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`Cash for Clunkers': A bailout by any other name. . . .

The government's "cash for clunkers" program kicked off this month, and so far car dealers are singing its praises. While there's lot of benefits to getting older, less fuel-efficient vehicles off the road, don't be fooled by the marketing hype. That's not what this program is about.

It's another billion-dollar bailout for the auto industry wrapped in the politically palatable guise of green stimulus.

The program, officially known by the Disneyesque acronym CARS, allows car owners to trade in an older vehicle - but it can't be more than 25 years old - that gets 18 miles a gallon or less. They'll get a discount of as much as $4,500 on buying a new one. There's a bunch of restrictions on weight, class, size and so forth, and the size of the discount depends on the level of improved fuel efficiency between the old model and the new one.

One catch: the miles per gallon ratings are based on the government's estimates for your vehicle, not the mileage you actually get.

The program runs through Nov. 1 or until the $1 billion allocated for it runs out. At the moment, there's still $858 million remaining in the pool. In all, the government hopes to remove as many as 250,000 clunkers from the roadways.

That may have some incremental environmental benefit, and it may have personal economic benefit for individual car buyers. But it's a bailout, plain and simple.

It's another billion dollars passed through the backdoor to the auto makers, who've already needed our tax dollars - indeed our equity investment - to stay in business. It also throws a bone to car dealers who've been hit by the double whammy of a recession and automaker bankruptcies.

That doesn't make it a bad thing, nor does it mean it's not a good deal for some consumers, although there's also potential for the process to be abused.

Cash for Clunkers isn't about saving the environment, getting older vehicles off the road or even helping consumers get a good deal in a tough economy. It's a billion-dollar government marketing campaign on behalf of the auto industry in which the government already is heavily invested.

Disclosure: no positions.