This article by New York Magazine has a relatively even-handed narrative of the man that is increasingly appearing to be the Republican candidate for President this year. Mitt Romney has an incredibly strong business background, and has truly reshaped the nature of modern American business practices.
It is the conclusion of his personality that bothers me:
It is arresting to imagine a Romney White House, inevitably filled with as many former Bain colleagues as each of his other public ventures have been: The PowerPoints, the 80-20 jargon, the clinical separation of decision-making from ideology, the detachment of those decisions from moral consequence, a persistent blind spot for people as people. It would represent the final ascension of a perfectly American type, one that has already remade the culture of business. I once asked a Bain colleague of Romney's how Romney thought of his own core competence. "I think Mitt thinks he's good at being Mitt Romney," the colleague said.
Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that he has adopted a public persona that contains no detectable motives at all, one that is buried in objectivity, in data, in process. The best evidence of how important Romney's religion is to him could be how far he has kept it from view. But the character that remains visible is at once uniquely American and a little strange: a perfectly objective efficiency machine.
I just spent the past few days reading The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam. In it, Halberstam describes the decision-makers behind the Vietnam War, carefully and extensively profiling every senior member of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. No one played as large and overarching a role as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara - business giant (former president of Ford) and noted for his absolutely extensive use of data and analytics to evaluate the war effort. His quantitative approach to management came from his time at Harvard Business School - not incidentally, the same school attended by Mitt Romney (and George W. Bush for that matter).
Here's my favorite anecdote which illuminates the man:
Once, sitting at CINCPAC for eight hours watching hundreds and hundreds of slides flashed across the screen showing what was in the pipe line to Vietnam and what was already there, [McNamara] finally said, after seven hours, "Stop the projector. This slide, number 869, contradicts slide 11." Slide 11 was flashed back and he was right, they did contradict each other.
Of course, McNamara's emphasis on analytics did little to assist the U.S.-led war effort in Vietnam, and he would later leave the Johnson Administration a very despondent, broken man.
I have often discussed the divide between the quantitative and qualitative approaches to life (what Stanford students dub the techie-fuzzy divide). While business is often amenable to quantitative approaches, politics is a very different beast. Emotion plays such a crucial role in how we interact with each other and with ideas that at times people can actually do tremendously different things that those predicted by a cost-benefit/economic-model perspective.
More typically, the problem with quantification is its emphasis on averages, trends, and minutia, as opposed to investigating the larger drivers of change. Hanoi was not going to back down because of an increase in bombing missions, for the simple reason that it had very different decision criteria - the desire for independence. They were willing to suffer ridiculous losses to see that mission to its end. In the end, no model devised by the think tanks and the Pentagon could understand that.
What scares me about Mitt Romney is that we seem to be willing to repeat the whole situation over again. McNamara was incredibly smart, the Best and the Brightest, but as Halberstam shows, that title is ironic - because all that intelligence failed to understand such a basic conception of what the enemy was thinking.
Posted on October 26, 2011