From the Dept. of Mixed Messages: LaHood Touts ‘Cash for Clunkers’

Two weeks ago, Ray LaHood candidly addressed
the need to reduce the nation’s vehicle miles traveled in order to halt
the devastating effects of climate change. But the Transportation
Secretary had a decidedly different message today.

clunker.jpeg(Photo: NYT)

out and buy a car, Americans!" LaHood decreed this morning as he and
lawmakers from auto-producing states officially kicked off the U.S.
DOT’s "cash for clunkers" program.

Originally touted as a boost to both the environment and the adrift domestic auto industry, the "cash for clunkers" concept quickly became
nothing but the latter after Congress watered it down to apply to cars
that get as little as 22 miles per gallon — and trucks that boast even
lower fuel efficiency.

But today’s event continued to perpetuate the erroneous claim that $1 billion in public subsidies for new car purchases would help reduce emissions as well as rescue the auto industry.

really is a three-for," Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) said. "It’s great for
the economy, a great thing for consumers … third, of course, it’s
great for the environment itself."

Who the program isn’t great for is transit riders hoping to escape their cars. The original "clunkers" bill would have allowed
car owners to take their trade-in benefit in the form of transit
vouchers, but LaHood said that option is unavailable now that the
program has been implemented.

The program also brings bad
news in the fine print for owners of serious "clunkers": Benefits are
not available for cars manufactured before 1984.

While the
DOT estimates that as many as 250,000 autos will be scrapped before the
initial infusion of cash runs out, car industry forecasters at believe only 50,000 extra sales will result, leaving the taxpayers with a whopping $20,000 bill for every new car purchased.

more, the program could have an unforeseen cost as dealers figure out
how to transport the junked vehicles to a government-approved salvaging
plant. Other than the engine, parts of the old "clunker" can be
recycled into other cars, but that resale is not required.

Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association, which represents more than
23,000 car parts and service companies, predicted a "consumer backlash"
to the program as more people realize the bureaucratic hurdles and
environmental costs of disposing of traded-in cars.

Still, today was a happy occasion for
lawmakers such as Levin and freshman Rep. Betty Sutton (D-OH), who
out-maneuevered senators backing a stronger version of "cash for clunkers" in pushing her version of the program into law.

Echoing an argument used during
the economic stimulus debate earlier this year, Sutton depicted the
"clunkers" idea as, quite simply, a way to keep people employed. In her
home district, Sutton declared, "car dealerships are bustling!" As many as 50,000 jobs in her state depend on the local auto
assembly plant, she added.

And that’s good news for the Obama administration. which has steered GM and Chrysler through bankruptcy amid criticism from some in the president’s party.

U.S. DOT’s readiness to lend automakers a hand — no matter the mixed
environmental messages that result — is a testament to the White
House’s belief in the political benefits of keeping car companies flush.

  • David Galvan

    I wish the transit voucher option had made it into the final act.

    I still say this program is a good thing. See the comments at the previous cash-for-clunkers post for why:“cash-for-clunkers”-hath-wrought/

  • DJB

    The ironic thing is this recession is tied to over-reliance on private vehicles, yet we see them as a way to get out of it. When gas prices went up in summer 2008, some people in the boondocks had trouble coping with their mammoth commutes, which lowered the value of their homes and made it difficult to make mortgage payments, which helped put the brakes on real estate speculation and break the banks.

    Cash for clunkers will probably reduce emissions as it is configured now, and that is partially a good thing.

    The problem, as I see it, is we’re taking baby steps when we need to be sprinting. We’re still not serious about making the car an alternative mode of transportation, instead of the principal mode of transportation.

    The sea level is rising and we’re running out of fossil fuels. Not a single highway-capable vehicle for sale at a realistic price today can be called anything close to “sustainable”. What will it take for us to get serious? To stop climate change, we need radical change.

  • David Galvan

    regarding the baby steps vs. sprinting: National-level policy shifts like this and the high-speed rail initiative are about the limit of what I would expect in terms of “sprinting” from the federal government. With the Obama administration and the democrat-heavy congress (for at least the next year and a half), now is the window to get pro-transit, pro-environment policies passed through congress. If the political pendulum swings back to the right, then we’ll see fewer democrats in congress at the next election, and we won’t even be able to get things like this passed through the house and senate.

    In other words: I think stuff like this is about as radical as we are going to get for the forseeable future.

  • After a few years of looking at this whole situation, it is clear why this country embraced automobiles: cars spur massive amounts of consumption and waste, and consumption and waste were the 20th century’s means of shaking off a collapsed world economy. We paid for all of this with domestic resources strip mined from our continent until they were exhausted, and now we’re getting closer to sucking the whole darn world dry.

    Others pretend our transportation policies are there to move people above all else – but nothing could be further from the truth. Our policies exist to subsidize consumption and real estate development. Period. They get sold to us as some sort of patriotic duty wrapped up in “consumer choice” and “families” – but it’s a sham to get us to buy more and burn up as much crap as possible.

    The sad thing is that our elites want to suck every last bit of anything useful out of the planet and its people to serve their own interests – and hence this silly subsidy to prop up an industry that deserves to die.

  • David Galvan

    You’re giving too much credit when you imply that there is some vast conspiracy going on here as to why the car is so heavily used. It’s far simpler than that:

    If I bike the 20 miles to my new job, it will take me over 2 hours. Bike and use the bus? 1 hour 35 minutes. Take the car? 34 minutes.

    So now, make the case. Why should I take an extra 2 – 3 hours every day to pour into my commute? Why should I spend an extra 2-3 hours every day away from my family, or that much less time being productive at work?

    It will be decades until L.A. has a system that at least provides comparable commute times to driving. It’s not a conspiracy. People generally want to do the right thing. But when the economics don’t pan out, the choice is clear; driving is easier. Until the cost gets too high (and I mean the immediate monetary cost, not the long-term mortgaging of the environment cost), we are not going to see a major shift.

    There’s no conspiracy necessary.

  • DJB

    The point about distances is really important. It’s kind of funny, but also understandable, that we don’t think living 20 miles from work is strange. In greater Los Angeles, which you could say stretches from Ventura to San Bernardino (as William Fulton points out in the beginning of The Reluctant Metropolis) you’re talking about a region that is around 120 miles wide. The search for jobs and affordable housing within the region often puts people far away from the stuff they do. This is especially true for households with two or more breadwinners.

    I can walk at a sustained speed of about 3MPH, biking is faster but usually lacks adequate facilities, transit is usually faster still, but generally slower than all but the most traffic congested driving (since it makes stops other than your origin and your destination).

    It will always be a challenge to reduce the dominance of the private car in an area as spread out as this. All the more reason, I would argue, to promote centralized, dense, mixed-use growth and encourage people to try and live close enough to work and shopping so that at least two modes of transportation are realistically viable.

  • DJB

    The most important transportation decision you make is where to live.

  • M

    David, I think you might be simplifying it too much. Why would people regularly travel 20 miles to a new job, back and forth every day, if there weren’t any cars? You’re arguing that people use cars because it is faster than other transportation, but there was something else that made us think it was reasonable to travel 40 miles round trip every day.

    On a smaller scale, non-car travel can be as fast, if not faster in some instances, than driving. Even when I owned a car, I pretty much never drove anyplace where I work in Pasadena. It’s too much of a hassle. You are charged for parking nearly everyplace or you have to find a special garage and there are one way streets. There are plenty of destinations close enough that you can reach many resources in a 10 or 20 minute walk. Once people start encouraging the use of cars, it can make more places open to you in only a 10 or 20 minute drive. Introducing a car into the situation alters the scale of things such that transportation methods like walking, biking and public transportation that were fast enough on a small scale to seem unreasonable when applied to car-friendly distances.

    When I’ve tried to imagine LA without cars or with a minimal amount of cars, it’s amazing how much space and resources are cleared up. People are always claiming we are “running out of space”, yet I see that in a very different way. Think of all the parking lots, above and below ground, car dealerships, dramatic driveways meant for many cars, car repair shops, car insurance related businesses, freeways, meandering roads and turnaround meant for the bulk of a car. It’s a ton of space that we’re giving up. That in itself makes it more difficult to make some of those smaller scale distances possible!

  • David Galvan

    @DJB: I agree on all points. The choice of where to live is the most important with regards to transit. Of course, there are other things that control that choice, the most influential being home prices / rents that one can afford, and the location of the job of one’s significant other. If I moved closer to my job, my wife would have a longer commute to hers, as I work in Pasadena and she works in Westwood. And, as has been discussed on other posts here, walkable areas with great transit tend to be more expensive to live in, and result in higher density. We currently live in a condo, but would like to get a small house with a yard so that our current dog and future children could have a place to run around on the property. That eliminates most of the higher-density, great transit areas.

    So, the end choice for people does end up being relatively simple: what option gives you what you want while saving you the most time and money? The answer: live in a low density area where home prices are cheaper, and use a car to commute to work.

    @M: Agree on the small-scale terms you are talking about. I’m coming from a drive-to-commute perspective. I live in Sherman Oaks, and my wife and I use our bikes or walk to go to the movie theater or out to dinner. But when it comes to our daily commutes, we mostly drive.

    Since the studies have shown (see the previous cash-for-clunkers posts for links) that people who commute over 15 miles a day tend to drive about the same amount of miles per year regardless of the mpg rating of their car, I definitely see this cash-for-clunkers program as a good thing.

  • “The most important transportation decision you make is where to live.”


    This is simple, but it cannot be stated enough.

    If someone chooses to live in La Canada Flintridge when they work in Norwalk, they shouldn’t complain about not having door-to-door rail service.

    People who want to have access to the emerging transit system will have to re-align themselves towards that choice.

  • Spokker

    “After a few years of looking at this whole situation, it is clear why this country embraced automobiles: cars spur massive amounts of consumption and waste, and consumption and waste were the 20th century’s means of shaking off a collapsed world economy”

    If autos were all about consumption and waste then why did hippies drive these big smoke belching “beater buses” around the country? Maybe they should have biked.

    “If someone chooses to live in La Canada Flintridge when they work in Norwalk, they shouldn’t complain about not having door-to-door rail service.”

    So what happens when you finally get that loft in North Hollywood and your dream job in Hollywood and you get to commute by subway every day, but you get laid off? Now the only employer you sent a resume to that responded is in South Orange County. Whoops, it’s back to driving.

    People on these blogs love to scream about how people have no empathy for cyclists or pedestrians or bums, but no one can spare any empathy for drivers (“drivers,” as if they are an enemy faction that all think the same). No, fuck ’em. It’s *their* fault. They made all the wrong decisions.

    No, they are just trying to make a living and some are trying to raise families and do right by them.

    Remember, transit is a choice, and if someone wants to drive two hours each way (it might not be so bad if their job offers a 4-day workweek at 10 hours a day) and spend his or her weekends in the suburbs, more power to them (Don’t get me started on the doomsday predictions that the suburbs will be a wasteland in 50 years. Electric cars won’t be worthless forever, but now I’m complicating things). Awesome if they carpool. Awesome if they carpool in a Prius. Even more awesome if they vanpool.

    I thought it was all about choice. I thought I was supporting transit based on the idea that if given the *choice* some people would switch to a bus or train. I didn’t know the idea here was to force it down everybody’s goddamn throat.

  • Spokker

    Wentzel, that wasn’t directed toward you, but some of the fringe elements on these blogs whose conspiracy theories and such hatred toward other people boggles my mind.

  • Choice? Do the people here actually think people want to live in Lancaster or some desert and commute up to LA to work? No they don’t. People not from LA, just for reference those really big homes in Lancaster and San Bernardino even in the 90s were still half the price of a condo in safe neighborhood in Hollywood, Pasadena, or Santa Monica. People don’t live out in the middle of no where because they are selfish or gas guzzlers, they live out in the middle of no where because they are working class and don’t have any true options in the city.

    This choice things sounds excellent in theory, but anyone who hasn’t been in a bubble knows that is completely ridiculous. We all want to live next to our jobs. I would like to be able to work a 5 mile radius from my house, but as of yet I have not been able to find enough clients or a company that is willing to pay me to do that.

    You live where you can afford to live in the safest place you can and you work where they will hire you. And what happens if you move to place and get laid off, are you then now a “bad choice maker” if the next job you get is 40 miles from your house? Getting laid off is pretty common now.

    The American dream is just something they feed people so they don’t feel bad about the fact that they have to live in a crap neighborhood with a bunch of tract homes with TV as entertainment and a two hour commmute to and from a job with disappearing benefits, no one wants to live like that, but if you don’t have a choice you try to be positive about it.

    I know plenty of people who work in downtown and Hollywood and can’t afford to live there. I’m sure they would love the “choice” to live next to their jobs.

    How do you get to choose to live in a place if your salary doesn’t allow for you to live there?


  • David Galvan

    What Browne said. Exactly.

  • Spokker

    “How do you get to choose to live in a place if your salary doesn’t allow for you to live there?”

    You have a choice to go to school, work hard and get a good job. There are programs based on need for those that need them. Fill out a FAFSA, a fee waiver, whatever, if you’re eligible. Learn a trade at a vocational school. It’s better than just having a high school degree.

    I’m sure some people moved out into the boonies and regretted it. But I’m sure that others have adjusted so that their lives are manageable. They may dislike the commute (everybody complains about their commute, drivers and riders alike) but enjoy their quiet neighborhood. Maybe someone leaves their house at 5:30 AM and starts work at 6:30AM and gets to go home just before rush hour. Like I said, maybe they do a 4 day 10 hour a day work week. An hour commute isn’t so bad. Mine is longer on the train.

  • David Galvan

    “While the DOT estimates that as many as 250,000 autos will be scrapped before the initial infusion of cash runs out, car industry forecasters at believe only 50,000 extra sales will result, leaving the taxpayers with a whopping $20,000 bill for every new car purchased.”

    So much for that. That was an estimate for the entire program, originally expected to last until November 1st. Now look at this article from the Associated Press today, 5 days after this program started:

    “The program was scheduled to last through Nov. 1 or until the money ran out, but few predicted the fund would run out so quickly. The $1 billion in funding would provide up to 250,000 new car sales.
    It was unclear how many cars had been sold under the program. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said about 40,000 vehicle sales had been completed through the program but dealers estimated they were trying to complete transactions on another 200,000 vehicles, putting the amount of remaining funding in doubt.”



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