Saturday, August 1, 2009

Cash Test Dummies

"Congress and the Obama administration scrambled Friday to triple the size of the overwhelmingly popular ‘‘cash for clunkers’’ program after it appeared to be exhausting its $1 billion funding in its first week," reports one wire service this morning -- which comes on the heals of numerous reports (just one example) that the program is in complete disarray. My violent reaction nearly set off the airbag on my PC.

Better buckle up, everyone. This is not going to be a Sunday drive. It's all going to end badly, in some ditch up around the bend; twisted steel; powdered glass; smoking ruins; great plumes of greenbacks blowing in the wind.

Tripling the program's size would bring the total cost to taxpayers to $3 billion -- that's three thousand million dollars -- before we even know what's gone wrong with the week-old program, or whether it's a cost-effective way to improve air quality or reduce our dependence on foreign oil. That's its purpose, remember -- to incentivize Americans to trade in their gas-guzzling and vapor-spewing road hogs for something more environmentally-correct.

But "cash for clunkers" seems in only a week to have become something else: a way for shrewd car buyers and hungry auto dealers to game a new federal program for personal gain and profit. Nothing wrong with personal gain or profit, mind you, when it's pursued in the private sector, playing by the rules. But the remarkable popularity of this program suggests to me that a massive scam is going on, all bankrolled by taxpayers. And to commit even more money to the effort before we even know how the scam works, or recognize it as such, constitutes reckless driving on Washington's part.

Washington tends to judge the success of a program not by measuring actual results -- do we have any idea whether the $1 billion in car-buyer subsidies already spent by CFC will actually generate the promised benefits? -- but by measuring how many Americans take advantage of the program. If 2 million more Americans are on food stamps this year than were on food stamps last year, that's a successful program that needs more funding, according to Washington-think. And by that standard, this program is an instant success, which is poised to triple in size less than a week after launch.

Washington also likes to refashion federal programs that have strayed from, or can't possibly fulfill, their original purpose. That's already happening with "cash for clunkers." It started out as one thing -- a good-for-the-environment thing. It's already morphing into something else -- a good-for-the-car-business, helps-stimulate-the-economy thing. "Mission creep" used to creep into federal programs over a matter of decades. Now it can happen in a matter of days. Trying to turn this into a stimulus success story is making a lemon into lemonade.

‘‘Not more than a few weeks ago, there were skeptics who weren’t sure that this cash for clunkers program would work,’’ President Obama said yesterday. ‘‘I’m happy to report that it has succeeded well beyond our expectations and all expectations, and we’re already seeing a dramatic increase in showroom traffic at local car dealers.’’

Of course we're seeing "a dramatic increase in showroom traffic." Uncle Sam is handing out $4,500 checks to any car buyer or car seller who can figure out a way to make the trade-in appear to meet the program's sloppily-conceived and loophole-laced criteria. And because there's no oversight being exercised by federal officials, and because those administering the program are by all accounts overwhelmed and in disarray, it's become a field day for taking advantage of taxpayers.

I remain a skeptic, despite Obama's finger-wagging. There's massive gaming going on here, obviously. Cash for Clunkers is a boondogglemobile, which is taking taxpayers for a ride. But rather than hit the breaks, and get both hands back on the steering wheel, and rather than build in safeguards against the scams that must be taking place, the cash test dummies in Washington are putting the pedal to the metal and speeding forward, oblivious to the risks involved.

This program is an Edsel, which will probably go down as one of the fastest (though obviously not biggest) boondoggles in federal history (zero to $3 billion in sixty seconds may set a new track record). Obama's efforts to portray it as a Ferrari will blow up in his face when the extent of the scam becomes evident.

I'm reminded of that wonderful quote from P.J. O'Rourke: "Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys."

The teenage boys have the car keys now.

How much more whiskey are we going to give them?

No comments: