Debating Cash for Clunkers

The right is getting grief for its opposition to the “Cash for Clunkers” program. Here’s John Stewart poking fun at the weakest criticism of the program.

Andrew Sullivan cites this as an example of “the right-wing’s completely disproportionate reaction to what are really mildly left-of-center proposals by the President and Congress.” He writes:

There’s a groundswell of grousing on the right about the cash-for-clunkers program, because the feds were caught off-guard by its popularity. The argument is that if the government can’t run cash-for-clunkers, how can it run healthcare?
To which one might respond: but cash-for-clunkers is one example of the government actually doing something right, helpful and popular. It’s the kind of pragmatic experimentation that FDR tried repeatedly. So you have a practical, targeted measure that seems to have helped abate a deeper recession in the auto industry, and the right is obsessed with the ideological abstraction of “government.”

Here’s the thing: “the right” is an utter disaster at the moment. You’ve got frightening numbers of people who think President Obama is an illegal alien who faked his Hawaiian birth certificate; adherents who get much of their information from a cable news network where many of the so-called journalists are shameless propagandists; a talk radio lineup of bombastic, juvenile opportunists whose hyperbole, intellectual dishonesty and general approach to public discourse does a disservice to their listeners and their country; a contingent of voters that cares most about national security, yet bizarrely thinks that an erratic former Alaska governor without any foreign policy experience is their preferred candidate; a conservative movement whose institutions are too often designed to cynically exploit the rank-and-file; and regional leaders too many of whom are unable to grasp that it’s unacceptable to send around e-mail forwards that traffic in pernicious racial stereotypes. Among other things.

So yeah, of course there are some nut jobs on the right offering poor arguments against Cash for Clunkers. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t sound arguments against Cash for Clunkers, or that the program is helpful, or practical, or targeted at anyone except financially interested parties in the automobile industry, or that any opposition to the program is merely ideological.

Want serious arguments? I give you Radley Balko:

You mean the government is offering people free money . . . and they’re taking it? And they’re measuring the program’s success by how many people . . . are willing to take free money? Shocker that it’s been so succesfull, huh?
There’s also the laughable idea that the government is ordering the destruction of tens of thousands of used automobiles it paid people thousands of dollars to exchange . . . for new cars that may get no more than an added four miles per gallon. And all in the name of saving energy. I’m no television comedy writer, but if they wanted to, the creative minds at TDS could certainly have gotten some mileage (sorry) out of the idea that the government’s energy savings equation looks something like this:
(all of the energy that went into making the old car) + (the energy it will take to destroy it) + (all of the energy it took to make the new car) + ($3,500) < an extra four miles per gallon!

And Rich Lowry:

The fundamental mistake is to think that the government can magically induce economic activity with no countervailing downside. The Clunkers program is really just shifting around sales, creating the illusion of a demand for cars conjured out of nowhere. To the extent the program has enticed people to speed up or delay their purchases to take advantage of the rebate, it has borrowed demand from earlier this year or the future for a burst of sales in the summer of 2009.
The car-buying guide reports that as many as 100,000 buyers delayed their purchases, waiting for the Clunkers program. And some of the roughly 60,000 trade-ins that take place in any month anyway were rushed to gobble up the rebate. “We have crammed three or four months of normal activity into just a few days,” CEO Jeremy Anwyl writes in the Wall Street Journal.

And Derek Thompson too.

As regular readers know, I think it is important to rebut absurd rhetoric and expose intellectually dishonest blowhards for what they are, but I also think that any assessment of a policy’s merits should be formed in response to the best arguments for and against it, not the noisiest or even the most prevalent critique on offer. Just because the right includes a lot of people making very bad arguments right now doesn’t make the people they’re arguing against right. It’s a lesson I learned when I saw the behavior of bombastic, juvenile folks on the left translate into support for President Bush’s bid to invade Iraq.

Let us recall Jane’s law: “The devotees of the party in power are smug and arrogant. The devotees of the party out of power are insane.” A corollary is that those insane people end up inadvertently helping the smug and arrogant to advance their agenda, however foolish. We should resist that outcome as best we can — and one way to do so is to grapple with the right’s more sane writers rather than its most hackish cable news talking heads.