The Harmful Myth of the "Flip Flop"

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here was a stark moment in the Presidential debate last week that really made me sit up and take notice.  It was during the section on racial inequality and systemic bias. Joe Biden was questioned about his previous support of policies such as the drug laws and laws about super-predators that have led to stark disproportionate minority confinement across the nation.  

His response was “We were wrong”. And they were.

In social science, we recognize that the enactment of a law is not the only thing necessary to change the condition.  It is also critical to understand who is implementing the policy, who is the target population and what are the environmental factors.

As you can see from the chart above, creating a policy is not just passing a law.  It also requires analysis of what worked as a result, understanding the unintended consequences and making changes and improvements. Note the dotted lines marked revision and also the circular nature of the chart.

I have seen numerous reports of that statement in the debate characterizing this as “flip flopping”.  I think this is both dangerous and intellectually lazy.

Fundamentally, we should encourage and applaud learning and revision in government as much as we do in business.  

We have all heard the terms “fail fast” or “continual quality improvement”. These are the embodiment of the circular cycle of “test, measure and improve” that result in corporate maximization.

The problem with this process in the business sphere is often that there are significant blind spots in what we are trying to maximize.  Efficiency and profits are no longer enough. Now we are adding in factors like fairness, equity and sustainability.

In politics, business, and personal lives I admire people that think critically, learn from mistakes over those that hold dogmatically firm to ideas. When new information comes to light the responsible thing to do is to weigh it with what you already know.

I think the divisiveness, inequities and dysfunction we see today could be alleviated with more honest and brave admissions that “we were wrong”.  


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