How much did Cash for Clunkers really cost us?

Posted by Jason | Posted in Economics, Government | Posted on 02-11-2009

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An article on CNNMoney.com highlights that for the $3 billion we spend on Cash for Clunkers, we only got an additional 125,000 additional car sales over what we would have got without C4C. That comes out to tax payers paying $24,000 per car.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) — A total of 690,000 new vehicles were sold under the Cash for Clunkers program last summer, but only 125,000 of those were vehicles that would not have been sold anyway, according to an analysis released Wednesday by the automotive Web site Edmunds.com.

via Cash for Clunkers costs taxpayers $24,000 per car – Oct. 28, 2009.

While this shows how stupid our government officials are in and of itself, it doesn’t even talk about what opportunity costs we bared. Everything has an opportunity cost. For example, if I have $25 to take my wife out on a date (I know she’s a lucky lady) and we decide to go to the movies, there is an opportunity cost to that. Those costs related to what we gave up in order to go to the movies. We could have went to eat, seen a play (maybe at the local high school), or stayed home. If the benefit of going to the movies was less than the benefit of the passed up opportunities, we made a bad decision. While my example is subjective, because going to the movies that night might have been what brought us the most happiness, C4C is not as subjective.

The $3 billion dollars had to be pulled out of our private sector in order to pay for this program. By taking it out of the private sector, what opportunities were passed up? The free market allocates resources, in this case capital, to its most efficient use. Most efficient use means benefits are maximized for the resources used. For example, I might have the resources of a lawn mower, gas, and labor. The most efficient use of those resources would be to get my lawn cut. It would not be to have the laborer hand pick the grass, so he could use the gas for something else. The lost time the laborer would incur would not justify the savings of the gas. Government on the other hand diverts capital away from what would other wise be the most efficient use of that capital. By definition, the opportunities that were passed up would have had higher benefits.

As you can see, we did not get a good deal on the increased sales at $24,000 per car. Also, this was a one time program that now has come and gone like all government stimulus. No one is hiring now for a program that is over.

Also, how are we better off as a society? We destroyed cars that were in most cases perfectly functioning vehicles. We replaced one automobile for another. This does not add to the wealth of society. If it did, we should just trash our cars once a month.  If that $3 billion was left to the private sector to create new products, it would have improved the wealth of our society. For example, it may have produced the next medical treatment, a faster computer or the next innovation that advances society in general.

What politicians don’t understand is they cannot guess centrally what is best for the economy. Only the fine tweaking of millions or private transactions can do that.

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