July 8, 2007

The penultimate-policy fallacy (the reverse of "fighting the last war")

Florida's universities are facing an interesting mix of budget pressures in the short term, with some possibility for substantial improvement in about 2-3 years but also a serious Sword of Damocles in a property-tax referendum in January and short-term misery if a state-level budget-reduction exercise is handled poorly (or illegally: by law, higher ed shouldn't bear a disproportionate burden of any budget reductions after the governor signs the state appropriations bill). That's on top of the legislature and governor each taking whacks at state university funding this year. Locally, a command by the governor to engage in a budget-reduction exercise and parallel requests by the state chancellor for each university has caused some panic. The faculty union at USF tried to address that panic in a resolution and e-mail on Friday, but in the past week I have several times heard the following phrases (or variants of it):

  • At my last job, ...
  • The last time this happened, ...

I understand this attempt to leverage thumbnail-history wisdom. Carl Becker certainly would, and there is nothing wrong and much right with bringing one's personal perspective to an issue. But when you're talking about the effective redistribution of millions of dollars, personal recollection is neither a well-documented history nor a broad perspective. Unfortunately, in institutional circumstances people often bring to the table only the last experience they had, asserting its appropriateness. I call this the penultimate-policy fallacy, the false belief that whatever happened last is the best choice. Sometimes it's institutional leaders who apply identical solutions in different circumstances; sometimes it's mid-level administrators or individual faculty who have penultimate-policy myopia.

This fallacy is the reverse of wanting to fight the last war, but it's rooted in the same poor habit of thought: assuming an exact parallel in the last vaguely-similar event and wishing away the importance of context. This is dangerous whether you're talking about Florida's university finances... or a war in the Mideast.

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Posted in Education policy on July 8, 2007 9:28 AM |