Cash for the Real Clunkers

The feds launched the “cash for clunkers” program recently that pays you to scrap your old polluting car if you buy a fuel-efficient one.  This is a great idea that can be applied elsewhere to clean the environment and stimulate economic growth. But just how far could this idea go?

About 10% of vehicles on the road account for over 40% of the pollution, so getting clunkers off the road makes sense. California has long had a similar program and we learned from early mistakes. Years ago, California bought clunkers, but then auctioned them off to dealers who licensed them in neighboring states or Mexico and often the same cars were operated in California again. That early program allowed refineries to pollute more if they took clunkers off the road, but all that did was concentrate pollution from many sources into one smokestack that polluted adjacent residential neighborhoods.

The modern program, both in California and the federal version, makes sure the offending clunker (or at least its engine and transmission) are sent to the shredder, never to return. Old programs didn’t require the purchase of a new vehicle (so some people turned in cars that were inoperable anyway), but you only get the new federal handout if you use it to buy a new, cleaner car. That stimulates new car sales – – greening the environment and the economy.

So if this works for air pollution and the car industry, where else might it apply? In California we have long had a program to buy back old inefficient appliances, like refrigerators, so people buy new energy-efficient ones. That has helped Californians become 40% more energy efficient than the average American – – and stimulated the economy around appliance sales and service. Other states intent on reducing energy bills and greenhouse gases should copy that model.

And given how much politicians like to raise campaign contributions, why not offer cash for political clunkers – – instead of paying them for votes, pay them to retire early. I can think of quite a few clunker-lawmakers in Washington and some state capitals who actively oppose environmental regulation (even when it saves money, like these cash for clunker programs) who would qualify.

On second thought, with so many governors and members of Congress stepping down or announcing that they won’t run for re-election – – including some of the most anti-green politicians in history – – we’ll eliminate a lot of hot air without spending the extra money. Let’s keep using it to get those polluting cars off the road!