A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Friday, September 7, 2012

A Car To Economy Metaphor, But Just For Auto Mechanics

Recently I was invited to help my son diagnose and work on what seemed to be the systemic deterioration of his classic automobile (for the curious reader, 1990 325 iX BMW).  He had done considerable work on the car, rebuilt head, new fuel injectors, careful evaluation of all hoses and connections looking for vacuum leaks, replacing electrical components, correcting suspension issues and more. The car gradually began to drive and run better, but was never what it should be.  And recently it began to show a clear drop in power, added a vibration, was hard to start, showed an engine warning light that the fuel mixture was too rich, had some unassignable “funny noises;” I knew he was thinking the worst when he asked me to bring my compression tester.

Bear with me.  For the non-mechanic some of the detail may be confusing, but still far easier to organize into comprehensible ideation than the national economy or political power “engines.”  And there is a point to this.

My son was thinking that the compression in one or more cylinders was unacceptably low.  This would mean that the whole engine was bad or that major work would have to be done – great expense, much time, all perhaps not worth it.  He was doing this project on a shoe-string; not a car collector with a stable of vintage machines, this was his car to drive.

Just so we don’t lose the thread of analogy: our national economy and politics has been rapidly deteriorating and we are looking for the cause and corrective solution– keep that in mind.

We do the compression check.  All cylinders are the same and, corrected for altitude, right in the middle of the factory values; more could not be expected from a new engine.  A broken radiator fan clutch had unbalanced the fan – discovered in our searches – would account for some vibration, but not the other symptoms.

We talked through the possibilities.  Bad ignition wiring.  Fault in the air delivery and control system for the fuel injection.  “Confusion” in the Motronic engine control computer.  Bad engine sensors.  Blocked catalytic converter. 

Each issue had quite different methods of evaluation and depths of commitment…and how to do the testing and still have a car to drive:  • The engine compression required no commitment to properly test, but had terrible consequences if the test proved unfavorable.   • Testing, with certainty, the air delivery and vacuum systems was almost impossible without completely replacing all components with new – and cost prohibitive – but we could be sort of sure by checking clamps, visual inspection and understanding the function of the various control and measuring devices. • Testing the ignition wiring was similar to air delivery, but not so expensive and certain wiring components should be replaced anyway. • The engine’s “brain” had been replaced with a used one as a test without changing behavior – both either good or bad in the same way.  • A blocked exhaust system required a large commitment to test properly, was a great deal of trouble, potentially expensive and knuckle-busting, dirty work.  • The final alternative was that there was a cascade of problems, no one of them sufficient to make much difference, but acting synergistically to ‘crap up the engine.’  Figuring this out is enough to send anyone to the big screen TV for an “important” movie or ball game.

As my son was driving the car up onto the lift ramps, I was checking to see how much pressure was being delivered out the tail pipe; there seemed to be too little and no pulsing of pressure from the separate discharges from the engine cylinders.  We compared the pressure to a brand new car of a similar sort and his iX’s certainly seemed less than proper.  But to know for sure the exhaust system had to be removed from the car.  In the process of doing that onerous job we discovered that someone had broken part of the exhaust manifold and improperly repaired it causing an exhaust leak.  We finally found, once the exhaust was taken apart and could be inspected, that the catalytic converter was almost completely closed off.

Throughout this process I was the ‘ideological’ zealot.  I had recently had the experience of making great and beneficial changes to my motorcycle engine’s behavior by replacing sparkplug wires and caps.  I also liked that it was an easy fix and not necessarily expensive.  I found myself subtly and sometimes not so subtly pushing this view – even when the symptoms were not so good a fit to this solution.

Where are we now in the repairing of the car and in the development of this little metaphor? Actually at the same place in both cases.  The solutions are not what we wanted.  The commitment to discover the problem must be as great as the commitment to repair the problem, otherwise you seek only the easy diagnostics; all possibilities must be honestly examined and the evaluation must follow to the end no matter how knuckle-busting. And you don’t know if what you decide to do is right until the whole thing is reassembled and functioning again – a part of the commitment to get it right.

The car in up on ramps and jack stands, minus an exhaust system which has to be rebuild.  It requires a new radiator fan, that had nothing what-so-ever to do with the rest of the issues.  Some old ignition wiring is to be replaced – which could exacerbate the issues caused by the excessive back-pressure.  Any faults in the air delivery and sensors could be covered up or exacerbated by the blockage in the exhaust system so we are not done even if part of the problem is solved.

To make the metaphorical comparison to the economy more realistic, imagine that we had various sales-people standing around, not to help out or offer honest technical advice, but to get their word in on the sale of some product.  The BMW person would be saying – ‘forget that old technically obsolete car and get a new….’  Electrical parts sales person would be talking in my ear – ‘its gotta be the wiring, you’re right on that one.’  The rep from the muffler shop would be – ‘just drive it down and we’ll slap a brand new one on for you; solve all your problems.’

But like my son, the Economy must solve its problems economically.  He can’t do every single possible replacement with new parts or leave the car up on jacks for days and weeks, rather it is necessary to diagnose and make the best use of resources, both time and money.  I would argue that our economic engine is basically sound – that is, the people are willing to work, and work hard, to meet their own needs so long as they are honestly leveled with and the work is at fulfilling meaningful jobs, properly compensated.  The fuel and air delivery systems (economic inputs and exchanges) must be carefully regulated and exhaust systems (down stream consequences of economic activity) must not be plugged. Timing and spark (education and opportunity) must be proper and adequate.  And all the supporting cast, like the radiator fan, power-steering pump, water pump and alternator (infrastructure) must function correctly, yet not be confused with the systemic functioning of the engine itself.  Diagnosis must not be self-interested – especially when the interest is to ‘sell’ a fix whether it is the right one or not.

Such a metaphor, for all its complexity, points out, for the vastly more complex economic and political world surrounding us, that there are ways to discover our most likely failings, but only if there is a complete commitment to proper and in-depth diagnosis. 

In an argument about our economic situation we can be drawn into taking sides between deficit reduction and economic stimulus, but standing next to a car and making only a verbal argument over whether the fault is coming from the fuel injectors or the exhaust system is so obviously silly that it doesn’t happen.  One can look and see that the engine is ‘of a piece’ and all parts must function together as a whole, and must be repaired as a whole for optimum operation.

Imagine that each part of an auto engine had its own vocal constituency:  the cam shafts resenting that they have to be in exact ratio with the crankshaft; the main bearings demanding to have all of the oil flow; the distributor rotor just refusing to accept the complexity of ignition timing and spark advance with RPM.  And then some fool comes along (Friedman, Greenspan and an army of self interested pirates) arguing that if you just let it run on its own without any governing controls that it will find some optimum condition (and not pretty quickly self-destruct).  Any shade-tree mechanic in the world could tell you that that is just pure BS.


kiara said...

I like how you compare a car repair to our economy. But, allow me say my part that with regards to solving current economic issues, we don't just need mechanics that look after faulty wiring or hoses or cylinders that neither move nor think. We need committed, skilled, principled and hardworking people to repair our economy - and these people are us. We should not just blame everything on the government. For me, the car is the economy, the government is the driver and the people are the parts of the car. The driver maneuvers well in order to get the car to the right place, to maintain its condition and to check for woes for quick repairs to avoid further destruction. With the car parts in good condition and the driver in lookout and alert for possible woes, the car or the economy remains stable and prosperous. As for the car parts, these should work together to get the vehicle going - and that's us, pushing together to the top.

James Keye said...

Thank you, Kiara, for your comment. If the metaphor is expanded to include the driver and uses of the vehicle to get some place, it becomes clear that we need to consider where we are to go, if the going is worth it and, vitally, if it is possible to get there.

My goal with this metaphor is to suggest that our economic dysfunction can be modeled by other systems that might let us feel less overwhelmed – even ‘shade-tree’ mechanics can apply their intuition to economic matters – and to suggest that we all need a full commitment to such efforts; to real diagnosis and not the easy answers.

To get a more complete sense of what I think about these things, check out some earlier essays on the end of economic growth. We must have an economy, just not the one we have at present.

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