The market at work

For years, the fearless manipulators in Washington have tried to maneuver Americans into less energy-thirsty behaviors, particularly when it comes to the automobile.

Pretty much nothing worked.

Then Washington did something that wasn’t intended to impact driving habits, at all. To fund an expensive occupation quagmire in Iraq and to bail out the big investment banks from their unwise investments, the Federal Reserve has been printing up new money hand over fist — creating new cash out of thin air at an effective annual rate of 16 to 18 percent.

The value of the dollar plummeted — falling by more than half in only a few years — against gold, against silver, against almost any commodity or traditional store of value you can name.

A dollar that would buy a gallon of gas, not long ago, now buys barely a quart.

And guess what? Without coercion, without further manipulation, without enduring a bunch of stemwinding speeches from the blowhards of the Potomac, individual car-buyers responded to the new economic reality by changing their behaviors, overnight.

In May, a passenger car — the Honda Civic — overtook the Ford F-series pickup as the best-selling vehicle in America.

It’s the first month that’s happened since December 1992, Ford says.

But the truck didn’t merely slip to second place. It’s now in fifth, behind Toyota’s Camry and Corolla and Honda’s Accord.

Buyers told USA Today they simply “don’t have the money to pay for that much gas.”

Civic sales were up 37 percent in May, leading overall Honda sales growth of 15.6 percent, the firm’s best month ever in America.

Hampered by truck- and SUV-heavy lineups, U.S. manufacturers saw opposite results. General Motors sales plunged 27.5 percent in May. Chrysler sales dropped 25.4 percent, despite a promotion that promised to supply buyers with gas into 2011 at a fixed $2.99 per gallon.

The only good news for GM was in the compact and subcompact categories, where sales of the Pontiac Vibe grew by 72 percent, and of the Chevy Aero by 44 percent.

Sales of Ford’s little Focus jumped 53 percent over last year’s May sales.

Overall, though, the domestic auto industry’s market share fell to 45.4 percent, from 52.9 percent a year ago. GM responded by announcing Tuesday it will close four plants to cut pickup and SUV production, while adding shifts at plants turning out smaller cars.

“The consumer’s mind-set has permanently shifted,” Jesse Toprak, a sales analyst for the auto-buying Web site Edmunds.com, told USA Today. “This period will be viewed as a big shift in consumer demand to smaller, gas-efficient vehicles.”

Without coercive new government mandates? Without the unintended consequences of complicated and ill-considered government carrots and sticks?

People just responded to new market realities, voluntarily?

Imagine that.

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