Cash for Clunkers: Not Much of a Stimulus

October 31, 2013

While there were many attempts at stimulus during the “Great Recession,” none were as memorable as the “Cash for Clunkers” program.

This program encouraged individuals who owned cars with poor gas mileage to trade in their car for a more fuel efficient vehicle through $2.85 billion in vouchers. Proponents argued that this would spur demand in the economy and help mitigate the effects of the recession.

While this program was very popular, causing the exhaustion of voucher money within days, opponents argued that the program would not do much to stimulate the economy.

According to a new report from the Brookings Institution, the opponents of the program were right. Rather than increasing overall economic activity (the goal of an economic stimulus), it simply shifted economic activity from one period to another. From the report: “Our evaluation of the evidence suggest that the $2.85 billion in vouchers proved by the program had a small and short-lived impact on gross domestic product, essentially shifting roughly a few billion dollars forward from the subsequent two quarters following the program.”

The following chart shows the spike in vehicle sales in mid-2009.

The report also indicated that the program also benefitted wealthier individuals, who would have purchased new cars anyway.

If the results of this study sound familiar, they should. This is exactly the issue with sales tax holidays, which operate on the same principle: give people a short-term incentive to consume and they will increase their consumption. However, like the cash for clunkers program, sales tax holidays also fail to boost economic activity and merely shift it from one period to the next.

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