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(Lots of) Cash for Clunkers reports that its statistical analysis of the Cash for Clunkers program finds that the program generated only 125,000 extra new vehicle sales, meaning that the cost to the U.S. government was $24,000 for each of those new cars.
The reason the cost per incremental car is so high is that, according to’s modeling, 82 percent of the vehicles purchased under the program would have been bought this year anyway, even without the subsidy. So Cash for Clunkers mostly just turned out to be a gift from the government to people who happened to be in the market for a new car at the right time. The auto manufacturers and dealers did not end up getting a very big chunk of the money ultimately, although they did get paid earlier rather than later in the year.
Is this surprising? Not to an economist. It is relatively easy to move around the timing of when someone purchases a durable good, but much harder to affect whether they buy a durable good or not.
For the second time in a week, I am deeply disappointed at the response of the Department of Transportation to research into areas of relevance to the department. The first case was Secretary LaHood‘s response to my research on car seats. Here is what the agency had to say in response to the analysis:

“It is unfortunate that has had nothing but negative things to say about a wildly successful program that sold nearly 250,000 cars in its first four days alone,” said Bill Adams, spokesman for the Department of Transportation.

The right response, it seems to me, is either to say 1) that this new evidence convinces us not to do the program again, or 2) that this analysis is wrong. That’s the response that Macon Phillips had on the White House blog (who knew the White House had a blog!):

The Edmunds analysis rests on the assumption that the market for cars that didn’t qualify for Cash for Clunkers was completely unaffected by this program. In other words, all the other cars were being sold on Mars, while the rest of the country was caught up in the excitement of the Cash for Clunkers program. This analysis ignores not only the price impacts that a program like Cash for Clunkers has on the rest of the vehicle market, but the reports from across the country that people were drawn into dealerships by the Cash for Clunkers program and ended up buying cars even though their old car was not eligible for the program.

I’m not sure whether this argument is empirically important or not, but at least it is actually engaging in a meaningful way with the analysis.