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Dynamic Auto Repair

Caitlyn Moon started college under Kalamazoo’s free-tuition program but found it wasn’t for her and took a job in a café instead.

I’ve never seen anything like it. Rather than approach complex issues seriously, Trump and his cronies tend to trivialize, deny, paper over, defer, dismantle, protect the affluent and corporate interests, and blame (the Obama Administration, mostly). You see it in education, foreign affairs, economics, energy, the environment, agriculture … you name it.

That approach—and its attendant insanity—was captured wonderfully by Barry Goldman in a recent op-ed (LA Times). To do it, Goldman draws on his experience with a business called Dynamic Auto Repair. Inc., a real service center located outside of Detroit.

Posted on the wall behind Dynamic’s cash register is a sign. It advertises an “Engine Warning Repair Kit” with these instructions: Affix black tape over the Engine Warning Light. The light will stop flashing. Voilà!

How does Dynamic’s way apply in Washington? Goldman gives numerous examples. Here’s one. “Scientists say we have a problem with human-caused climate change…. The solution? Fire the scientists. Stop funding research agencies. No more data. No more troubling reports. No more complex policy problem. And you save money too!” Here’s another. “Grossed out by videos of workers torturing animals at farms and meat-packing plants? Pass a law that makes it a crime to make the videos. Poof!”

Frank Fear: Dynamic Auto Repair’s sign is tongue-in-cheek. With Trump, it’s a way of doing business. Consumer protection? Dismantle the agency. Climate change? Downplay its impacts. Protect students from predatory higher ed? Rescind Obama-era rules.

Dynamic Auto Repair’s sign is tongue-in-cheek. With Trump, it’s a way of doing business. Consumer protection? Dismantle the agency. Climate change? Downplay its impacts. Protect students from predatory higher ed? Rescind Obama-era rules. Clean air and water? Deregulate. Immigration? Act inhumanely at the Texas border. The list goes on and on.

Worse yet, many Americans like it. Out with the elites! Who needs science? No wonder we have an anti-vaccination movement with a measles outbreak (in 2019) that is the highest since 1992.

Incredulously, our country is debating whether to act responsibly or insanely. What’s a person to do? Alice Dreger expresses one option: “As one person trying to get it right, sometimes the best thing you can do—the most you can do—is point to the sky, turn to the guy next to you, and ask: “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”

But let’s face it. As outlandish as is the Trumpian regime’s approach, it would be a mistake to assume that past decisions/policies were always grounded in careful analysis and uber-informed judgment. A ton of choice-making is linked to weakly grounded if/then thinking—if we do X, then we’ll get Y. Billions of dollars are spent that way, often with good intentions and the desire to serve the public good.

Consider the Kalamazoo (MI) experiment, ‘The Promise,” which has been in effect since late 2005. In The Promise, the ‘X’ factor was free tuition at any Michigan-based public university for graduates of Kalamazoo public high schools—as long as those students were enrolled in the city’s public schools since kindergarten. Local benefactors believe that college attainment is a powerful economic development tool (the ‘Y’ factor).

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Of all the ways philanthropists could have chosen to stimulate economic development, why did they pick college attainment? “They hoped it would make a really big bang,” is the answer, according to the former superintendent of public schools. That assumption is the basis for making a 12-year, $125 million (and growing) investment.

Independent analyses—undertaken most recently by the Upjohn Institute—offer answers to another question: What has the program yielded? Reporters Josh Mitchell and Michelle Hackman summarized the Upjohn findings in last Friday’s edition of The Wall Street Journal.

There are mixed results. The program has yielded a significant boost in college going, but not in college graduation, especially among population sub-groups of primary interest—minority and low-income youth. The most substantial increases in college attainment were among White students and students from middle-to-high income families. There was no increase (from before the program) among Black students, and college completion increased only 4% (from 10-14%) for students from low-income families.

The results don’t mean the program isn’t working. Indeed, Mitchell and Hackman report how The Promise has served Kalamazoo in a variety of other ways. For one thing, the local economy is better than it was in 2005.

The point I make here (and it’s a delicate point because you can’t tell people how to invest philanthropically) is this: Doesn’t it make more sense to base decisions/policies on careful research and analysis before launching programs? Isn’t that approach more likely to yield ‘a big bang’?

Certainly. But sadly, we’re farther away from that happening today than at any other time in my lifetime. Those who engage in research and analysis—indeed, in any form of deeper thinking and interpretation—are demeaned and diminished. Seen as being ‘part of the problem,’ they are in the swamp that Trump and his supporters seek to drain.

That’s just another reason why it’s a dangerous time for reasonable-thinking Americans. Not only are alternative policies at risk but, so too, is how they are measured. The challenge we face, then, isn’t just about securing better education policy, better environmental policy, or better ways to protect consumers (among so many other vital things), but—more broadly—whether and how we can get to any of those outcomes if we evaluate dialogue, inquiry, and research as frivolous and unnecessary.

It is in that regard that the words of Stefan Collini ring true—for Progressives, especially.

Even in a world tightly trussed by neoliberal dogma and lasted by surges of populist anti-elitism, the role of the left intellectual has lost none of its fascination. There remains a yearning to find figures who combine intellectual distinction with radical politics, and who can bring their ideas and theories, analyses and eloquence, to the service of progressive causes.” The Nation, June 14, 2017

Hope for a better America demands it.


Frank Fear