Short term thinking

28 January 2009


Yesterday, in The Lengthening Shadow of Keynes, I quoted Keynes to the effect that, “The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead.” While Keynes certainly did not seek to set himself up as the prophet of short term thinking, he certainly did provide a memorable quote for those who wish to defend a myopic conception of political and economic policy.

Another wonderful quote in defense of the short term is from Rumsfeld’s Rules: “The tension between the short term and long term can be constructive, but there is no long term without a short term.”

One may wonder why I even bother to quote Rumsfeld, as the man is in low public esteem at the moment, and at his age is not likely to make a startling comeback. Nevertheless, whatever public opinion may hold, and though both those inside and outside the Bush administration were glad to have him as a fall guy for unintended consequences of the Iraq War, Rumsfeld must be counted among the greatest Secretaries of Defense ever.

poster boy for short term thinking?

Donald Rumsfeld: poster boy for short term thinking?

But we come to bury Rumsfeld, not to praise him. While his “Rules” make themselves abundantly clear on the short term, they do not incorporate any thoughts on the relation of public servants to the long term. And, in fact, this is exactly what tripped him up. Rumsfeld had a short term worked out, but he had no long term worked out. He has been caricatured as not following his own rules (and why would anyone care about such a foolish consistency?), but in this respect Rumsfeld followed Rumsfeld’s Rules too closely.

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall."

Ralph Waldo Emerson: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall."

Rumsfeld’s failure to put policies and practices in place to ensure a long term life for his vision of a lighter, quicker US military infrastructure not only ended Rumsfeld’s career early, but also brought that vision into disrepute –- tainted, as it is, by association with Rumsfeld’s name –- and in so doing left the US less prepared for future wars. Rumsfeld’s long term vision for the future of the US military ran afoul of his short term thinking.

how to flatter your way to influence and prosperity, a careerist's guide to renaissance Italy

The Book of the Courtier: how to flatter your way to influence and prosperity, a careerist's guide to renaissance Italy

Rumsfeld’s Rules may be profitably compared both to The Book of the Courtier (Il Cortegiano, 1528 ) by Baldassare Castiglione, and The Prince (Il Principe, posthumously published in 1532) by Niccolò Machiavelli. While many would gleefully identify Rumsfeld as a Machiavellian schemer, perhaps the greater number of his Rules are about showing deference to the president. Indeed, we could take whole passages out of The Book of the Courtier and re-formulate them substituting “secretary” for “courtier” and “president” for “prince” salva veritate.

how to lie, cheat, and steal your way to power, good advice that is still valid today

Machiavelli's The Prince: how to lie, cheat, and steal your way to power, good advice that is still valid today

What does it say about the supposedly open and democratic political system of the US in the twenty-first century that it so closely parallels the intrigues of renaissance Italian courts?

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