jalopiesThe controversy of the federal government’s “cash-for-clunkers” program dramatizes the odd position we Americans have put ourselves in as victims of our own success.

The program provides a $4,500 subsidy for a qualified buyer who wants to trade in an old inefficient vehicle for a new and “greener” one. Everybody wins in this program: the buyer can afford a new car, the auto dealer and — by extension — the manufacturer gets rid of inventory, the environment is subject to one less outrage, and the junk yard gets another heap to turn back into cash. The program is so beneficial, and consequently so popular, that it went broke in a hurry, and the question of whether to re-fund it is now being debated in Congress.

john_mccainOne of those opposed to more funding for this program is U.S. Sen. John McCain — Sarah Palin’s former running mate. McCain thinks this program is an unfair subsidy of the auto industry, as distinct from other classes of business that are at risk in this economic downturn. But the auto industry is getting this attention because it has become such a pervasive part of the overall economy; if it goes down, according to conventional wisdom, everything else goes with it.

BrandNewCarsRex460At the root of this phenomenon is the American obsession with cars and with new cars in particular. This has been out of control for a long time, but we were too giddy to notice. The industry produces too many cars, and whole sectors of the economy have grown around that practice like barnacles. This has happened in a country that has failed miserably at building an efficient mass-transit system, though it talks endlessly, and without blushing, about the need to get travelers off the roads and onto trains and buses and monorails and — while we’re daydreaming — into teletransporters. I don’t know if this is what McCain means by his opposition to this latest proposal to expand the federal deficit, but despite the rhetoric about reforming the auto industry, the game plan really seems to be to help it continue overproduction. And what do we think will happen in the long run if we win at that game? I admit to a prejudice here, because I drive a car until it has well over 150,000 miles on the clock, but if we continue the same behavior and expect a different outcome, aren’t we all — by definition — crazy?

"Beam me up"

"Beam me up"