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#40Dollars and a Smart Car

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Last week, as Americans celebrated Hanukkah and prepared for Christmas, President Obama was engaged in a bitter blame game. Just hours after House Republicans voted to commence negotiations with the Senate over differing payroll tax measures, the White House sent out a scathing email. “This is not a game,” they said.

With a simple mouse click, a familiar countdown clock appeared on your screen (you know, the same type used by the media and numerous sporting events). It also asks a pointed question: what does $40 mean to you? In case you have problems answering, they suggest “forty dollars buys a tank of gas or a fridge and pantry full of groceries.”

Before going any further, it is important to understand why the Obama administration (and the reelection campaign) is pushing this message. They desperately want “a sub-faction of one party in one house” to dismiss what $40 means to some struggling families. They desperately want to distract from their economic failures, and pinpoint blame on “tea party extremism.” We will not allow their desperate and blatantly political desire to place blame to succeed; nor should we be detered from noting how fast-and-loose they are playing with the facts.

First, the “fridge and pantry full of groceries” claim.

For many families, creativity and thrift are par for the course; and for them, $40 can go a long way. But by and large, unless you have a mini-fridge and a shoe-box-sized pantry, their claim is absurdly false and divorced from the real world, in which food prices are rising sharply.

Look no further than the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). While there are a lot of variables (state, income, family size, etc.), food stamp benefits regularly exceed several hundred dollars per month. And in some cases, well beyond that.

If $83 a month ($40 every two weeks) is enough to buy “a fridge and pantry full of groceries” then current food stamp levels are excessive (to say the least). On the other hand, if food stamp levels are not excessive, then the $40 claim is just another example of Washington hyperbole.

How to reform SNAP and other welfare programs is for another time, but the point is that the White House’s political rhetoric is completely divorced from reality...and someone needs to point that out. (Oh, and insert your own $4 arugula joke here.)

Second, the “tank of gas” claim.

With gas prices at an all-time Christmas high (according to AAA), motorists will likely welcome $40 they can drop in their tanks; but it is not going to buy an entire “tank of gas,” at least not for most people. Let’s gather some facts and do some math.

Using the national average for a gallon of gasoline, which is about $3.20, basic math tells us we could buy 12.5 gallons of gas for $40. Of course, gas prices vary by state; so in New Mexico you could buy 13.5 gallons, whereas in Hawaii you could buy just 9.9 gallons.

(There are not good, readily available statistics on what cars have the aforementioned fuel capacity, so we’ll just throw out some names for illustrative purposes.)

How small would a car have to be to fill up for $40? Well, here is a hint: the Mini Cooper’s fuel tank capacity is 13.2 gallons! Yes, you read that right: it would take $42.24 to fill up a Mini Cooper. But do not despair, because you do have some options: the Honda Fit ($33.92); Hyundai Accent ($36.48); Smart fortwo ($27.84); and Toyota Yaris ($35.52).

These may be fine cars, but you will be hard-pressed to find a comfortable, family-sized car, an SUV or even one of those ubiquitous crossovers that fills up for $40. President Obama may want to remind his Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, that filling up for just $40 becomes even harder if they “figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe.”

Most observers understand the White House is engaged in a high stakes game, seeking to gain a political advantage at the expense of so-called “tea party extremists.” If President Obama calls on Harry Reid to come back and negotiate a one-year extension of the payroll tax cut (among other things), he loses the ability to demagogue conservatives. Americans have given up hope that things will change in Washington and are no longer surprised by the misleading and desperate rhetoric peddled by the White House.

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