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I recently came across an MSN article that was published recently on how a bill is currently winding its way through the halls of Congress that is essentially a “cash for clunkers” concept to encourage Americans to trade in their old vehicles and buy new ones. The general concept, on the whole, is not bad — American car buyers will get rid of their old, gas-guzzling vehicles and buy more fuel efficient (and hopefully less polluting) cars to replace them. The upshot is that theoretically America’s car fleet will, on the whole, go up in fuel efficiency which means that our gas consumption should, theoretically, go down and therefore our reliance on oil will, theoretically, go down.

On pure face value this is absolutely a “good thing”. However, the way the government is approaching this (and how the interests in Congress are shaping this bill) worries me. The government will offer consumers a $4500 voucher if the vehicle that they purchase gets 10 miles per gallon (mpg) more than the vehicle they are scrapping. If the new vehicle only gets 4 to 9 mpg more then the old one then the voucher is only worth $3500. And that’s just for cars. For light trucks the mileage gain would only have to be 5 mpg and 2 mpg for the respective vouchers.

Ok, yes, it’s an incentive (just like the incentive that sales tax on new vehicles purchased this year between February 17, 2009 and the end of the year will be deductible on your income taxes next year). The idea is to spur the American consumer to go out and “shop” (sound familiar?) and spend money they may not even have on a big ticket item (i.e. durable goods). In theory, Americans buy vehicles, old gas guzzlers are scrapped, car sales — which are about as anemic as they come — are boosted, and the automakers get a bit of a reprieve from the recession.

The problem is that this is money that the American government doesn’t have. Yes, we could just print more money and, voila!, we’ll have the money for this program. But to do so we must tread carefully. We are already seeing the effects of printing more money as the value of the U.S. dollar is declining with respect to other currencies. Other governments are becoming increasingly concerned about their investments (i.e. U.S. Treasury Notes) in the United States and may slow down or stop buying them altogether. With increased dollar circulation we are diluting the value of the dollar and driving inflation. This is what happened in the mid- to late-late 70s and early 80s and it took the Fed quite a bit of time to take enough dollars out of circulation to help stem the tide.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand the concept of deficit spending in order to help pull us out of this economic deep dive but I tend to be a fiscal conservative in my overall outlook. Yes, in my opinion, we need to spend on health care and on infrastructure but I see this bill as another congressional way of throwing a lifeline to the auto industry when already two out of the “Big 3” (i.e. G.M. and Chrysler) have already received a huge amount of bailout money and have both declared bankruptcy. The difference here is that this is something that Washington doesn’t have to do. Already the auto makers are doing an enormous amount to try and spur sagging sales. I recently traded in my 1997 Nissan Maxima for a 2009 Toyota Prius because Toyota was offering 0% financing on 2009 Toyota Prius models (the car that just 8 months ago dealers couldn’t even keep on the lots because they were such a hot item). I did it without a government voucher and got a great deal.

There were many other great offers from Toyota as well…I just happened to be in the market for a Prius. And that’s where this bill won’t do much. In the article “Cash in on your gas guzzler” on MSN Catherine Holahan notes

Even if it passes as now written, the bill might not affect sales much. In a recent Kelley Blue Book survey, nearly 40% of car buyers said that the bill wouldn’t spur them to purchase a new vehicle. Only 13% of survey respondents said that they would be “highly motivated” to buy a new car, if the bill passed.

(Holahan, Catherine, “Cash for your gas guzzler“, MSN, May 19, 2009)

And as for environmental impact — in the current form of this bill (it was originally calling for vouchers for new vehicles that “got at least 28 mpg and new SUVs that saw 23 mpg or more.” (Holahan, Catherine, “Cash for your gas guzzler“, MSN, May 19, 2009)) this bill will do little since it has been watered down.

“This will not benefit the environment, but it will help sell a new pickup truck,” said Ann Mesnikoff, the director of green transportation with the Sierra Club, the nation’s largest environmental protection group. “They are trying to make it possible to sell anything under this bill.”

(Holahan, Catherine, “Cash for your gas guzzler“, MSN, May 19, 2009)

The clear winners in this bill are the auto dealers and the auto manufacturers (which is not a bad thing for the auto dealers given the way that G.M. and Chrysler will be cutting thousands of them off in their bankruptcy proceedings). Even the aftermarket parts industry will lose (and so will many Americans who cannot or choose not to buy a new car at this time) as the parts from older vehicles that typically get refurbished and reconditioned for replacement parts are destined for the scrap heap under this bill. Repairing older cars will become more expensive as parts become scarce. The clear losers in this bill are the American taxpayers — both present and future who will have to pay back this additional debt.

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Dear President-Elect Obama,

As you are now working hard to build your new administration cabinet and team I would ask that you reflect on the fact that the hopes of millions of Americans are focused on you and your call for change in Washington D.C. The past eight years have been extremely rough on the country as a whole. We are now involved in two wars, we have watched our civil liberties erode, we have seen a government which has been mishandled and mislead, and we have now watched our value and our fortunes disappear in a puff of smoke in front of us. Many Americans have lost their retirement savings and many have lost their homes. In turn, we watch as the our government throws billions of dollars to banks who are one of the root causes of the current economic morass as well as to automobile manufacturers who have largely ignored the market conditions and refused, at every turn, to change their business models to meet the demands of the new century.

Many Americans are facing the possibility that this will be their last Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa in their homes. The new year brings with it the reality that Wells Fargo, Fannie Mae and Countrywide will allow their holiday moratoriums on foreclosure proceedings to expire and they will move forward in foreclosing on houses. Many Americans are facing the possibility that this may be the final few weeks of work for them as their employers downsize, factories close, or businesses shutter completely due to the economic downturn now facing the country. Many Americans are wondering what will become of them, their families, and their futures.

We have witnessed how the country has been led down a path of carefree spending as though the piper need never be paid, how our leaders in the White House and in Congress have resolutely refused to acknowledge that the energy infrastructure of yesteryear is inadequate and harmful for the world of tomorrow, and how our stature in the world has diminished greatly because we have failed to lead.

The world we face today is dramatically different that that faced by President Clinton in 1993 when he entered office and by President Bush when he entered office in 2001. We need leadership now in the same way that President Roosevelt led in 1932 and 1936. We truly need a new “New Deal” — one where we, as Americans, can build a better America not just for ourselves but for our children, and for generations to come. We are not asking for handouts without being willing to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty. We are not asking for giveaways without a willingness to break a sweat on our brows. We are not asking for you to solve our problems without our input. We are simply asking for you to set a good example and to lead thoughtfully and responsibly.

What do we mean by a good example? Be frugal in what you do — show America that you feel her pain. Show Americans that you understand their plight. Do not be execessive in what you spend but buy what you need. Show Americans that you are saving money, that you are investing in America — in the right places — green energy projects, schools, infrastructure for the 21st century. Help us build a new economy out of the ashes of the old one so that when historians look back they will say that this was the turning point when America became a better place — a beacon, once again, for the world to see, to learn from, and to follow.

Thank You,
Ido Dubrawsky

The New York Times published this article today about how the global economic slowdown may adversely affect the effort to build and transition to a green energy grid. As the prices for coal, oil and other fossil fuels have plummeted in the past two months the incentive to build solar power plants, wind farms, and even nuclear plants has dissipated. Interestingly the side-effect of this drop in commodity prices may also save Detroit’s big three automakers as it may make their vehicles (which aren’t so fuel efficient) more affordable to operate than they were six months ago.

I think President-elect Obama, though, is right. The time to move is now. We need to keep our eye on the longer goal of reducing our overall greenhouse gas emissions and preventing long term global warming that may result and be subequently irreversible. It is going to be painful, no doubt, but we have been living recklessly and irresponsibly for far too long. Mankind may be facing its own extinction level event if we do nothing to right the environmental damage we have wrought on this world. I don’t mean to sound so gloomy and alarmist but we cannot continue to pursue this wreckless behavior and expect that we won’t have to pay the piper in the end. The economic slowdown can be seen as both a curse and a blessing. On the one hand many people will lose their jobs, their homes, their dignity…and it may not be of their own doing. On the other hand we can use this opportunity, with the concurrent slowdown in emissions and pollution, to rebuild our economy for the 21st century — focusing our efforts on developing and deploying cleaner energy technologies and putting in place the necessary policies and treaties to protect the environment. Because, if the environment goes to hell…so do we as a race and probably as a planet.

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