Randy Salzman is a former journalism teacher at Virginia Union University and a transportation researcher who lives in Charlottesville.
With the announcement this week that the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration was delaying the forced crushing or shredding of 690,000 Cash for Clunkers trade-ins from this summer, Winston Churchill's oft-quoted comment that “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they've tried everything else” is again pertinent.
While it's debatable whether we'll do the right thing, the Consumer Assistance to Recycle and Save Program — as Cash for Clunkers was officially called — certainly proved that we'll try everything else first.
The highly touted project, aimed at getting Americans back to work, did indeed start up 1,100 temporary jobs — for government bureaucrats to process the $3,500- to $4,500-per-car rebate checks to participating dealers — but did little else in distributing $3 billion in borrowed federal dollars to people who would have bought cars anyway.
That's the analysis of automotive Web site Edmunds.com, which pronounced last month that 565,000 of the sales would have happened by the end of this calendar year without Uncle Sam's heavy-handed intrusion into the free market. According to Edmunds, each car sale caused by the program actually cost taxpayers $24,000 a vehicle — more than the average sticker price.
Meanwhile, it did nothing for long-term stability in America's car market. Overall, year-to-date 2009 sales are still down more than 5,000,000 vehicles from 2007, and monthly sales figures indicate that the Big Three automakers are selling fewer vehicles than they did the month Barack Obama was elected president.
With neither the employment rate nor the auto market booming, Cash for Clunkers worked to increase America's oil dependency and will certainly lead to further worldwide environmental degradation. Why? Because having new cars cajoles people to drive significantly more miles while the new cars hitting the road last summer were only marginally more energy efficient.
According to the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute, the program “improved the average fuel economy of all vehicles purchased by 0.6 mpg in July 2009 and 0.7 mpg in August 2009.” The long-understood “rebound effect,” which illustrates that fuel-efficient car buyers overcompensate by driving more easily wipes out those meager efficiency gains. And that, of course, increases congestion, which already costs the economy $87.2 billion and 4.2 billion in lost hours, according to the Texas Transportation Institute — not to mention that it burns 2.8 billion additional gallons of imported fuel.
During the summer when Cash for Clunkers was the talk of the nation, buried on the back pages of the few good newspapers left in the country was the lament by junkyards and dealers about having to pour acid through the engine blocks of the best trade-in vehicles they'd seen in years.
Instead of those still-good engines having second lives as replacement pistons and heads — or cars for the working poor — they had to be destroyed within seven days of the rebate to ensure there was no shell game behind Uncle Sam's paperwork. Now, the rest of the cars must be crushed or shredded within 270 days.
It's insane to think that building new vehicles to replace ones that still have working life is environmentally friendly. New plastic, new steel, new computers — and most importantly, new energy — goes into the production of new vehicles. Using anything to the limit of its life is more environmentally effective than what amounts to instant obsolescence.
A much better use of Uncle Sam's $3 billion would have been to pay gas stations to hire teenagers and check each gasoline purchaser's tires for proper inflation. With 80 percent of tires inflated below recommendations, each vehicle running on soft tires suffers as much as 3.3 percent less fuel efficiency and emits 1.5 extra tons of additional greenhouse gas annually.
Besides saving fuel and putting juveniles to work, checking inflation would decrease our trade deficit because we wouldn't be sending so many dollars to China to purchase tires worn out before their time.
After we saw the ethanol craze drive worldwide hunger and discovered that carrying natural gas tanks eliminates huge chunks of passenger or cargo space, are we ready to consider Churchill's comment and actually do the right thing?
And that, as discussed by every economist who studies American environmental and foreign policy issues, is to raise federal gasoline and diesel taxes extensively.
What we'd find if we taxed gasoline to a rational level is that Americans will adapt and use their cars intelligently rather than habitually — as has happened in other democracies across the planet.
We'd find that high mileage sells and, therefore, manufacturers would supply more high-mileage vehicles and provide new gasoline-saving technologies without government subsidies or rebates. Meanwhile, we'd be raising money to build substitutions for driving, such as mass transit and bicycle infrastructure.
We'd furthermore find more people taking the bus and the subway, therefore decreasing the need for transit subsidies. Light rail would grow without special stimulus funding.
We'd find that walking and biking to school actually makes our kids healthy and happy. We'd rediscover our neighbors and mom-and-pop stores would again spring up on corners. We'd find less traffic on our highways, trimming our congestion cost of $750 per driver, and greatly decrease the 1,700 million metric tons of carbon dioxide our tailpipes emit into the atmosphere.
We'd find less need to keep carrier task forces in the Persian Gulf and fewer people worldwide would claim that America's foreign policy is all about blood for oil.
We could actually hold our heads up in Copenhagen while not forcing — as cap and trade will do — more manufacturers and their jobs to move overseas.
Are we finally ready to do the right thing?