February 08, 2005

Is Decision-Making More Important Than Ideology?

I'm still walking my way through Halberstam's The Best and The Brightest (previously discussed here, with no takers). I ran across this passage (page 362 in my version) that I thought was interesting:

Part of this [executive branch confusion about Vietnam] was the growing sense of failure over Vietnam and part of it was the new style that Lyndon Johnson had brought to the White House and the government at large, a sharp contrast to the Kennedy style, which was post-Bay of Pigs to ventilate an issue as much as possible within the government. Above all, Johnson believed in secrecy. He liked to control all discussions; the more delicate the subject, the more he liked to control it. Thus by his very style Johnson limited the amount of innergovernmental consensus, whether a good policy or not, a wise one or not. The important thing was to get everyone aboard; if there was consensus there was no dissent and this was a comforting feeling, it eased Johnson's insecurities.

In other words, Johnson didn't use the vast executive branch bureaucracy as a way of testing a variety of ideas and policies to find the best solution to achieve American aims (which are, by defintion, set by the President): Johnson ran the executive branch as a consensus-building machine, discouraging critics and pessimists. By this system, the decisions to intervene with more and more American combat troops into Vietnam could not be stopped, as any who argued against the system were physically pushed out of government or at least out of positions of authority with respect to decisions in Vietnam (the decision to intervene in the first place was made before Johnson came to power, so this failure of decision-making is only related to decisions to escalate).

Johnson's style of decision-making seems clearly related to Bush. Bush, as well, pushes away people who challenge his decisions and question his assumptions. (The parallel to Vietnam is that it has led to equally bad decisions being made by the government as a whole, not necessarily that Iraq will turn into another Vietnam.)

David Brooks (who does not deserve his place as a New York Times columnist) had a mostly incoherent column back in June of 2004. He argues that there is a "civil war in the educated class". There isn't, and the rest of the article makes no case for any kind of civil war, but does talk about how people make decisions:

Instead, the contest between these elite groups is often about culture, values and, importantly, leadership skills. What sorts of people should run this country? Which virtues are most important for a leader?
Knowledge-class types are more likely to value leaders who possess what may be called university skills: the ability to read and digest large amounts of information and discuss their way through to a nuanced solution. Democratic administrations tend to value self-expression over self-discipline. Democratic candidates from Clinton to Kerry often run late.
Managers are more likely to value leaders whom they see as simple, straight-talking men and women of faith. They prize leaders who are good at managing people, not just ideas. They are more likely to distrust those who seem overly intellectual or narcissistically self-reflective.
Republican administrations tend to be tightly organized and calm, in a corporate sort of way, and place a higher value on loyalty and formality. George Bush says he doesn't read the papers. That's a direct assault on the knowledge class and something no Democrat would say.

This description of "knowledge types" and "managers" seems to draw from the Halberstam description of Johnson's adminstration. "Managers" seek loyalty and consensus, to manage the different branches and far-flung parts of a government or business. "Managers" work to assemble teams to put a consensus policy into action, and effectively get the job done. This is Johnson (Senate leader) and Bush (businessman, Governor of Texas). "Knowledge types" seek a more chaotic environment where different policies and people compete to find "correct" policies to best achieve the goals of the administration (Kennedy, Roosevelt).

So Brooks is dead wrong in pointing to Democrats as "knowledge types" and Republicans as "managers". The decision-making styles of different adminstrations are more likely related to personality types and proffesional backgrounds than political ideology (professors versus businesspeople). Brooks is, surprisingly, right in considering different management and decision-making styles when thinking about the Presidency, just wrong in making this a voting issue (and a party issue) when it is mostly an issue of how President's act, manage and decide.

And what it comes down to, for me, is that the "manager" types are awful at making good decisions. I mean, it's one thing to run a Senate or a corporation in the name of loyalty and consensus, but an entirely different thing when running a country. Consensus may be fine for business, but it has no real place in effective policy evaluation. I don't care how collegial the meetings are, I care that the government make accurate and effective decisions to implement the goals they are pursuing (no matter what ideology creates those goals).

Halberstam makes the case for Johnson and Vietnam, and we have seen by our own eyes with Bush and Iraq, that insular, closed, consensus-building adminstrations can easily convince themselves that they are taking the best path to policy implementation. By removing all dissenting voices from the decision-making circles, they achive consensus (and ensure loyalty, as "dis-loyal" dissidents are removed from the decision-making circles - see what happened to Oneil, Powell, Whitman, Clarke, etc.), but the policies they implement are just plain bad. Which is what you would expect when there are no critics around to challenge people's assumptions and poke holes in their favorite theories.

I'm not sure I'm prepared to advocate that people should vote for President based on how the candidates make decisions and ignore ideology, but certainly the issue should recieve some discussion during elections. I think I can make the case that bad ideology doesn't do as much damage as bad decision-making, and that our worst foreign policy disasters have occured because of bad decision-making, not bad ideology.

(Just because some part of one of David Brooks' columns was right doesn't mean he should keep his job.)

(Oh, and we can also blame Congress for this. There is nothing in the Constitution that requires the Executive to avoid a "manager" mindset, but the roll of Congress is to challenge the Executive and force it to answer questions and justify actions. This (Republican) Congress is clearly falling down on that job, in the name of partisan unity. The results have been a long stream of bad decisions that remain unchallenged or investigated by a separate, but equal, branch of government.)

Posted by baltar at February 8, 2005 05:26 PM | TrackBack | Posted to Politics


I've always like The Best and the Brightest (like a lot of Halberstam books) though I find its organization to leave a lot to be desire (again, like other Halberstam books).

As someone who studies the effects of both decision-making style and the core beliefs of political leaders on foreign policy, it's not a surprise that I think both matter a great deal. And true, it's too much to ask voters to consider how a candidate might make a decision before casting their ballot. But it's extremely important.

That said, I don't think that this "manager" style is entirely bad. The thing is that certain styles work better for certain actors. Someone like Ike for instance, or the first Bush, could probably use such a style reasonably effectively b/c they knew several of the players on their team very well and could probably accurately guess their preferences and the assumptions those were based on, but also, and more importantly, they generally knew the world. They'd worked on international issues all their life and had a natural curiousity on those topics. If you don't need a lot of basic information and perspectives, if you are already well-versed in the topics at hand, working in a knowledge-based style is probably less important.

So to some extent what works best is dependent on the president's knowledge and personal interest. How you can best learn depends on what you need to learn.

But it also depends on how you learn. The knowledge-based style probably was ideal for JFK and Clinton for example b/c 1) they lacked a lot of important IR knowledge and 2) they reacted well to reasonably informal sturctures where ideas were thrown around. Some people just don't work that way. It seems clear that men like Reagan or Nixon would get little out of that type of a process. They'd be uncomfortable with it.

So what style is better sort of depends on who's in need of the information and their personal traits. But yeah, when you have an incurious president who believes in a strict dogma, is completely uninterested in others opinions, sets up his decision-making processes in ways in which he often only hears one opinion, and, fundamentally, doesn't know much about the world, you really shouldn't expect to have to wait too long before the mistakes and disasters start.

Posted by: Armand at February 9, 2005 11:32 AM | PERMALINK

I'll agree that Halberstam writing style is confusing, but I'll discuss that when I finally finish and do a book review.

I'm not sure I agree with you about the worth of the "manager" style. I think "managers" can get lucky, and pick people who are knowledgable and capable, and run the government/business with great success. That being said, I still don't think the entire style is as capable of correcting a wrong policy decision as is the other ("knowledge, I guess we're calling it). Once things go wrong for the "manager", they seem incapable of re-thinking or even noticing that something has gone wrong because of the need for consensus and loyalty. In other words, while the "manager" style isn't necessarily inherently bad (though I might still believe that), it is clearly incapable (or does so with great difficulty) of correcting problems because of the inherent nature of the style and its inability to test alternative policies and have debates.

(That being said, the faults of the "knowledge" based style seem more related to policy implementation: they endlessly debate and argue, and never get around to actually doing anything.)

Posted by: baltar at February 9, 2005 01:11 PM | PERMALINK

Well, yeah to some extent what successes there are with a manager can really be a matter of luck in terms of who gets appointed - I mean can you just imagine what the 80's would have looked like if George Shultz hadn't been at the State Dept.? That could have been really ugly - or much uglier.

And of course part of this comes down to the point that some people don't seem to have the skills to run a one-car parade effectively, no matter the style of decision making. Sadly, the current president seems to be one of those people.

Posted by: Armand at February 9, 2005 01:48 PM | PERMALINK

This piece rides on the assumption that Iraq is as big or nearly as big a blunder as Vietnam and this assumption is needed in order to put forth the inadequacies of "management-based" decision making over "knowledge-based" decision making. From a 50,000 feet view, I think we won't know for many years whether Iraq was a poor decision.

Secondly, what are the differences between "building a consensus" and "competing for decisions"? There are winners and losers in both scenarios as the buck ultimately stops with the president. I would think it to be incorrect to deny that there were losers on the same level as say, Powell, in the Kennedy or Clinton administrations, for example. Lastly, no president puts in a cabinet that is so diametrically opposed that all kinds of different views are heard.

Besides, I never really heard from Powell himself that he disagreed with the President so often as is reported. Powell repeatedly wonders where the press gets this stuff. Clarke was clearly a loser with all administrations.



Posted by: Plinko at February 9, 2005 02:15 PM | PERMALINK

Well, I think it's close to common knowledge that Powell has had Bob Woodward on speed dial for a long time (maybe not literally, but you never know).

And I think the basic point is that this is dangerous for a host of policy areas, not just Iraq. If you take the example of the Middle East peace process, Powell has said that right at the start Bush explicitly stated that he didn't want to hear anything about pushing it, that we were going to support Sharon and that would be that. Cutting off even the briefest of conversations on important policy areas, whatever they are, is problematic.

If you read what Rice has said her perception of her job at the NSC was, it wasn't to coordinate the various agencies involved, it wasn't to ensure a coherent information flow, it wasn't to ensure policies implemented matched decisions made - it was to assist the president in realizing what his own beliefs are. Presuming that Bush himself doesn't have a direct line to God, it does suggest that he has been at times dangerously out of touch with the bureaucracies that are supposed to assist him and implement his orders.

Matching that, if you read over the work that's been done on the decision-making process re: Afghanistan, it's shocking the degree to which the president isn't involved in the process. He set down a few very vague rules and goals, and then the principals fought amongst themselves and usually brought a single proposal (or set of proposals) for the president to review. He wasn't privy to hardly any of the debates that occurred between them. Given his lack of knowledge with the area or this kind of operation, that lack of involvement was dangerous. For deatils on this you could always read Bush at War, which most people see as very favorable to the president.

Finally I'd note that it's not necessarily appropriate to judge decisions or the process of decision making on the basis of the quality of the outcomes that emerge. A host of implementation problems and outside events can affect outcomes that aren't tied to the process of making the decision. And then there are your other basic forces at work like the US's enormous power (it's somewhat hard for us not to get something out of our activities abroad given our gigantic levels of military power and wealth). Decision making is probably more appropriately judged on the basis of whether or not forseeable events and alternatives were addressed, contingency plans made, and basically if everyone was working in a way that fostered careful, diligent action. You can do that and still have an event go bad due to events outside your control.

Posted by: Armand at February 9, 2005 02:36 PM | PERMALINK

Decision making is probably more appropriately judged on the basis of whether or not forseeable events and alternatives were addressed, contingency plans made, and basically if everyone was working in a way that fostered careful, diligent action. You can do that and still have an event go bad due to events outside your control.

There you go again, Armand, showing your true colors as a member of the reality-based community. For shame.

Posted by: joshua at February 9, 2005 03:18 PM | PERMALINK


First, I think I'm trying to separate two questions: first, whether Iraq is a disaster (not covered here) and second, what sort of bad decision-making went into getting us there (which is where the focus of this post is). I'll grant you that Iraq will take several years to settle down, and we won't really know what sort of success or failure it is for a while. That being said, I think it is much more clear that the decision-making that brought us there was bad: no WMD, no real allies (beyond the Brits), and a lack of progress on solving what many other policy-makers think are "real" crisis (North Korea, Iran, etc.). In that sense, this is an argument about decision-making and Presidents, not about success or failure in Iraq.

I'll grant you that the "knowledge" based decision-style isn't really fleshed out here: it's more a critique of the "management" style, though I did note the potential weaknesses of the "knowledge" style (implementation problems). Bush's style of decision-making, as Armand notes, isn't just at fault in Iraq, but in a whole host of both foreign and domestic areas. He makes bad decisions. His strength, and the strength of his management style, is that once these decisions are made, policy is clearly implemented and results happen in relatively short order - a very efficient end, but mostly pointed in the wrong directions.

And sure, there were losers in Clinton and Kennedy's administrations. The differences are that in a "knowledge" style of administration, losing really doesn't mean much, as you can come back and argue for the next policy debate - the point of the style is to have free discussion so that the best policy alternative is discovered through testing a bunch of possible alternatives. Moreover, if a policy starts to go "wrong", then there is the chance to correct it as the adminstration can debate it all over again (and people will be willing to state that a policy is failing, since they won't be tossed out for "disloyalty"). In the "management" style administration the losers are pushed physically out of government (and the bad decisions keep coming, because no one is around to let the inner-circle know they are making bad decisions: after all anyone who protests is just tossed, so why would anyone ever protest?).

I'm not arguing that Presidents need Cabinets that disagree with them, just that in any broad ideology (which both the Republicans and Democrats represent, given the length and breath of this country) there will not be a uniform set of beliefs. There are bound to be disagreements, yet we really haven't heard of many with Bush (those we have heard, have been tossed and are complaining after the fact).

And if Clarke was such a loser, how did he get his job, and keep it through a long 8 or so years in 2 administrations? I'm not saying he's perfect, but what's so bad about him?

Posted by: baltar at February 9, 2005 04:37 PM | PERMALINK

So, just to sum up, with managers we get messy policy implemenations (Iraq, Great Society) or with university types we get endless debate but no policy implemented (Clinton health care). Have you stopped to think that maybe the knowledge types would become manager types if only they could build a consensus? If you'll recall, Clinton was all about pleasing everyone, as was so beautifully depicted in that SNL episode where Clinton calls random people in the phone book at two in the morning while waiting for his pizza delilvery. It's true, he probably did read the newspaper. Kudos to him.

Posted by: Morris at February 9, 2005 09:53 PM | PERMALINK

Morris - If you are just going to be a bitch and not even bother to make a substantive comment, why even post (at least on those threads that are about substance - on the threads that are all about bitchin', please bitch away)? Knowledge types do come to decisions - true, it's often slower than a manager just saying sure (to perhaps something he doesn't have the vaguest clue about), but not necessarily much slower. Managers don't necessarily make bad decisions (in the sense that things spin out of their control b/c of their own lack of involvement and ineptitude) - but it's more likely in many cases. And since policy implemented is policy in the substantive sense, I mean in terms of how it affects people in reality - that's a BIG problem. Some people can manage it pretty well (often Ike did), but those who lack the curiousity and knowledge to run the manager style effectively (say Reagan, Bush II, and you could argue part of Clinton's first term) are opening themselves to a greater likelihood that their policies are going to fall apart or be based on lousy information. And of course many leaders in BOTH categories are frequently intra-government consensus builders (like Ike and JFK).

And really, that's something you see time and time again in the comparative work on foreign policy (as applies to both US presidents and foreign leaders) - leaders who have experience in foreign policy, a deep interest in those issues, and a curiousity about them tend to make better decisions (in terms of the decision's impact on the national interest).

Posted by: Armand at February 10, 2005 08:55 AM | PERMALINK


Actually, you hit on the problems of both pretty well. Those are the worst of both "ideal types". And no, I don't think the types can switch back and forth. Think of it as a continuum, where better "knowledge" types can force themselves to get implementation done, and better "manager" types can open up the circles and have some actual debates. In my opinion, this Bush is very close to the ideal type for "managers", and this isn't working out very well for us.

Posted by: baltar at February 10, 2005 11:38 AM | PERMALINK

And Armand did illustrate that managers who have knowledge (or seek it elsewhere, not just in the context of management style) can make effective consensus decisions. The continuum is a good way to think about it. And a question for our FPDM guy: aren't there more than just the two standard types? And several typology systems?

Posted by: binky at February 10, 2005 11:59 AM | PERMALINK

Well, sure there are a variety of groupings different scholars use. But I think that in terms of the ideal types Baltar raises the most popular division is along the lines of the groupings laid out by Richard Johnson in his Managing the White House (1974). There's the Formalistic approach (I guess these are the "managers" to Brooks) and the Collegial and Competitive models (favored by "knowledge-based" types I suppose).

Posted by: Armand at February 10, 2005 01:12 PM | PERMALINK

Something else to think about though with these ideal types is that it's not merely a matter of setting the structure and rules of behavior of the decision making group. Also important is getting the group to adhere to those norms and work productively. I don't immediately recall if there's been much work crossing these systems with Bruce Tuckman's work on the life cycles of groups (forming, storming, norming, performing, adjourning) - see http://www.infed.org/thinkers/tuckman.htm - but off the top of my head it would seem possible that disengaged managers would be those most likely to fail to put a stop to the "stormin" phase, and that could severely impair group decision making.

Posted by: Armand at February 13, 2005 03:30 PM | PERMALINK

You want to clarify that last bit a little? How would disengaged managers (and what does that mean?) fail to stop one phase over another?

Posted by: baltar at February 14, 2005 10:03 AM | PERMALINK

Sure. The basic idea here is that like any other social entity decision-making groups have a life span. And part of that life span is what's referred to as "storming". That's when members of a group are feeling out the interests that they all have, searching for each others' goals, weaknesses and what have you. It's when you try to figure out how you'll best achieve your goals when your group finally does develop set norms and shared identity and recognized standards and structure and moves on to the "performing" stage. It's also when you try to undermine everyone else in the group in ways that will leave you with the greatest influence in the group. The problem is that if there's not an engaged leader who knows about what's going on in the storming stage, and seeks to limit its excesses, you'll end up having a group that's just continuously storming - undermining each other, seeking personal goals instead of group goals, because no coherent norms and identity develop and there's no discipline that requires the group to function as a decision-making team that should be fostering the greater organization that it represents (in this case, the United States). Generally, if a president was one of these "knowledge-based" types he'd likely impose discipline. But if you have a disengaged manager type that might never happen. That's basically what was going on at the Reagan NSC for his whole first term. And, since people talk about this administration's first term being even more cut-throat and disorganized than that period (it boggles the mind really), perhaps that's the same thing that was going on here. Rice's weaknesses and Bush's failure to involve himself lead to ... a great big ole mess.

Posted by: Armand at February 14, 2005 10:52 AM | PERMALINK
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