Mcnamara to Obama: the fatal conceit of planners

Mcnamara to Obama: the fatal conceit of planners
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First Published: Thu, Jul 23 2009. 11 35 PM IST
Updated: Thu, Jul 23 2009. 11 35 PM IST
Former US president Dwight D. Eisenhower famously said that “in preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable”. Robert S. McNamara, who spent many years thinking about the Vietnam War, first as an architect when he was US secretary of defence and then as critic (and getting it wrong on both ends), was a man who believed mainly in plans.
McNamara, who died on Monday at 93, will go down as a cautionary tale for the ages, and perhaps none more than for the Age of Obama. Whatever else distinguishes John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” or Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” from Barack Obama’s “New Foundation”, this, too, is an era of soaring rhetoric, big plans and boundless self-regard, issued by an administration convinced it can apply technocratic, top-down solutions to huge and unpredictable systems: the banking, auto and healthcare industries, for instance, or the climate. These are people deeply impressed by their own smarts, ones for whom the phrase “the best and the brightest” has been scrubbed of its intended irony.
When McNamara—the “Whiz Kid” from Ford—was first named defence secretary in December 1960, Time magazine gushed that he “reads widely and well (current choices: The Phenomenon of Man, W.W. Rostow’s The Stages of Growth). His mind, says a friend who has seen him in Ann Arbor discussions, ‘is a beautiful instrument, free from leanings and adhesions, calm and analytical’.” Nearly 50 years later, the Associated Press would lead its obituary by describing McNamara as “the cerebral secretary of defence”. In between, journalist David Halberstam—who was for the Vietnam War before he was against it, but that’s another story—wrote that McNamara “symbolized the idea that (the Kennedy administration) could manage and control events, in an intelligent, rational way. Taking on a guerrilla war was like buying a sick foreign company; you brought your systems to it.”
Of course it did not end well. Nor did it end well for McNamara with his next assignment as president of the World Bank, where he hugely increased lending on the theory that more inputs (money, “expertise”) meant better outputs (“development”). Instead, McNamara’s stewardship of the bank helped create the third-world debt crisis, fuelled Africa’s descent into chaos, swelled Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s Swiss bank accounts, and backed the cruel and misbegotten campaign for population control.
A recurring pattern played itself out over the 20 years McNamara spent at the Pentagon and the bank. Giant troves of quantitative data were collected, analysed, disaggregated and reassembled. Plans—typically on a five-year timetable—were conceived and then, presumably, executed. He once called the bank “an innovative, problem-solving mechanism...to help fashion a better life for mankind”.
Nobel Prizes in economics would later be awarded for disproving this mechanistic notion of institutions. But no Nobel was required to understand that rationalism isn’t a synonym for reason, much less common sense, or that a planned solution was a workable or desirable solution, or that war or poverty were “problems” in the same sense as, say, a deficit. There was also a human element, which—depending on whom you believe—McNamara either didn’t get or didn’t have.
None of this is to say that Vietnam was “unwinnable”, the liberal nostrum in which the late McNamara took comfort, or that poverty is unbeatable. On the contrary, hundreds of millions of people have worked their way out of poverty—no thanks to the World Bank—while a war that only three years ago was deemed unwinnable now looks very nearly won.
But all that happened only after the Planners gave way to what development economist William Easterly has called the “Searchers”. As Easterly writes in his book The White Man’s Burden, “a Planner thinks he already knows the answers; he thinks of poverty as a technical engineering problem that his answers will solve. A Searcher admits he doesn’t know the answers in advance; he believes that poverty is a complicated tangle of political, social, historical, institutional and technological factors. A Searcher hopes to find answers to individual problems only by trial and error experimentation. A Planner believes outsiders know enough to impose solutions.”
So, from Chile to Taiwan, economic progress only came about when governments junked the whole idea of the planned economy. So, too, in Iraq, the US’ fortunes only changed when the Bush administration went from sticking to a concept (“light footprint”), to searching, and finding, an answer in the surge, which combined new counter-insurgency tactics with sensitivity to local conditions. The US might have won in Vietnam, too, if it had sooner discarded McNamara’s concept of gradualism and gone after North Vietnam’s centre of gravity—its dependence, via Haiphong harbour, on the resupply of Soviet arms.
Now that’s old history. But the mentality of the planner remains alive and well in Washington today, along with the aura of cool intellectual certainty. Barack Obama might take a close look at McNamara’s obituaries and note that he, too, is the whiz kid of his day.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Café Economics will be back next week. Edited excerpts. Comments are welcome at views@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Jul 23 2009. 11 35 PM IST