Cash for (fill in the blank)

August 7, 2009

In 2000, I drove an ’89 Honda Accord and my roommate and best friend Lani had an ’86 Prelude. Despite the missing hub cap from my Accord that fell off somewhere along 35W and Lani’s Prelude driver’s door that wouldn’t open and forced us to climb through either the window or across the passenger seat, we loved our little clunkers. They got us where we needed to be – and sometimes where we probably shouldn’t have been. Thinking back, I can’t remember “miles per gallon” even being a part of anyone’s vocabulary. Fast forward nearly ten years, add a little green, and it’s suddenly become part of elevator and dinner party conversations right up there with the weather.

 Cash For ClunkersWhich explains why “Cash for Clunkers” has been all of the rage this week. So far, 240,000 Americans have traded in their gas guzzlers for more fuel-efficient cars. Some commentators have focused on the success of the program and the driving of immediate results, while others have touted it as a lame attempt to spark something that only equates to a short-term solution and suggestions that we’re playing favorites with the auto industry yet again.

 The pros: 240,000 people have purchased cars from a lagging automotive industry, giving Detroit, et al, a much needed boost. 240,000 gas guzzlers are off the road, meaning I won’t have to smell that god-awful exhaust that excretes from a true clunker. According to the Department of Transportation, the clunkers averaged 15.8 m.p.g., compared with 25.4 m.p.g. for the new vehicles purchased, for an average fuel-economy increase of 61%. Not too shabby if that’s true.

 The cons: the manufacturing costs of the new cars and disposal costs of the clunkers haven’t necessarily been reported or figured into the environmental impact, so while 61% fuel-economy increase is great, what are the other implications we need to consider? Plus, 250,000 Americans receiving the benefit is small change in the larger scheme of the American population. Could $1B be spent elsewhere (and — late breaking news — another $2B now that the program has been extended), like on alternative forms of transportation?

 I happen to agree with Bryan Walsh in  Time , who said that we shouldn’t be focusing on vehicles but instead focus on fuel itself – such as how we reduce our dependency on it and learn not to take it for granted. To fill a tank in the rest of the world costs ten times as much as it does in the U.S., and the rest of the world has responded with alternative forms of transportation and energy and being smarter about how they use the resource.  Sure, it sucked last summer when it was $4 per gallon, but it forced people think before acting and to begin having the crucial conversations about our dependency and what we need to do to change. Should we consider increasing it on our own accord so everyone shares the burden?

 I can’t say that I have a strong opinion about Cash for Clunkers either way with so many people weighing in with valid points on both sides of the coin, but what I appreciate the most is that we’re attempting to DO SOMETHING, just as we were forced to do when fuel first became a hot topic, and this is the next step towards change.

 If you’re not offended by mildly inappropriate language, check out The Daily Show segment for a satirical look at what the media are saying and a few other ways we put cash to work for us.  Then, this weekend, consider making Cash for …. into a party game at your next soiree.