The “other” side of “Cash for Clunkers”

Son Ben was the first to complain about the “Cash for Clunkers” program being counterproductive.  Frankly, not being in the market for clunkers, I did not “feel his pain,” but now I do.

Ben is 16.  He drives a 1981 Toyota Corolla.  The car is a decade older than him.  It was what he could afford.  He paid for it in cash from money he’d earned, been given as gifts and saved along the way.  The $1,100 purchase price was HUGE to him.  It could have been a million dollars from his young view.  I’m ashamed to admit that we all kidded Ben about his big purchase.  When he called his car a “bullet”  we called it his “bomb.”  Big sister did NOT want to ride in it for fear that it would ruin her reputation.  With no radio, no heater, an odd smell and questionable wipers, no one except Nana was eager to take the first ride.

Ben, the poor kid, had worked so hard to be responsible, to only buy what he could afford, to love it and treat it like a Bentley, and he was rewarded with our laughter.  We should all be ashamed…But not his dad.  Ken thought that Ben driving an ancient car was important.  “He needs to learn to work hard to better his position in life,” said Ken.  “He needs to know that things are not handed to him on a platter,” he said.  “He needs to develop a work ethic so he can provide for his family,” he would say. 

And so the lessons have been underway for a year when Ben’s clutch went out.  It was expected.  A car that old cannot run without a menagerie of broken parts – which, translated, means that whenever Ben got his savings account up to $200, or $300, he’d get a car problem that cost $500.  So when Ben said he wanted to upgrade his car, I offered to help him in his hunt.  That was before I had considered that the Cash for Clunkers government program had encouraged people to take in old cars and get ridiculous prices ($4,500+) for old vehicles, only for those vehicles to be destroyed.

“It will clean up the environment,” said the President.  “It will help the economy,” said other leaders. 

They’re all wet.  From Ben’s perspective, they have removed the affordable cars out of the marketplace for young men like him to buy, repair, learn from, and drive until they can upgrade.  They removed the cars that the insurance companies charged less to insure.  They removed the cars that had affordable registrations.  Now, those cheap cars are scarce.  Instead of easily finding a car for $2,000-$2,500, the upgrade cars start at $4,000.  This steep price jump forces young bucks like Ben to accept ”borrowing,” from dubious sources for depreciating assets.  Hmmm.  That’s an odd lesson for government to endorse.  Especially in this economy when those who live within their means should be applauded.  What were they thinking?  Get rid of the clunkers – remove the reachable goal for young boys.  After all, every 16 year old needs a $10,000 car, right?  And, at 16, if they get that far into debt, how will their college tuition get paid?  By borrowing, that’s how.  Methodically, our high school children are being desensitized to debt.  How will they learn fiscal responsibility?  How will they recognize what government is doing wrong? 

So, I search the classified, the salvage titles, the back-door entry into automobile ownership for a kid that wishes he wasn’t stuck in a clap-trap of a car.  And as all those clunkers get smashed, replacement parts for cars like Ben’s will become more and more expensive.  Why didn’t the congressmen think of that?  Are they all so accustomed to driving higher end cars that they forgot what it’s like to be 16 again?  Or, did all the congressmen’s parents buy them their first cars?  Perhaps that would explain the lack of guilt in spending OPM (other people’s money).

So, I apologize for this post not being “funny” as the title of this blog suggests.  I just sometimes feel that as a parent trying to raise a responsible adult – someone who will NOT be a drain on the system – that the government decision makers are  just not being that helpful. 

Heidi went off to Los Angeles for a debate camp and was accosted with those who view the government allocations to educating the poor as hopelessly inadequate.  She finally got a belly full of this tripe and asked one attendant if the local libraries in their town charged admission.  “Well, no,” the kid said.  Heidi then reminded this kid that some of the best educators in the world – the most expensive speakers who have ever lived – offer their insights for free at local libraries.  “Education is free in the U.S.,” she said, “Just most people are too lazy to go get it!”  Of course, that went over like a lead balloon.  But she speaks from the heart and from her own experience.  When Ken and I were first married and I could not get hired, I went to the library and checked out countless books on finance, real estate, pitfalls of money management, etc.  That education will never show up on a transcript, but a shrewd businessman would be a fool not to hire me because of my lack of a degree – the education I received was superb – and exceeded much of what is taught in colleges.  The fact that I got it from a library showed incredible initiative.  I made sure that my kids knew that beyond cars, and colleges, there is always another way to make your dreams come true.  It might take extra work, but it’s not “someone else’s fault” if your life doesn’t turn out as you’d hoped.  And no amount of government spending can change that.