In the closing days of Cash for Clunkers, car dealers were turning buyers away, the government website crashed trying to keep up with the paperwork, and even the purple cars were selling. So, what does it tell us about our national character when the most popular government program in years is an economically dubious, environmentally negligible, politically lazy handout from 99% of the population to the other 1%, all aimed at reviving the economy from its vegetative state?
It used to be, when we wanted to use public policy to nudge private behavior, we poked people with a stick: 40 years of issuing health warnings couldn’t reduce smoking as much as hiking taxes so that a pack can cost upwards of $9. But nowadays, Congress would much rather reward than penalize, and bribery as policy has a modern elegance to it. Cash for Clunkers didn’t involve intricate algorithms or a 1,400-page appropriations bill. The only debate was over how much sugar was needed to sweeten the pot. That first billion was supposed to last a few months; when it ran out in a week, a bipartisan coalition voted to squirt $2 billion more into the pipeline. Here, finally, was stimulus policy Americans understood. Researchers find that people will buy something on sale even if the reduced price is higher than the regular price at another store. “Just seeing the difference between the full and reduced price motivates the purchases,” explains Ellen Ruppel Shell in her new book, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. “It is as though, rather than spending the cost of the product, we’re actually earning the savings.” Which raises the tantalizing question of how such delusional psychology might be applied to our other problems. There are already plans for Dollars for Dishwashers; buyers will get a rebate if they scrap that energy-sucking appliance for a more efficient one. Arizonans debated boosting election-day turnout with the Voter Reward Act, which proposed treating ballots like lottery tickets: one lucky voter would have won a million dollars. New York City pays public-school students to get good grades. But these are penny-size ideas. Now that trillion has replaced billion in our fiscal conversations, the scope for inventive incentives is vast. The cost of treating obesity has doubled in a decade, to $147 billion. So how about Cash for Chunkers: we get to trade in that extra 20 pounds for a coupon good at the local farm stand. Roads and bridges crumbling Why bother allocating $27 billion in stimulus money when we could pay people to reroute or, better yet, stay home California plans on releasing at least 37,000 inmates to ease prison overcrowding and save $1 billion. It costs $27,000 a year to keep someone in jail. It would be much more efficient to pay thieves not to steal in the first place. Is this the essential paradox of the age of Obama, that we have to destroy the village in order to save it, bust the budget in hopes we’ll someday balance it, play to self-interest to promote the national interest Just as the Cash for Clunkers frenzy reached its peak, the Administration quietly released new deficit projections, which pointed to a $9 trillion gap over 10 years. In the middle of a national nervous breakdown over out-of-control spending, we took a summer break from puritanical fretting and got all excited about a federal subsidy for something we already buy more of than we need.Of course, critics are right that the program will probably drive up the price of used cars for poor people who need them and will have only a marginal effect on the long-term prospects of the auto industry. Subsidies don’t so much increase demand as kidnap it, inspire people to take the money they were saving for a new fridge and apply it to a pickup instead. As for the environmental benefit, the new fleet will save about 160 million gal. of gasoline a year–which sounds awfully good, except that we use 378 million gal. a day. But all that misses the point. The goal of the policy was only incidentally to sell more cars or scrub the air. It was mainly aimed at reviving our animal spirits. We’ll know, when the history of the Great Recession is written, whether this summer brought the turning point, when we crept out of our little boxes, felt a hunger for the open road, our spirits drunk on the smell of vinyl and the feel of the wheel. The beauty of the policy is that it’s neither liberal nor conservative, just deeply pragmatic–the most American ideology of all. You do whatever works, throw ideas at the problem and see what sticks. Look at our history, and the not-quite-rational patchwork of minimal solutions has a decent track record. If Cash for Clunkers is really all it takes to get us up and moving again, that $3 billion will look like the smartest money Washington spent all year.