Archive for the ‘cash for clunkers’ Category

Keynesian economics is fundamentally misguided because it focuses on how to encourage more spending when the real goal should be to figure out policies that result in more income.

This is one of the reasons I wish people focused more on “gross domestic income,” which is a measure of how we earn our national income (i.e., wages, small business income, corporate profits, etc) rather than on “gross domestic product,” which is a measure of how our national income gets allocated (consumption, investment, government, etc).

Simply stated, Keynesians put the cart before the horse. Consumption doesn’t drive growth, it’s a consequence of growth.

But let’s set all that aside because we have new evidence that Keynesian stimulus schemes aren’t even very good at artificially goosing consumption.

Three economists (from MIT and Tex A&M) have crunched the numbers and discovered that Obama’s Cash-for-Clunkers scheme back in 2009 was a failure even by Keynesian standards.

The abstract of the study tells you everything you need to know.

The 2009 Cash for Clunkers program aimed to stimulate consumer spending in the new automobile industry, which was experiencing disproportionate reductions in demand and employment during the Great Recession. Exploiting program eligibility criteria in a regression discontinuity design, we show nearly 60 percent of the subsidies went to households who would have purchased during the two-month program anyway; the rest accelerated sales by no more than eight months. Moreover, the program’s fuel efficiency restrictions shifted purchases toward vehicles that cost on average $5,000 less. On net, Cash for Clunkers significantly reduced total new vehicle spending over the ten month period.

This is remarkable. At the time, the most obvious criticism of the scheme was that it would simply alter the timing of purchases.

And scholars the following year confirmed that the program didn’t have any long-run impact.

But now we find out that there was impact, but it was negative. Here’s the most relevant graph from the study.

It shows actual vehicle spending and estimated spending in the absence of the program.

For readers who like wonky details, here’s the explanatory text for Figure 7 from the study.

The effect of the program on cumulative new vehicle spending by CfC-eligible households is shown in Figure 7. The figure shows actual spending and estimates of counterfactual spending if there had been no CfC program. Cumulative spending under the CfC program was larger than counterfactual spending for the months immediately after the program. However, by February 1 the counterfactual expenditures becomes larger and by April has grown to be $4.0 billion more than actual expenditures under the program. It is difficult to make the case that the brief acceleration in spending justifies the loss of $4.0 billion in revenues to the auto industry, for two reasons. First, we calculate that in order to justify the estimated longer-term reduction in cumulative spending to boost spending for a few months, one would need a discount rate of 208 percent. Given the expected (and realized) duration of the recession, it seems difficult to argue in favor of such a discount rate. Second, we note that Cash for Clunkers seems especially unattractive compared to a counterfactual stimulus policy that left out the environmental component, which also would have accelerated purchases for some households without reducing longer-term spending.

By the way, the authors point out that Cash-for-Clunkers wasn’t even good environmental policy.

One could also argue that this decline in industry revenue over less than a year could be justified to the extent the program offered a cost-effective environmental benefit. Unfortunately, the existing evidence overwhelmingly indicates that this program was a costly way of reducing environmental damage. For example, Knittel [2009] estimates that the most optimistic implied cost of carbon reduced by the program is $237 per ton, while Li et al. [2013] estimate the cost per ton as between $92 and $288. These implied cost of carbon figures are much larger than the social costs of carbon of $33 per ton (in 2007 dollars) estimated by the IWG on the Social Cost of Carbon [Interagency Working Group, 2013].

So let’s see where we stand. The program was bad fiscal policy, bad economic policy, and bad environmental policy.

The trifecta of Obamanomics. No wonder the United States suffered the weakest recovery of the post-WWII era.

P.S. David Letterman had a rather amusing cash-for-clunkers joke back in 2010.

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Not that we need more evidence, but here are two new items confirming the absurdity of thinking that bigger government is stimulus. First, we have a story from Los Angeles revealing that the city only created 55 jobs with $111 million of stimulus funds. This translates to a per-job cost of $2 million, which is a grossly inefficient rate of return. But this calculation is incomplete because it doesn’t measure how many jobs would have been created if the money was left in the productive sector of the economy. Moreover, it’s also important to consider long-term costs such as the fact that Los Angeles now has more overhead, which will exacerbate the city’s fiscal problems.
The Los Angeles City Controller said on Thursday the city’s use of its share of the $800 billion federal stimulus find has been disappointing. The city received $111 million in stimulus under American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) approved by the Congress more than year ago. “I’m disappointed that we’ve only created or retained 55 jobs after receiving $111 million,” says Wendy Greuel, the city’s controller, while releasing an audit report. …The audit says the numbers were disappointing due to bureaucratic red tape, absence of competitive bidding for projects in private sectors, inappropriate tracking of stimulus money and a laxity in bringing out timely job reports.
Our second item is a new study from two scholars who find that the cash-for-clunkers program was a total failure. Just as anybody with an IQ above room temperature could have predicted, the overwhelming effect of the program was to encourage people to change when they purchased cars. There was no long-term positive impact on any economic variable.
A key rationale for fiscal stimulus is to boost consumption when aggregate demand is perceived to be inefficiently low. We examine the ability of the government to increase consumption by evaluating the impact of the 2009 “Cash for Clunkers” program on short and medium run auto purchases. Our empirical strategy exploits variation across U.S. cities in ex-ante exposure to the program as measured by the number of “clunkers” in the city as of the summer of 2008. We find that the program induced the purchase of an additional 360,000 cars in July and August of 2009. However, almost all of the additional purchases under the program were pulled forward from the very near future; the effect of the program on auto purchases is almost completely reversed by as early as March 2010 – only seven months after the program ended. …We also find no evidence of an effect on employment, house prices, or household default rates in cities with higher exposure to the program. 
The lesson from the cash-for-clunkers program also can be applied to other temporary programs. Good tax cuts, for instance, become gimmicks when they are temporary. This doesn’t mean there is no positive effect on incentives from a payroll tax holiday, temporary expensing, or a two-year extension of the 2001/2003 tax cuts, but the overwhelming impact is to alter the timing of economic activity rather than the level of economic activity.

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A fallacy (one of many) of Keynesian economics is that it incorrectly assumes that consumption is the cause of economic growth rather than the result of economic growth. This leads advocates of this misguided theory to adopt policies designed to get people to spend more – even though economic growth (by definition) is the result of people earning more income. This absurd logical mistake is evident in the cash-for-clunkers debacle, as I explain to Foxnews.com:

…critics have a different view. “This is not good for economic growth,” said Dan Mitchell, a senior fellow in economics at the Cato Institute. “You’re simply getting people to use existing income to spend on cars. Getting people to spend more of their money on cars mean they will have less money to spend on other things.” Economic growth, Mitchell argued, is not getting people to spend more money on products, it’s getting them to have more income. Mitchell also believes the program is counterproductive for the auto industry down the road because the acceleration in car purchases will precede a “big downturn in the future.” “Giving someone a shot of heroin is not good for their long term health,” he told FOXNews.com. The program, Mitchell added, shows that the government is “incompetent.”

The Wall Street Journal has the same perspective, noting that the policy is not a success – unless one defines success as getting people to buy things with other people’s money:

What the clunker policy really proves is that Americans aren’t stupid and will let some other taxpayer buy them a free lunch if given the chance. The buying spree is good for the car companies, if only for the short term and for certain car models. It’s good, too, for folks who’ve been sitting on an older car or truck but weren’t sure they had the cash to trade it in for something new. Now they get a taxpayer subsidy of up to $4,500, which on some models can be 25% of the purchase price. It’s hardly surprising that Peter is willing to use a donation from his neighbor Paul, midwifed by Uncle Sugar, to class up his driveway. On the other hand, this is crackpot economics. The subsidy won’t add to net national wealth, since it merely transfers money to one taxpayer’s pocket from someone else’s, and merely pays that taxpayer to destroy a perfectly serviceable asset in return for something he might have bought anyway. By this logic, everyone should burn the sofa and dining room set and refurnish the homestead every couple of years.

Last but not least, the CEO of Edmunds, the company that publishes leading car-buying guides, has a column in the Wall Street Journal explaining that even auto companies may come to regret this policy since the net effect seems to be that consumers either postponed or accelerated purchases that would have occurred anyway:

…it’s not clear that cash for clunkers actually increased sales. Edmunds.com noted recently that over 100,000 buyers put their purchases on hold waiting for the program to launch. Once consumers could start cashing in on July 24, showrooms were flooded and government servers were overwhelmed as the backlog of buyers finalized their purchases. Secondly, on July 27, Edmunds.com published an analysis showing that in any given month 60,000 to 70,000 “clunker-like” deals happen with no government program in place. The 200,000-plus deals the government was originally prepared to fund through the program’s Nov. 1 end date were about the “natural” clunker trade-in rate.

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