As I am not a contractor, banker, hedge fund manager, government insider, or political activist, I didn't expect to benefit personally from the various bailouts and stimulus programs out there. Then came the "cash for clunkers" program.
Although not as outrageous as about half the projects in the stimulus package, it doesn't do much to stimulate the economy or to improve overall gas mileage. Still, the program proved so popular that they're having to pull the plug on the program on Monday when it runs out of money.
Who wins? Middle-class folks like my wife and me who can afford a new car and happen to have an inefficient trade-in receive a $4,500 subsidy to do what we would eventually need to do anyway. This benefits car dealers, also, but the losers are charities that benefit from car donations and less well-off people who rely on a stock of solid older cars for their transportation. When these are crushed and melted, there will be fewer choices and the price of the remaining vehicles will rise.
Although fairly rational in other respects, I form deep personal attachments to our vehicles, so I take some offense at the "cash for clunkers" label. Cars are not merely mobility appliances to me; they are more like pets – or mechanical companions, if you will.
My wife points out that my affection for cars is somewhat indiscriminate, as it also includes my first – a 1959 Hillman Minx that immediately threw a rod and required a summer of reconstruction to get back on the road.
So I rationalize our subsidy as an anticipatory repayment for the tax increases that will surely reach into the middle class before long.
Besides, I know I will grow to love our new hybrid, which we got just before the first infusion of money ran out. It isn't as utilitarian or as macho as my old Ford Explorer, bought used 10 years ago with 32,000 miles on it, but it gets about four times the mileage, has a 600-mile cruising range, drives a whole lot better, and has advanced technology that fully satisfies my inner geek.
It is also good insurance against a potentially permanent gasoline price hike in the wake of an international crisis or a government decision that astronomical gasoline prices are good for us.
I will spare sensitive readers the details of how the engine that served us faithfully for 100,000 miles and still runs like new was "disabled." The description on the program's website reminded me of Plato's account in "Phaedo" of what Socrates had ahead of him, only my beloved truck has already been fed the equivalent of ground glass instead of hemlock.
Bad policy? Check. Some minor personal trauma? Check. But even an unwise policy is likely to benefit someone, which explains why there are so many of them. This one is a winner for us – as long as I don't think too much about how much better the policy could have been and didn't have to listen to the faithful old Ford engine grind to a halt.
John Allen Williams is a professor at Loyola University Chicago, editor of The National Strategy Forum Review, and chair and president of the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society. His opinions are his own.