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    Cash For Clunkers Fiasco Deconstructed And Some Science Is Saved
    By Hank Campbell | January 8th 2013 04:00 AM | 4 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Hank

    I'm the founder of Science 2.0® and co-author of "Science Left Behind".

    A wise man once said Darwin had the greatest idea anyone...

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    "Cash for clunkers", President Obama's 2009 Car Allowance Rebates System (CARS), was hailed as a huge success by the administration and environmentalists - but it was really just another government boondoggle. Not as expensive as $72 billion wasted in pet energy projects but still a high-profile case of an administration engaged in the Scientization of Politics - prettying up a world view by pretending it is reality-based.

    In Science Left Behind, the actual reality of the program is dismantled (pp.34-35). It was really just another government subsidy for automakers, though the claim was that it would eliminate a whole bunch of cars getting 16 MPG from the roads and replace them with cars getting 25 MPG and so be better for the environment and the economy.

    All well and good then, I suppose, because in 2009 money was a magical thing and you simply printed more of it, but it didn't boost fuel efficiency much at all and most of the cars getting the $4,500 rebate were purchases that were going to be made anyway, the timeframe was just accelerated a few months to get taxpayer money. The economic cost ended up being $24,000 per car traded in and the increase in actual fuel efficiency turned out to be negligible.

    That's bad.  But it is even worse. We noted in the book that many of the engines were destroyed, rather than recycled, meaning no benefit to Gaia, but it turns out to be even worse than we feared, from an environmental perspective.

    Since the numbers were unclear when I wrote the book, I used the term 'many'.  It turns out none of the engines for the 690,000 vehicles traded in were sent to recycling facilities - they were all instead destroyed. This was a federal mandate of the same administration saying they were doing these trade-ins for the environment. Their claim for why they engaged in such an environmentally disastrous policy is they needed to prevent dealers from illegally reselling the vehicles.

    It's not easy to illegally resell a vehicle, of course, but it certainly typifies the 'business is unethical and needs to be micromanaged' mentality of the government today. They couldn't just enforce current laws, they had to make sure the engines were destroyed so the corrupt people who pay all those taxes running legitimate businesses don't suddenly turn into criminals. Money does that to people, you know.

    And if any other part was not sold off after 180 days?  Shredded too, rather than being sold in a junkyard like a sane economic policy would have allowed.

    Jennifer Santisi at E: The Environmental Magazine has the takedown in The Cash for Clunkers Conundrum

    With more details reaffirming how Cash for Clunkers was yet another feel-good fallacy, 2013 is shaping up to be a good year for science honesty. "Science Left Behind" was reviled by the kinds of crackpot pseudoscience journalists I ridiculed in the "Death of Science Journalism" chapter, but scientists and the public embraced it, and the actual facts throughout the book have allowed the state of science to be shown in a new light.  The anti-GMO civil war against science tried their Gettysburg with Prop. 37 in California and lost and the Obama administration stopped making excuses to not approve the Aquadvantage salmon - after they were busted for suppressing science, the exact same thing the Bush administration did to much science media lamentation. Nature even published an editorial worrying that science academia was skewed too far to the left

    Science may be back on the path to being a neutral endeavor for the public good.  It can never be non-partisan, when 50% of its funding is from the government, but it can at least be bipartisan once again.

    The path to that requires a lot more people in science academia and journalism holding a Democratic administration accountable the same way they hold Republicans. As climate scientist Roger Pielke, Jr. notes in his discussion of the Nature paper (more on that tomorrow) ..."scientific integrity -- which were so important to scientists and science connoisseurs during the Bush Administration -- largely disappeared in social media science policy discussions, and only occasionally appeared in the conventional media."

    Even though the exact same scientific integrity assaults have been happening for the last four years.  In October, I appeared on a Chicago NPR radio program with Dr. Francesca Grifo, Director of Scientific Integrity for the Union of Concerned Scientists, and I noted that the UCS hadn't found a single issue in the Obama administration to complain about. Where were the 4,000 signatures about rewriting reports after the BP oil spill and his anti-vaccine agenda regarding flu vaccinations and spying on scientists and blocking genetically modified food approvals?  She had no answer, she knows I am on the side of science and seemed genuinely surprised anyone on Team Science was going to ask why UCS stopped being on that team when a Democrat got elected.

    Instead, the same NGOs who supposedly love science were suddenly unwilling to stand up for it. In the case of GMOs, 50 scientists did it on their own and asked the Obama administration why science was being held hostage. 

    But Jon Entine of the Genetic Literacy Project talked to Grifo more recently and she told him, “Despite what the President might have said about scientific integrity, we’ve seen White House interference on what should be science regulatory decisions. They have a legal responsibility to follow their own guidelines.”

    UCS is obsessed with creating new laws and policies and that kind of social authoritarian approach is not needed, but she is at least finally concerned that someone on the left does the exact same thing everyone in advocacy groups complained about when it was done by people on the right.

    An environmental magazine and the Union of Concerned Scientists criticizing the Obama administration?  Whew, it's no longer 2009 in lots of ways. 

    Comments

    Cash for Clunkers: A Personal Look by James Miller:

    In the summer of 2009, I started working at a Hyundai car dealership in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Being a college student on summer break, I took the part-time position of detailer/reconditioner. My job was cleaning and preparing newly sold cars. I started in the month of May and prior to the implementation of "cash for clunkers," sales were steady. On average, three to four new cars were sold on weekdays. On Saturdays, about six to seven new cars were sold. By law in Pennsylvania, car dealerships must remain closed on Sundays — clearly another case of government knows best.

    Once "cash for clunkers" went into effect, new-car sales shot up. Weekday average car sales increased to Saturday levels. Saturdays became a zoo with close to ten new cars being sold throughout the day. With so many car sales, I never had any downtime those weekends. Normally the dealership would close at 8 p.m. unless there was a pending sale. It was normal to stay until 10 or 11 p.m. on the days "cash for clunkers" was in effect, as customers waited for approved credit applications and cars needed to be cleaned.

    From the perspective of immediate consumption, "cash for clunkers" was an astounding success. Working so many consecutive hours provided a substantial boost to my paycheck. The car salesmen increased their commissions. The dealership was very profitable. But like all government stimulus efforts, this effect was short-lived.

    Around the time "cash for clunkers" ended, I started the fall semester. I still returned to work on Fridays and Saturdays but sales began to slow down dramatically following the program's end. Throughout September, Saturday sales fell with only four to five new cars sold each day. From what I heard, weekday sales had slowed down significantly. During October, I was lucky to clean two or three newly sold cars on a Saturday. Some Saturdays went by in November with zero cars sold. Car salesmen began to be laid off. The assistant manager of the dealership was let go, as were many of the mechanics and staff running the automotive-parts department. Because I only worked a day and a half a week and was paid a dollar an hour less than the other experienced detailers, I was kept around. Once December hit, the dealership finally shut down for good. It was quite the Christmas present.

    Brent1178
    Has there been any attempt to put a number on the emission reductions due to this scheme?Was there any attempt to control the types of cars which were eligible?

     I wouldn't be surprised if the net environmental benefit was in fact negative considering that with a hand full of exceptions, fossil fuelled cars really aren't getting any better fuel consumption than they were 40 or 50 years ago. The gains made in engine efficiency have generally been offset by the cars getting bigger and heavier and running more gadgets.  For example, an original 1974 Honda Civic weighed 657kg and used about 6.5L/100km, while a 2012 Honda Civic weighs nearly 1200kg and uses about 7.4L/100km. There are many things which make the 2012 Civic a far superior vehicle, but fuel economy isn't one of them. The most economical car I've ever owned, was also my first, a 1971 Honda N-360 which used between 4 and 5L/100km, at least as good as a Toyota Prius, but with a fraction of the embodied energy.

    That brings me to my next point, if you scrap an old car before it's time and replace it with a new car, the embodied energy put in to the new car should be offset against any savings in fuel economy. Furthermore, if some of the people scrapping their old cars for new follow the current trend to "upgrade" to bloody big SUVs, they could well end up burning more fuel than they did before.


    There is often discussion here in N.Z about what to do about all the "old clunkers" on our roads as the average vehicle age here is about 13 years. Run them into the ground I say, it's better for the environment that way (unless of course you replace them with electric and eliminate the driving emissions altogether).
    Thor Russell
    What is a sensible figure for the embodied energy in the average car, compared to years running time? Its also the embodied energy in the new car that should count as the old has already been "spent".
    Thor Russell
    Brent1178
    That's what I meant, the embodied energy in the new car offsetting emissions reductions.
    I've tried to find some sensible information on embodied energy in new vehicles, and most of the information I've found refers to carbon emissions rather than energy consumed, which I suppose is more relevant. I've seen estimates ranging from 600kg to 1200kg CO2 per vehicle in manufacture + about half as much again for the raw materials, so 900 to 1800kg total, as a comparison, burning petrol emits 2.3 kg of CO2 / L, so if you drive 15000km per year and change from a 8L/100km vehicle (2760kg per year) to a 7L/100km vehicle (2415kg per year) you would save 354kg CO2 per year, and it would take somewhere between 2.6 and 5.2 years to break even. But you aren't likely to see such a reduction in fuel consumption unless you change from a mid sized vehicle to a small one, or perhaps to a hybrid. (I haven't been able to find any useful information on the embodied energy in hybrids or electric vehicles compared to conventional, anybody know any numbers?). If you scrap a 10 or 15 year old car and buy the modern equivalent, in most cases it will burn close to the same amount of fuel as the old one and so there is no break even point.

    Also, and this is quite speculative, I think that if peak oil really starts to bite within the next ten years, petrol powered cars built now could become obsolete and uneconomical to use well before their life expectancy runs out, thus making the ratio of embodied energy to km/miles driven worse. Of course I would have said that ten years ago too, but here we are still much the same, still drilling more oil and still mostly building petrol powered cars. But still it has to happen sometime soon.