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« Politics and Econ Linkage | Main | In The Times ... »

July 07, 2009

The Trouble with Theories and Plans

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

On the occasion of the death of Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson, and president at different times of Ford Motor Company and the World Bank, The Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens penned this column for today's edition.

As is my practice, I'm posting some excerpts below, just in case the link disappears.

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 and then as a critic (and getting it wrong on both ends), was a man who believed mainly in plans. ...

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, analyzed, 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. ...

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.

Having survived the Ivy League Ph.D. grind only to leave campus for the real (business) and semi-real (government) worlds, this matter of theory and practice is a subject dear to my heart. In the Sociology grad schools I attended in the mid-late 1960s, Theory was worshiped by many professors and students. Since Theory was in the air and because I have a weakness for ideas, it took me literally decades to wean myself of it and deal with the world as it is.

Ideas, hypotheses and, yes, even theories have a legitimate place in life. It's just that they're a part of the picture, often a small part. One danger is that theories, due to their clarity, simplicity and whatever other characteristics theories possess, is that they can become more real than reality to theory-lovers.

Planning is usually based on some sort of idea structure, often one or more theories. People who love theories are often sympathetic to the concept of planning. After all, isn't it rational to plan things rather than simply "muddle through?" -- this concept itself being something of a theory. A danger here is that the plan becomes more important than its results, as Stephens suggested.

Perhaps another danger is the creation of a Mandarin state led by a small, smart, highly-educated, self-confident, self-perpetuating elite -- which is a kind of extension to Stephens' point at the end of his column. Unless I've read him wrong, this danger is something along the lines of what has been troubling Friedrich von Blowhard for the last year or two.

I'm inclined to agree with Stephens that the results of planning will be bad. And it will be the rest of us who will have to endure the pain of the failure; the Mandarins will simply shrug it off and prepare new plans.

And Stephens' opening quotation? I dealt with the topic of military plans here, if you are interested. Ike's point was that factors such as weather, luck, mistakes and enemy actions cause any detailed plan to rapidly no longer mesh with reality. But the process of planning -- thinking through problems of resources, logistics, alternate thrust patterns and so forth -- is good because this background information is at hand and of potential use once a main plan falls apart. In the case of the many U.S. Navy Orange plans before World War 2, the planning process helped commanders prepare offensive operations against Japan even though the destruction of our battleship fleet at Pearl Harbor was never considered in any Orange scenario. Moreover, some of our commanders had participated in Orange planning as mid-rank officers and therefore had a "feel" for how a war in the Pacific Ocean might be fought.

Later,

Donald

posted by Donald at July 7, 2009




Comments

"I'm inclined to agree with Stephens that the results of planning will be bad. And it will be the rest of us who will have to endure the pain of the failure; the Mandarins will simply shrug it off and prepare new plans."

That's a feature, not a bug of modern liberalism. Great if you're a liberal (or Goldman Sachs).

Posted by: Pettu on July 7, 2009 4:48 PM



The problem with McNamara and is ilk was hubris. They didn't know their limitations and were too arrogant to admit they had them. As the good book says, Pride cometh before the fall.

I wrote a brief obituary for McNamara in my blog yesterday. Yes I know, it's shameless self promotion.

Posted by: slumlord on July 7, 2009 8:34 PM



Planning provides the illusion of control and safety. Like the poor, it will be with us for ever.

Posted by: j on July 8, 2009 12:43 AM



The incentives to plan are never going to go away. The failure of a plan to match reality only entrenches the perceived need for a bureaucracy of elites. In a real sense the elites never feel the pain even if individual elites lose their job and even destroy their careers. Hence, the greater Madisonian point of checks and balances (and also competing powers) is to have enough competing spheres of influence, whether in government, education, business, and places of residence, that no one sphere dominates. The anarchist fantasy is that worlds can exist in which elites will not be able to grab power for themselves. I dispute this is ever possible, but I believe in situations where the elites are partially (ONLY partially) held in check by struggle amongst themselves and with other groups with real options.

Posted by: Not Gandhi on July 8, 2009 8:31 AM



I will never forget that Mr. McNamara attempted to erect a Maginot line across Vietnam, over the objections of his military subordinates.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on July 8, 2009 8:59 AM



Here is all you need to know about theory versus practice:

In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, this is not so.

If you think that's funny, you're practical. If you think it's annoying, you're theoretical.

I regret (no, really I do) to inform you, however, that the world is practical. Some of its practices are disguised as the wildest theory (e.g., Relativity) but in practice, theory always loses.

Posted by: StM on July 8, 2009 9:52 AM



It seems to me that there's planning and there's planning, so to speak. What you might term 'internal planning' is an understanding of how the internal constraints will affect any given goal (such as discovering in 1943 that the rate of production of landing craft will have an disproportionate impact on the success or failure of your invasion of France in 1944). This type of planning is essential and can reveal non-obvious truths, and I might point out that without enormous amounts of this type of planning D-Day would literally not have been possible. Likewise, the successful 'internal planning' of Marshall made the buildup of the U.S. Army from a tiny force to the multi-million man machine essential to invading a German-defended Europe possible.

On the other hand, 'external planning' is the setting of one's original goals and approaches. The particular risk of such 'external planning' is the idea that a given strategy, especially a high-risk, high-return strategy must be successful. Here a major dose of humility is clearly in order, and a recognition of the need for flexibility and the possibility of setbacks are essential. At the same time, we don't have any choice about making some kind of external plans, given that problems are often pressing and resources are never infinite. One possible approach to this rather schizophrenic situation is to take the approach of scenario planning, consider many alternative scenarios, and pick those that seem conservatively to avoid the worst outcomes and have equally conservative (often less-than-spectacular) benefits...sort of the 'let's make sure we don't commit suicide if we happen to be wrong' strategy, even if that means we rule out strategies that aim for spectacularly positive outcomes (like getting everything we want on-the-cheap.) The worst 'planning' failures, it seems to me, are the result of overly ambitious external planning combined with lack of insight from inadequate internal planning.

This seems to have been the case with both types of planning by McNamara et al regarding Vietnam. When I read his book on the subject I was stupified to see that even decades after the fact McNamara refused to lay out a candid, clear-cut discussion of how the Kennedy administration saw the larger strategic facts on the ground, including for example (1) the consequences of invading North Vietnam militarily and failing at it -- probably leading to a major Asian ground war, (2) the consequences of trying limited military intervention and the risks of failing at it for U.S. political prestige and morale and (3) the likely consequences of doing nothing. The absence of such a candid discussion decades after the events in question had been decided made me think that he simply remained too afraid to admit how shallow the Kennedy administration's planning really had been.

It was only from other sources that I finally learned that the Russians and the Chinese both had made significant 'tripwire' investments in North Vietnam (I believe the Chinese posted several hundreds of thousands of Red Army troops there fairly early in the day and the Soviets not only manned Hanoi's anti-aircraft defenses but also engaged directly in air-to-air combat with American pilots, both facts withheld from the public at the time), thus probably ruling out the most obvious rationale for conventional military strategy (i.e., quickly isolating and crushing N. Vietnam while avoiding a major Asian land war).

Presumably, when these facts were considered by an administration that felt it necessary to be "doing something" (after failing at the Bay of Pigs), they felt compelled to conduct a type of S. Vietnam-only, counterinsurgency strategy that hard-eyed 'internal planning' would have revealed U.S. forces to be spectacularly unprepared for in terms of both training and equipment.

(What did they say to themselves? "Heck, that's gotta work 'cause we've got tanks and an airforce and they don't! And think how cool it will be when it does!"?)

As we've seen in other situations like the Iraq war and the financial deregulation of the last 20 years, McNamara's band apparently failed to do serious 'internal planning' after having been seduced by a high-risk, potentially high-payoff 'external' goal. (The goals in question being respectively, stopping Communist aggression in the Third World via a 'minor war', introducing democracy to the Arab world on-the-cheap and juicing financial growth without having to do the heavy lifting of serious policies on savings, investment and innovation.)

McNamara's silence about these issues just made me think, "Wow, should this guy have never been running anything really serious." Sadly, his name could be linked to a long list of others in recent American public life including but not limited to LBJ, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rubin, Paulson, Greenspan, and Bernanke.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 8, 2009 1:02 PM



Yes, there's planning and there's planning. For all the blather about McNamara's tech/rational/systems hubris blinding him to the fact that Vietnam couldn't be won (those unbeatable peasant guerillas!), Creighton Abrams (and others) came in after McNamara, and planned, and executed, a strategy that led to the effective elimination of those unbeatable peasant guerilla cadres as a factor in the war. And furthermore, strengthened the ARVN so that it could, together with considerable air support from the US, crush the conventional North Vietnam-dominated Easter Offensive.

But Abrams was a planner of a different stripe than McNamara, obviously. If an analogy to today has to be drawn, imagine a flinty old-school investment type, no illusions but still capable of flexible thinking, compared to a quant-obsessed MBA. Who would you think more responsible for today's mess? And who more capable of fixing it?

P.S. To be fair, McNamara was a very complex figure, even a tragic one, by no means the inhuman systems-geek I have painted him as. But he was nonetheless, in some important sense, a fool, which is what Creighton Abrams thought of him.

Posted by: PatrickH on July 8, 2009 2:49 PM



The "but we beat the North Vietnamese in the early 70s!" school has always been massively exaggerated, a doomed effort to win the war in retrospect after it was lost in reality. The South collapsed within months after U.S. aid was cut off.

Anyway, an important distinction between McNamara and the present day is the way markets have been portrayed as an alternative to planning. The reliance on decentralized markets was supposed to be the cure for the rationalist hubris of planners. We switched from worshipping the engineers to worshipping the economists. Now our mandarins boast that they represent the verdict of the market, not of a plan.

Posted by: MQ on July 8, 2009 3:12 PM



Yes, the South did collapse after US aid was cut off, as you so rightly said. It was, if I recall correctly, cut to, oh, a dollar a day. This with several North Viet divisions parked inside South Vietnam waiting to pounce.

The fact is, the Cong were eliminated after Tet. The conquest of the South was accomplished by something like 22 armoured divisions from the North, with lots of T tanks and that deadly 130mm Soviet artillery. Only after the resignation of Nixon left the paralyzed Ford to watch helplessly as the Democratic congress cut South Vietnam off (no-one thinks South Vietnam could have survived without American aid, MQ) and refused to let American airpower do what it did so effectively in 1972...defeat, with the ARVN, the North Vietnamese conventional forces, and drive them to the peace table, did Hanoi make its move.

Military aid cut to a dollar a day! Two magazines of replacement ammo per South soldier! And then...within months, a massive conventional assault on the South!

Who'da thought it?

(That Hanoi was using the peace process as just another tactic changes nothing. Their guerilla proxies were dead or irrelevant, their armoured forces were helpless to conquer the South. So Hanoi went to Paris, got a break from the bombs...and waited for a Democratic congress, led by the sainted Ted Kennedy, to topple their great enemy Nixon, and then betray the South to defeat and occupation. It's almost as if the Democrats were so put out by Republicans doing what they, the best and the brightest, the compassionate ones, couldn't do, that they were willing to destroy an ally just to make sure the Thuglicans couldn't claim a victory. Which, now that I think of it, was what the Dems wanted to do in Iraq. Lucky the turnaround there happened too soon for them to abort. They're still trying though.)

P.S. Not that I'm questioning Democrats' patriotism!

Posted by: PatrickH on July 8, 2009 5:50 PM



Friedrich--The absence of such a candid discussion decades after the events in question had been decided made me think that he simply remained too afraid to admit how shallow the Kennedy administration's planning really had been.

The problem wasn't planning Friedrich, the problem was their ontology. McNamara was many things but one thing he wasn't was lazy. I imagine he and his staff planned for all contingencies and modeled all possible scenarios. The problem was that the ontology under which they operated was false.

Patrick H hits the nail on the head with;

If an analogy to today has to be drawn, imagine a flinty old-school investment type, no illusions but still capable of flexible thinking, compared to a quant-obsessed MBA.

Their theory of war, just like their theory of race relations, poverty, etc was flawed. Their understanding of human nature was was wrong. As a logical consequence, their conduct of the war was wrong and ultimately doomed.

Just like the MBA's who felt that statistical theories were applicable to financial transactions, McNamara's understanding of military theory was wrong. He was a like the pilot of a plane who had the wrong theory of aerodynamics. No matter how much training or planning you do before the flight you're gonna crash unless you get lucky.

A man builds his house in vain if he builds it on sand, for when the storm comes it is washed away. On the other hand, the man who build on rock is safe during the storm, and in battle.

Posted by: slumlord on July 8, 2009 6:23 PM



There is a saying that no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.

I suppose this is generally true. However, in the war memoir of Major Vladimir "Popski" Peniakoff, he mentions meeting the British general who defended against Rommel's last counterattack in Africa (against Eighth Army on March 6, 1943).

The general said

it was the first time in his life (and probably the last time) a battle had developed exactly as he had planned it. 'All I had to do was sit and watch. From first to last I never gave an order.'

So once in a while, battle plans do come true. And certainly a lot of planning is needed to get the army in position for battle.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on July 9, 2009 12:59 AM



Friedrich von Blowhard @ 1:02 PM

Bravo!

Posted by: Chris White on July 9, 2009 2:05 PM



Patrick, South Vietnam by the early 70s was a hollow shell of a country completely propped up by U.S. intervention -- no effective government or army, no popular support for the regime. You have to ask what the point of fighting a war in that region is, what were we defending? No doubt we could have found a way by continued military intervention and spending to effectively interdict the area using U.S. air power, at least enough to prevent a final invasion, but what would the point have been? That would not have been a victory. Our bombing campaigns in the 70s caused numerous casualties among South Vietnamese civilians.

Essentially, Vietnam had become a vanity colonial project, and we had killed millions of people trying to defend that project. What you wrongly imply is "unpatriotic" was simply the American liberals deciding they did not want to be involved in such a project, not believing it necessary to American security. As indeed it was not; our exit from Vietnam did no harm whatsoever legitimate American security interests. In fact, quite the opposite...continuing to fight in Vietnam would have blocked the road to rapprochement with China. In this sense, American liberals were more patriotic, as they valued genuine American interests above anti-Communist hysteria.

Their guerilla proxies were dead or irrelevant, their armoured forces were helpless to conquer the South. So Hanoi went to Paris, got a break from the bombs...and waited for a Democratic congress, led by the sainted Ted Kennedy, to topple their great enemy Nixon, and then betray the South to defeat and occupation.

This is actually not historically true -- the latest Nixon tapes make it quite clear that Nixon planned to withdraw from Vietnam after his 1972 reelection, and was simply trying to delay the end of the war until that point. He pushed the 1970s Paris accords on South Vietnam for this reason. Nixon obviously had an eye toward peace with China.

Posted by: MQ on July 10, 2009 5:53 PM



Some telling points MQ, but not these:

Patrick, South Vietnam by the early 70s was a hollow shell of a country completely propped up by U.S. intervention -- no effective government or army, no popular support for the regime.

That was true of SV in 1965. But by the time of the Easter Offensive, the internal threat of the VC was vanquished, the ARVN fought reasonably well with relatively little on-ground aid from American land forces, and the NVs, having had to abandon their VCI focused strategy, had to go all out on conventional cross-border invasions. And when that strategy failed in 1972, they switched to the peace table, and won there enough time so that Nixon's resignation brought to power that element of America the NVs had indeed defeated, even routed: the leadership class of the Democratic party, whose will and morale had been shattered by the failure in Vietnam of the war strategy...of the leadership of the Democratic party.

No doubt we could have found a way by continued military intervention and spending to effectively interdict the area using U.S. air power, at least enough to prevent a final invasion, but what would the point have been? That would not have been a victory.

Compare the Koreas. The US preserved the existence of a regime that for years after was corrupt, authoritarian, and whose people were impoverished. I'm not comparing the relatively sane Hanoi regime to Pyongyang, and maybe Saigon would never have developed as successfully as SK. But that is a possibility for the vapour-mind to contemplate. Still...

but what would the point have been? That would not have been a victory.

That's just true. So in the biggest picture view, you're right, of course. None of my points about planning and Creighton Abrams vs. Robert McNamara--which I think stand--change the fact that the Vietnam War was unnecessary. I agree with you there. And since it was unnecessary, even a successful modification of strategy doesn't change the fact that the deaths caused by that strategy were also not necessary (Cf. post-surge Iraq.) Still, there's planning and there's planning.

And lastly, interesting point about Nixon wanting to withdraw. My understanding is that his aim was to withdraw ground forces, an aim he succeeded in achieving. I didn't know that he was also intending:

i) a complete cut-off of military aid, and

ii) a refusal to commit air power at any level to defend the South from a cross-border invasion by the North (even though air power would have been very effective in breaking up NV armoured columns in 1975), and that

iii) an NV invasion almost immediately after the cutoff in aid and air power would have been a matter of indifference to his administration because of the desire for improved relations with China.

(I thought Nixon had got that Chinese happy ball rolling in 1971, and this, according to Kissinger's memoirs, was a factor in pushing the NVs to the bargaining table.)

So, as I say, your point about Nixon is pretty much news to me.

Posted by: PatrickH on July 13, 2009 10:29 AM






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