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The oil change fallacy

Posted Feb 26 2010 9:49pm

I knew someone once who blew their car up to save money on an oil change.  They didnt mean to of course.  They just didnt understand that you could always choose what you wanted to take care of— but you couldnt choose to not face the consequences of not taking care.  3000 miles came and money was tough.  At 5000 miles money was even tougher.  At 7000 miles they didnt know when they could afford an oil change.  At 8000 miles they didnt have a car.

Much of the current debate about mental health funding is driven by the oil change fallacy.  I have heard many intelligient people explain how it costs too much to serve people and see that they have the resources to meet their mental health needs.  I have heard many good and sincere people explain this with great skill.  As if that closed the discussion.  But seldom do I hear anyone try to explain how they are going to pay for the problems they are creating now that will bear fruit in one, two or three years– problems that we cant afford then which we probably solve by creating problems for still later on.  You see mental health like so many things is subject to the law of reality– pay me now or pay me later.  And later I will always cost more.  And to get to later will always be full of pain and suffering.

I testified once in a state legislative hearing and heard one legislator turn to another and say, “I dont understand why we always solve problems by creating bigger problems and comfort ourselves by saying at least we wont have to deal with them til later.”  I didnt either.

The oil change fallacy can be phrased  in political terms.  Short term solutions do not solve long term problems.  In fact they often cause them.

You know I still remember the day they explained to me about the car blowing up.  The oil change hadnt seemed like a big deal at the time.


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