Sell Clunkers at Auction to Low-Income Workers

Thirteen years ago, living in Durham, N.C., when my wife was starting grad school, we finally ditched the family car, a great light-green Buick station wagon. It had been the last “last year’s model” in Alexandria, Va., where we bought it cheap after our first son was born and we needed something a little bigger than the Subaru. It gave flawless service for a dozen years and over 200,000 miles and had hauled sheep, chickens and a total, at one point, of 43 animals, including multiples of dogs and cats and the four young’uns.

There was a program then to give or sell old cars cheap to the poor on government support. And possession of an old car like that was supposed to be considered tangible evidence that you qualified for support. We sold it to someone in the neighborhood and I saw it driving by long after, a triumph of American vision and innovation that just wouldn’t die.

Like my old Dodge van, a prison bus I’d bought at auction in North Carolina. I was stopped once by a Buddhist monk at a rest stop in Virginia who admired my van. He had had one just like it years before he became a monk. “You just can’t kill it,” he said. It was a classic. Today there will be no such thing as a classic.

It came to mind yesterday when I drove by the Chevy dealer up here in northern New Hampshire and saw a group of nice-looking trucks lined up with “Not for sale” written on their windows with marker. They were all good, strong trucks. Nicer than the one I just bought off Craigslist: a ’96 Ford F-150 with 146,000 miles on it for $800. A six-cylinder, 306. I should get another 70,000 miles out of it for my 800 bucks. I was bragging all week about the great deal I’d made.

I assume they are going to destroy these perfectly good trucks and cars, injecting their engines with glass, which seems more like an execution. Too bad. I’m guessing that the economist who thought up the program didn’t actually think it up but observed maybe that in Singapore, the legendary Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew outlawed old cars entirely in modernizing Singapore. Pollution being one consideration. But Singapore then was concerned about being new and looking new just like us Americans and getting the new citizens of a jungle region reprogrammed out of their quiet country ways and into the buy/sell/buy/sell program of a modern market economy. Lee Kuan Yew also outlawed playing music in public, and spitting.

But this program is characteristic of a throwaway society. A society that throws away entire cities — Newark, N.J.; Detroit; Durham; Fall River, Mass., where I grew up. The angel of capital alights like an iron butterfly then moves on — Singapore, Shanghai, Mexico City. Both Pope Benedict and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have recently remarked that this worldwide recession gives us an opportunity to change our ways and rebuild to a more traditional society based on savings and community values and responsibility. Saving the world by saving ourselves.

Destroying perfectly good trucks that get 17 miles per gallon to prompt people to buy new ones that get 20 isn’t going to help if they destroy the cars. And four out of the five car companies that are profiting from this are either German or Japanese. Destroying cars causes more pollution. And every one of these trucks I saw up here destined to be destroyed is in better shape than the trucks and vans being driven by the army of campesinos who cut tobacco and do the fieldwork in Yadkin County, N.C., and everywhere else across agricultural America.

They people are poor only in the eyes of politicians from northern cities. They don’t make much money, but seem to be doing all right. And they know how to do things. They could take any one of these clunkers and drop a new transmission in it right there in the front yard, putting together an innovative new ride that will take them home to Juarez or Chihuahua and back to do America’s work over a long weekend.

But this administration, having “whistled past Dixie” to bask at Martha’s Vineyard, also whistled past most of the hardest-working people in America’s heartland. Cash for Clunkers is not so much a bad idea as one that is painfully out of touch with working people’s American realities.


Visit Mr. Quigley's website at http://quigleyblog.blogspot.com.