“Cash for clunkers”: A spotlight Ruthless Criticism

“Cash for clunkers”: A spotlight
on the role of the consumer in capitalism and on the people in a democracy

Nobody claims that the state wants to give its citizens a break from their old cars. Nor does anybody seriously claim that it wants to do the poor environment a favor; everyone knows that “environmental benefit” is nothing more than a pretty label. The truth is quite bluntly argued: “cash for clunkers” is for the crisis-endangered automobile industry and is all about giving it a boost. The purchasing power of the people, as one tool among others, is useful for this purpose. Because the state knows that it is not at all in good shape, it helps it out – exceptional circumstances require exceptional measures – with $4,500, giving its people the honor of functioning as a tool of economic policy: the money is not handed directly to the automobile industry, but is to be reported to it as demand by the car dealerships. We'll leave to the economic-political experts the question whether this now takes care of the celebrated sustainability and perseverance and optimism of the auto industry – in any case, it's perfectly clear that the first duty of the private pocketbook is to put itself in the service of realizing the profitability of auto-capital. More than ever in a crisis, purchasing power has an economic assignment – and the rebate should allay the inappropriate doubts arising in some “private households” whether one should – in the crisis, of all times – blow one's purchasing power, also known as wages, for the not insignificant difference between the $4,500 of the rebate and the price of a new car. For the effectiveness of its incentive, the state can rely on the fact that the people with their notoriously limited purchasing power are by necessity bargain hunters and that they can only reject this offer with a lot of misgiving – when, for once, one gets something from the state!

Nevertheless, the journalistic experts announce their doubts about whether this functionalization of purchasing power really leads in the right direction. They start with the question whether the holders of this purchasing power dressed up by the American state invest this purchasing power in American cars – the warnings from earlier days about “protectionist tendencies” are now irrelevant. They then move on to the concern that the state intervention distorts competition in the auto industry, draws purchasing power away from other consumer sectors like household appliances, and that “after that cool breeze, carmakers could be headed back into the doldrums” (Business Week 8/14/09) – a way of noticing that the purchasing power of the common people is always limited. It is not this, of course, that worries the commentators, but that the government frivolously assigns an economic assignment to those who are not at all financially qualified for it.

The skeptics eventually end up in a moral dimension, or with some very basic concerns about the relationship between the state and its citizens. The Los Angeles Times (8/5/09) editorializes in favor of the program because, unlike food stamps or welfare which go towards people's needs, cash for clunkers is “a stimulus, not an entitlement.” That is, people's needs are not a burden on the state when they serve the state's economic policies. Time magazine asks: “So, what does it tell us about our national character when the most popular government program in years is an economically dubious, environmentally negligible, politically lazy handout ...?” (8/27/09) The “national character” is, however, receptive: “Is this the essential paradox of the age of Obama, that we have to ... play to self-interest to promote the national interest?” For the goons of democracy, who never tire of saying that government is in the service of “we the people,” the efforts of economic policy to promote private consumption for the purpose of managing the crisis can only be a warning of a relationship between state and citizen gone wrong. The Time commentator calls this small and calculating offer to the materialism of the people “a bribe” and nothing but a sop to the people: “The only debate was over how much sugar was needed to sweeten the pot … So how about Cash for Chunkers?” Its informative what a leading news magazine, which is hardly alone in its opinion, reports: it simply does not belong in an orderly democracy, one populated by responsible citizens, that poor people for once get a little something – instead, they must be put on a diet.