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Monday, October 10, 2005

Time for an SUV buyback program

How not to spend tens of billions of dollars on hurricane relief? Just watch what the Bushies do--billions in no-bid contracts, waive labor and environmental regulations to make sure that the contractors only have to spend a little to pretend to do the work while pocketing most of the money for themselves and their shareholders, and doing little to stimulate the economy as a whole or to address homelessness, global warming, or energy shortages.

Is there a better way? Of course. Here's a rough, back-of-the-envelope idea for you. What is needed in hurricane ravaged areas? Housing, water, power. What does this country have way too many of? Gas-guzzling SUV's. Now, take a look at the interior of a Ford Expedition:

Room to sleep two adults easily, probably with at least one child as well. An Expedition also has a 300 horsepower motor, which equals 224 kilowatts of power--enough to run 10 households at a reasonable level of comfort, or a lot more on a subsistence basis. The power could also be used to pump water or run power tools. The vehicle would have to be modified a bit so it could connect to pumps or generators, but this wouldn't be terribly difficult, and it would provide jobs.

In other words, we have 24 million SUV's which are currently making a bad situation worse, but which could be serving to make a bad situation better.

Here's my proposal: Take $20 billion of the money being poured into hurricane relief and use it to fund an SUV buyback program. At an average cost of $20,000, the government could buy one million used SUV's. These could provide temporary housing for everyone displaced by the hurricanes, as well as providing ready portable power wherever it is needed. The actual price paid by the government would be based not only on bluebook value of the vehicle, but also include incentives to replace it with a more efficient mode of transportation. A 2001 Expedition in good condition, for example, might bring $14000 if the owner replaces it with an Explorer, $18000 if he replaces it with a Taurus, $22000 for a Prius, and $25000 if he doesn't replace it with any motor vehicle (i.e. doesn't register another vehicle within a year or two). Incentives could also be given for American-made vehicles.

The SUV's, purchased all over the country, could be loaded with relief supplies and driven to where they are needed (paying hurricane refugees to do the driving). Those used as temporary housing would be disabled, at least temporarily, as vehicles. They could be parked in camps around communal kitchen, bath and other facilities, with a few of them providing the electicity to power the camp as needed. Not ideal to be sure, but probably more comfortable, weatherproof and private (with window shades) than most shelters being used now. In the meantime, lots of Americans saddled with dinosaurs they can't afford to drive would suddenly have the money to pay their mortgages, and their credit card and winter heating bills, while being encouraged to quickly become more energy efficient. American automakers would finally have a major incentive to retool for hybrids and diesels, creating jobs.

In case you're wondering where I got this crazy idea, it was this cartoon from Cam Cardow:

Although I will say that I've thought for a couple of years that eventually most SUV's would end up being used as housing. Maybe that time has come.