clunker Into Cash

August 05, 2009|By DAN RODRICKS

So I did the cash-for-clunkers deal, and I am a happy citizen today. I have a new car that gets twice the mileage of the 10-year-old minivan that I hadn't been driving much anymore anyway - it had failed a Maryland emissions test and needed a costly repair - and I don't even feel that guilty about taking the government's money. I mean, if the guys at AIG didn't, why should I?

I got $4,500 for a worthless vehicle with 212,308 miles on it, a bad cough, a rip in the tacky steering wheel pad and tires that looked like Nick Markakis' head.

I bought an affordable compact that should hit between 30 and 35 miles a gallon and pass emissions testing with flying colors. It doesn't have a remote keyless entry system, but I think I'll live.

I'll also save a trunk full of money on gasoline.

The government gets some of its money back through taxes.

My insurance agent gets business he didn't expect.

The old van gets recycled.

Manny, Moe and Jack will see me in their store later this week for new floor mats and fuzzy dice.

What's not to like?

I don't know why Congress would hesitate about throwing another $2 billion into this program. It stimulates auto sales and gets gas-guzzlers off the road. Compared to all the other ways the Obama administration and Congress have thrown money at the economy, this one might have, dollar for dollar, the most sticking power and make the best pop in terms of public attitude.

It has been amusing to listen to critics of cash-for-clunkers, and there's some interesting role-reversal going on here: Some conservatives are blasting a government program that has successfully sparked motor vehicle sales, and some liberals are touting the trickle-down benefits of encouraging big business, saying that helps - God forbid - the middle class!

Just yesterday, ABC News quoted a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank, who said CFC proved only one thing: "If you hand out money on the street corner, people will take it." James L. Gattuso also "warned that while people might be buying cars, the gains from their purchases won't overcome the lost economic activity from using the government dollars for more productive programs."

More productive programs? I thought the Heritage Foundation guys wanted to end government programs.

Then, in the same report, there was a giddy quote from a guy at the liberal Brookings Institution. "What's good for Ford and General Motors is good for the country," said Darrell M. West, paraphrasing Calvin Coolidge. (I don't think Silent Cal was a Brookings fellow.)

Environmentalists and some leaders of the Senate knocked the program for not requiring better mileage gains in cars purchased with the CFC money. But thousands of Americans are apparently dumping vehicles that got poor or mediocre mileage for those that can hit at least 22 to 24 mpg. According to White House estimates, eight out of 10 clunkers were trucks or SUVs, while 60 percent of new vehicles were cars. Estimated average increase in fuel efficiency: 61 percent.

Like a lot of Americans, I had been putting off buying a new (or previously owned) car for months. Actually, it was more like a year.

The van was getting creaky - a dirty old man in my driveway - and I had thought about donating it to charity. It was worth virtually nothing on the market and even less as a trade-in.

Then along came Cash for Clunkers. At first, it sounded too good to be true: Turn in any vehicle in operating condition, getting 18 mpg or less, and manufactured within the last 25 years, and you could qualify for up to $4,500 off the purchase of any new vehicle getting at least 22 mpg.

So I looked into it. And I looked into it again. My mechanic, Ed Marcello, in the Hereford Zone, cautioned me: Read the fine print. There must be a catch.

But there was no fine print, no catch. The clunker is gone. I'm driving something new and efficient. Next stop: The Pep Boys for floor mats and fuzzy dice.

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