The economics of the Car Allowance Rebate System (CARS) and the First-Time-Home-Buyer Tax Credit (FTHBTC)

A student in my managerial economics course asked me a very interesting question today concerning the U.S. federal government’s “Cash for Clunkers” (also known as “CARS”, which is an acronym for “Car Allowance Rebate System”) program.  Specifically, she was interested in knowing how to assess the social costs and benefits of government programs like CARS from an economics perspective.

Let’s look at CARS and its cousin, the so-called “first-time-home-buyer tax credit” (FTHBTC).  It’s worthwhile reading the October 28 article about the economics of CARS.  Apparently the net cost to taxpayers of CARS, per marginal sale, was $24,000.  Coincidentally, MIT economist (and former IMF chief economist) Simon Johnson published a Washington Post article about FTHBTC earlier this week which reports a net cost to taxpayers of FTHBTC of between $43,000 to $80,000 per marginal sale.  Thus the net effect of both policies has been to create a rather muted, temporary, and highly inefficient stimulus at a substantial cost to the taxpayer (the same points could be made about any number of other stimulus measures taken this year by the U.S. government, but I digress).  Professor Johnson notes (and I agree) that “Putting cash in pockets does have a stimulative effect because some of that cash will turn into consumption. But as far as stimulus measures go, it has a low multiplier (the ratio of new economic activity to stimulus spending).” 

In the case of CARS, a social cost of $24,000 provides a maximum net private benefit of $4,500 (note that the clunker would have to be literally worthless in order for the net private benefit to be equal to $4,500!), and in the case of FTHBTC, a social cost of $43,000 – $80,000 provides a maximum net private benefit of $8,000 (note that since the FTHBTC is means-tested, the average net benefit must be less than the $8,000 maximum).  In the case of FTHBTC, Professor Johnson asserts (and I agree), that most, if not all of the private benefit (i.e., additional “surplus”) is enjoyed by the seller of the home in the form of a higher price than she would have otherwise received from the buyer in the absence of the FTHBTC.  With the FTHBTC, the buyer will naturally become less reticent about paying top dollar for owner-occupied housing because up to $8,000 of the price is covered by taxpayers (also note that other public policies such as the tax deductibility of mortgage interest and mortgage securitization by the likes of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the FHA, et al. have similar effects with respect to inflating the value of our nation’s housing stock).  For these very same reasons, I also suspect that much of the “surplus” associated with CARS ended up benefitting sellers by making new car buyers less price sensitive than they otherwise would have been.

Finally, bringing this question “closer to home”, I often think about the economic effect of government subsidies on higher education.  To the extent that the government subsidizes tuition (e.g., in the form of scholarships and below-market interest rates on student loans) this also has the effect of increasing the producer surplus enjoyed by universities by making students and their families less sensitive to price.  I am convinced that an important reason why education costs generally and higher education costs specifically have been increasing faster than overall inflation for some time now is due to the role played by government subsidies.  There’s also an obvious cautionary tale in all of this for health care reform, but I’ll leave that to a future discussion.

Assorted Links (10/31/2009)

Here’s a list of articles that I have been reading today (organized by topic):

Finance and the Financial Crisis

  • Efficient Market Theory and the Crisis, by Jeremy Siegel

“Neither the rating agencies’ mistakes nor the overleveraging by financial firms was the fault of an academic hypothesis.”

Foreign Policy

  • The Tenacity Question, by David Brooks

“Military experts say that President Obama is intellectually sophisticated, but they do not know if he has the determination needed from a war president.”

  • Obama’s Afghanistan ‘drift’, by Charles Krauthammer

“Is there anything he (Barack Obama) hasn’t blamed George W. Bush for? The economy, global warming, the credit crisis, Middle East stalemate, the deficit, anti-Americanism abroad — everything but swine flu. It’s as if Obama’s presidency hasn’t really started. He’s still taking inventory of the Bush years. Just this Monday, he referred to ‘long years of drift’ in Afghanistan in order to, I suppose, explain away his own, well, yearlong drift on Afghanistan.”

Health Care Reform

  • Updating the legislative scenarios: Reply hazy, ask again later, by Keith Hennessey

Here’s how one of my favorite policy wonks (Keith Hennessey) is handicapping the health care reform legislative “process” that is currently going on inside the Beltway…

Math and Statistics

  • Number-Crushing: When Figures Get Personal, by Carl Bialik

“Real-Estate Developers Factor In Love of 6 and 8, Fear of Unlucky 4 and 13; What Happened to Floors 40 Through 59?”  Mr. Bialik’s blog entry entitled “


  • We’re Governed by Callous Children, by Peggy Noonan

“When I see those in government, both locally and in Washington, spend and tax and come up each day with new ways to spend and tax—health care, cap and trade, etc.—I think: Why aren’t they worried about the impact of what they’re doing? Why do they think America is so strong it can take endless abuse?”

Public Policy

This blog posting by Professor Mankiw shows how the tax burden, expressed in terms of “average marginal” personal tax rates, has changed over time during the period 1912–2006.

  • Why You Can’t Get the Swine Flu Vaccine, by Scott Gottlieb

“U.S. regulations are too cautious. Europe has adopted a more sensible approach.”