Sunday, July 26, 2009

Forget Bipartisanship
As we get toward nut-cutting time on health care reform, some analysts are concerned that any measure that seems likely to emerge from the protracted negotiations in Congress might not bear the imprimatur of support from both parties that was a hallmark of earlier landscape-changing legislation from Social Security in the '30s to Medicare in the '60s to tax reform in the '80s. Depending on the course of negotiations, any bill with a decent chance of passing will have the support of between maybe zero and a half-dozen Republicans; the Democrats, for better or worse, will "own" any new health care system. Traditionally, this has been a deterrent to any big change in policy: neither party wants to present such a clear target for any voters who are unhappy with transformative legislation. That Republicans wouldn't get on board for the Clintons' proposed health care overhaul 15 years ago, or Democrats with President Bush's effort to privatize Social Security in 2005, helps explain why neither package was passed, or even voted on.

I'm starting to think, though, that this is much more a problem for the likes of David Broder, who value bipartisanship for its own sake, than for anyone else--certainly the public. The reason why is because achieving bipartisanship today is demonstrably harder than was the case seventy, forty, or even twenty years ago. There's no "middle" to speak of anymore.

(At least, not in the corridors of power. Public opinion itself is pretty much unchanged--which is why it's not as much of a stretch as it might seem to an engaged voter that in just 25 years, it's a virtual certainty that hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of voters cast presidential ballots for Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.)

This graphic somewhat explains how things have changed over time (and it's mostly gotten worse since 2001, as remaining moderates like Senators Max Cleland and Lincoln Chafee and Representatives like Chris Shays and Sherry Boehlert have retired or lost):

By the '80s, when the Tax Reform Act was passed, the middle was beginning to clear--but there were still enough moderates on both sides of the aisle to strike a deal. Perhaps even more important, you had a motivated Republican president, Reagan, and an equally motivated Democratic Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill. They both needed a win, and they both could exert considerable pressure on their underlings to get a deal done. That more than made the difference from the '30s and '60s, when Democrats enjoyed unified control of the federal government (as they do today, of course), and there remained enough moderate Republicans to address clear national needs for retirement security and health coverage for particularly vulnerable populations.

Today, the few remaining Republicans even marginally willing to deal--almost all in the Senate, and almost all toward the end of their careers--admit variously that they're under great pressure from their colleagues to do no such thing and that much of the opposition to proposals is entirely motivated by politics. This is the ultimate manifestation of the Rovian political style: solving the actual problems of the country is barely even a consideration when there's a political fight to be won. In fairness, it probably runs contrary to everything we know about human nature to expect anything different: just as kids who are raised without responsible parents in an atmosphere of antisocial lawlessness are more likely to engage in crime and fail in their human relationships, Republicans who build their careers entirely on demonizing opponents and appealing to the worst instincts in voters are more likely to persist in those approaches as they make their way up the political food chain.

But that's all there is anymore. Short of taking a Republican plan--assuming one could discover such a thing--word for word in legislation, it's all but impossible to imagine a health care reform proposal that would enjoy support from the minority. The overwhelming majority of the Republican caucus seems unserious about solving the problem, and until that changes, they don't deserve even a seat at the table. Let the Democrats pass the best plan on the merits--which, to be honest, might be a bigger problem still--and let them face the consequences. At some point, politics must take a back seat.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Three Sides of a Healthcare Reform Debacle
In offering some praise for the Obama administration's American Graduation Initiative proposal earlier today, I noted in passing that this had been largely obscured in the media's fixation on the health care debate. As the president gets ready to go on TV in a couple hours to defend his proposal, I'm not optimistic about its prospects--and not even sure that it should pass.

The problem might simply be that this issue is too big, too complicated, and too dysfunctional to address in the incrementalist, consensus way that Obama obviously would prefer (and which makes sense in a myriad of other policy areas). What I think happened is that the administration overlearned the lesson of the Clintons' failure to reform health care 15 years ago. As Robert Reich noted last week, they've put so much emphasis on co-opting potential opposition from industry groups (the AMA, Big Pharma, even the insurance lobby) that the concessions they made rendered cost control impossible. In a political moment when legislators and the public are really worried that our financial house is structurally unsound, and the administration itself had pledged not to add to the debt with its plan, this won't fly, and shouldn't.

A related point that's particularly painful for those of us who invested so time, money and hope into putting Obama in office is that in its efforts to win this political fight--which is exactly how it's been framed--the president and his team have embraced some of the most loathsome Bush-Cheney tactics in terms of rejecting accountability and transparency. I'm not even sure what it is they think they gain by not making public whom they've been talking with.

But maybe the real problem is that in our growing decadence as a people, we refuse to accept that we can't get something for nothing--and we refuse to give anything. Consider:
One of the bigger, but more under-reported, sea changes in American politics is how any kind of tax increase -- whether in war or peace, good economic times or bad ones -- has become absolutely unacceptable. After all, Ronald Reagan raised taxes. So did every modern American president involved in war, until George W. Bush. But not anymore. Indeed, as one of us pointed out on Nightly News last night, only 29% (or 157) of the 535 and House members and senators serving in Congress were around the last time -- 1993! -- the federal government raised taxes, and that was on gasoline. Think about that for a moment: Congress hasn't really had a TOUGH vote in 16 years, if one defines a "TOUGH" vote as the government asking for a financial sacrifice from the American people. This is the political climate that President Obama faces in trying to pay for health reform. Republicans and some Democrats are opposed to a tax on the wealthy, and unions and Obama's political strategists are against taxing health benefits.
But at some point, if you're fighting two wars, trying to pay for health care, promising to reduce the deficit, and trying NOT to "starve the beast," you've got to raise taxes, right? When they were in charge, Republicans punted because they could NEVER go back to their base and defend a tax increase of any kind (and look where that got them). But is Barack Obama, who called for a “new era of responsibility” in his inaugural address, willing to use his influence to truly change how Washington works? So far, he's supported borrowing -- for the stimulus and for part 2 of the bank bailout.

In today's Times, David Leonhardt has a typically excellent analysis of the politics around health care reform. He points out that the average voter--who is almost certainly insured--is asking "What's in it for me?" There's an answer to this question--the waste in our piecemeal, irrational system costs every American household thousands of dollars--but the specifics are not easily explained in a soundbite. As Obama prepares for one of the most important appearances of his presidency tonight, he'd better find a way to communicate that answer.

Edit: As Obama mentioned during tonight's (I thought just so-so) press conference, the administration has indeed released the names of health care industry figures they've met with. Yeah, it was in response to a threatened lawsuit (and the group that threatened the suit isn't satisfied with the action), but the same threat didn't come close to getting Cheney to give up information. So that's not a bad thing.
Almost Famous
I wrote this, in response to a recent New York Times article that, while I think factually accurate, could lead the lay reader to some incorrect conclusions about job training. It's not my byline because evidently there's a bit of a process to get approved as a Huffington Post blogger; maybe if I had a Facebook account and Arianna Herself could "friend" me, that would help.

(The slight irony here? I indirectly know Arianna Huffington, or rather my mom does. When she arranged the "Shadow Conventions" in 2000, my mom was her assistant for the one in Philadelphia. Maybe I should have worked this angle so it would be my ugly mug up there on the site.)

The more important point, largely lost (more understandably than usual, I grant) in the political firestorm over the fate of health care reform, is that the administration did something really terrific last week in announcing the American Graduation Initiative to help an additional five million citizens graduate from community college by 2020. This will strengthen innumerable communities by helping position those Americans to fill the middle-skill jobs, with employers of all sizes in occupations from dental hygienist to plumber to cable installer, that make our economy function.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Cutting Out on Card Check
Big news in today's New York Times on the year's major labor legislation:

A half-dozen senators friendly to labor have decided to drop a central provision of a bill that would have made it easier to organize workers.

The so-called card-check provision — which senators decided to scrap to help secure a filibuster-proof 60 votes — would have required employers to recognize a union as soon as a majority of workers signed cards saying they wanted a union. Currently, employers can insist on a secret-ballot election, a higher hurdle for unions.
Though some details remain to be worked out, under the expected revisions, union elections would have to be held within five or 10 days after 30 percent of workers signed cards favoring having a union. Currently, the campaigns often run two months.

To further address labor’s concerns that the election process is tilted in favor of employers, key senators are considering several measures. One would require employers to give union organizers access to company property. Another would bar employers from requiring workers to attend anti-union sessions that labor supporters deride as “captive audience meetings.”
“This bill will bring about dramatic changes, even if card check has fallen away,” said an A.F.L.-C.I.O. official who insisted on anonymity.

The official said the revised bill achieves the three things organized labor has been seeking.

“Our goals,” the official said, “have always been letting employees have a real choice, having real penalties against employers who break the law in fighting unions, and having some form of binding arbitration to prevent employers from dragging their feet forever to prevent reaching a contract.

The fairly muted reaction from labor leaders in this story (written by Steven Greenhouse, one of the last really good reporters on labor issues, who undoubtedly talked to a lot of them) suggests that they might have seen this coming. A labor lawyer writing in to Talking Points Memo suggested as much, characterizing card check as a "a bargaining chip they were willing to sacrifice if needed" and even suggesting that the union side had set a trap for the business community by signaling that they would go to the wall for that provision. (That said, some labor leaders still seem anxious to see the measure get an up or down vote.)

Personally, my sense throughout the several years now of this debate has been that there are probably ways to move the labor/management playing field closer to level without including card check, so I'm pleased to hear about this compromise. Inaction, however, is not acceptable: the signal "achievement" of the economic expansion during the Bush years was that the economy grew while real household income stagnated or declined, a first. The vast bulk of the gains went to ownership, with a share going to the best-educated workers. Nobody could argue with a straight face that the decline of organized labor had nothing to do with this.

For another thing, the business lobbies remain prone to make sufficiently dickish remarks that, in my less even-handed moments, I kind of just want to see them get mauled, e.g. (from the NYT story):

Business leaders say the current system is fair, asserting that unions lose so many elections because workers oppose paying union dues and do not feel they need unions to represent them.

Corporate lobbyists have indicated they would oppose fast elections, arguing that such a provision would deny employers ample opportunity to educate employees about the downside of unionizing, such as strikes and union dues.

This is, in a word, bullshit. Public opinion toward unions is, and always has been, broadly favorable; and while I can't find the link right now, I'm pretty sure I remember seeing polling that most workers who aren't able to form unions would like to have the options. Meanwhile, the horror stories about how employers "educate" their workers about unions usually end with would-be organizers getting fired, then blacklisted. While this is entirely illegal, consequences have been minimal to nonexistent for years. If the Employee Fair Choice Act, with or without "card check," only changes that situation, it would represent worthwhile legislation. But workers deserve more, and if the compromise suggests that they'll get it, all good.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

What Our System Can't Do
I haven't been following the particulars of the Waxman-Markey bill that recently passed the House of Representatives very closely, certainly not closely enough to have a clear opinion on whether or not it would be effective in its stated goals of curtailing emissions. But even without knowing the particulars, I'm nearly certain that it won't be enacted--certainly not in anything like its current form, which no small number of environmentalists already deplore as insufficient and possibly more harmful than helpful. The reason why is that our political system provides no incentives for elected officials to take action on a problem like global warming, but furnishes many reasons for them to punt on it.

Some of those reasons are logically valid as well as politically relevant. One argument against an emissions cap is that if the U.S. passes such a measure while rapidly industrializing nations like China do not, we're harming our economy without necessarily helping the environment; at best, we're allowing ourselves to be victims of a free-rider problem, shedding jobs for the good of the planet without altering China's behavior in the slightest. Without meaning to sound like Dick Cheney, while such an act of national self-sacrifice might be admirable, it's not the sort of thing that helps a Representative or Senator stay in office. Add in that the timing is particularly unfortunate--adding costs to businesses and households while the economy is mired in a recession (even though those costs will be phased in, likely not taking full effect until sometime well after recovery takes hold), and it's hard to see how this goes through.

Perhaps the highest-profile part of the bill is its cap-and-trade provisions, in which businesses in regulated industries would be given or could purchase through auctions government-issued permits to emit pollutants, which they could then use or sell as their circumstances determined. Revenue from the sale of permits would go into a pool to assist less well-off households in meeting the higher energy costs that would result from the emissions cap, as well as toward other sustainability purposes. My layman's sense is that cap and trade is a clunkier mechanism for changing behavior than a straightforward carbon tax would be, but it does represent a thoughtful effort to address a problem that, if unaddressed, could pose an existential threat to life on the planet.

It is, however, very easily demagogued. Soon to be ex-Governor Sarah Palin--in a Washington Post (where else?) column from a couple days back that fully lives up to every expectation you might have for it, from the wince-inducing syntax to nasty swipes at Democrats (President Obama especially, and at multiple points) to the extraneous God and Alaska references and, amazingly, the total lack of reference to emissions, pollution, climate change or any possible reason for Congress to consider this action other than, by implication, because they hate Americans and want to wreck our economy--sneeringly dismisses "cap and tax" as a "dead end."

That Palin's screed is as brain-dead as you'd expect isn't the main point; that's how easy it is for equally invested (but probably more coherent) political opponents to scare-monger against any measure intended to mitigate the consequences of global warming. For one thing, any action in this regard will be expensive and require sacrifice--something we don't seem willing to hear in America anymore (nor were we thirty years ago, when action would have been much less painful). Political leaders grasp that any beneficial consequences will appear long after they've likely left the stage, and even then, they'll manifest as a negative: "life as we know it goes on, with relatively small, relatively painless temperature increases."

It's very easy for knowledgeable people to knock down (proudly) uninformed and bad-faith arguments such as those Palin makes. But the likes of Conor Clarke (who wrote the blog item in the last link, and of whom I don't think I'd heard before this week) have a much smaller megaphone than the likes of Sarah Palin, and even if they were as widely heard, they would fail to make a politically compelling case to take strong action. In our system, such a case likely does not exist.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Interviews With Ex-Governors
Maybe it's another sign of the news establishment's impending demise that so many of the most interesting features and analyses come from unexpected outlets. I've mentioned in the past the schizophrenia of New York magazine, which offers obsessive coverage of "Gossip Girl" and which rich assholes are summering where alongside some of the sharpest coverage of local, state and national politics you'll find anywhere. Just as unlikely is Esquire, which seems to devote most of its institutional resources and print/virtual real estate to ogling the likes of Megan Fox but saves a chunk of the remainder for really insightful analyses and features on public affairs. Currently on their site are interviews with two of the higher-profile politicians currently between jobs: Howard Dean, former Vermont governor, presidential candidate and Democratic National Committee chairman, and Jeb Bush, former Florida governor and possible future presidential candidate. The Dean interview is probably more substantial, focusing exclusively on the prospects and politics of health care reform; the Bush interview is mostly of interest in what it tells us about the current state of the Republican Party.

Dean makes one point that's occurred to me for awhile now, and that I wish pro-reform Democrats would voice as insistently:

ESQ: What about rationing?

HD: I don't think there will be rationing. I think what there will be is elimination of unnecessary stuff, and there is a lot of it. There is no rationing in Medicare.

ESQ: But they do ration in England, don't they?

HD: Here's what they do in England. Let's say there is a very, very expensive cancer drug that will extend your life on average by four months. They may not pay for it. The reason they won't pay for it is that they know they'll have to cut back pediatric visits if you do. Is that rationing? Sure. But we ration in America today. If you are one of the 47 million people who don't have insurance at all or if you're someone who has a lousy plan because you can't afford a good one, that's rationing by price. I'll tell you who rations. It's the private insurance groups. This ridiculous nonsense that the right-wingers are talking about, that public insurance will put a bureaucrat between you and the doctor — that goes on every day in the system we have. But only in the private sector. It doesn't happen in the public sector. I have never had, in my 10 years of practicing medicine, a Medicare bureaucrat call me up and say, "You can't do this and you can't do that." But that used to happen every day with the private insurance companies. You'd beg to have your patient have this drug or that procedure.

Emphasis mine. The argument "against" rationing is really an argument on behalf of the rationing we have now. I guess it feeds back into the basic American idea that somehow anything that anyone has, he or she earned, so it's un-American to take even the slightest bit of it from that person to give to someone less deserving. That this is both demonstrably irrational and harmful, in so many ways, to the society as a whole, doesn't seem to weaken the notion in any serious way.

Sadly, Dean's tenure at the DNC probably rendered him too polarizing for a job like HHS secretary or "health care czar," either/both of which he would have excelled at. But if he can exert pressure from the outside on wavering Democrats to push for deeper reforms, including the public option, that's of value too.

Then there's Jeb Bush. I kind of hate to admit it, but one of the best things about this interview is the interviewer, Tucker Carlson. On TV, he's an intolerably smarmy bag of douche, but the guy also has at least something of a real journalist about him. His asides are entertaining, and (in other parts of the interview, not this excerpt) he asks Bush some tough questions and pushes him with follow-ups.
Okay, give me your forty-five-second pitch for a Republican future.
[Bush outlines four points, speaking for more than fourteen minutes. It's worth noting here that after two years out of the governor's mansion, Bush seems a little out of practice at this interview business.]

We need to empower people to be taking advantage, to turn their fears into opportunities in a variety of different areas. It seems to me four areas of greatest concern right now, outside of foreign policy, which is a whole other subject. [On education.] Are we educating our kids properly? Are enough of our children gaining the power of knowledge in the current system? The answer is unequivocally no. So we should have more school choice, we should have more pay for performance, we should be raising standards, not lowering standards, we should embrace technology in a radical way, we should have "seat time" eliminated.

[Timidly.] Seat time?
You show up for 180 days, you graduate. It should be based on what you learned... People learn differently. It's a simple fact that our education system ignores.

We're living in a world now where in order to create high-wage jobs, you have to have knowledge-based workers. There is no way to do that unless they have the basic building blocks of being able to think abstractly, understand math and science, be able to read, maybe once in a while express a thought in a three-syllable word, preferably do so in more than one language, and have a sense of history, because it has this crazy way of repeating itself. I don't think our education system in America is acceptable right now.

At the least, I give all the Bushes credit for good intentions on education reform. Remember that Old Bush wanted to be the "education president"; he was the first president to push for national standards (which, by some measures at least, are closer than ever to becoming a reality). Even Dubya had a very defensible idea with No Child Left Behind; it just didn't have enough teeth, a symptom of his characteristic failings as a manager and uninterest in the details of governance. In Florida, Jeb did more to align education, from pre-K through college, with the imperatives of the labor market (a big hobbyhorse of mine) than probably any governor this side of (now-Senator) Mark Warner in Virginia. He knows this stuff, he finds it interesting, and he's not particularly dogmatic about it; at one point, Carlson notes that Bush is a great admirer of Arne Duncan, Obama's secretary of education.

There is, of course, some of the characteristic Bush dickishness as well. He peevishly (and inaccurately) declares that his brother was as popular as Obama in his first months in office, puts all the blame for the "big government conservatism" he deplores on Congress rather than Dubya, and blasts Obama for the "unprecedented expansion" of government without even acknowledging that said expansion might have come in response to a real need. When you're a Bush, maybe the risk of home foreclosure or losing one's health insurance just doesn't register. But at least he's interested in policy; right now, that's about as good as it gets on that side.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

The Only Possible Ending
I was away when the New York State Senate ground to a halt about a month ago. Since coming back, I've followed this story about as much as my digestive system would allow: there's only so much I can take of a story in which the protagonists include ever-bumbling Governor David Paterson, egomaniacal billionaire Tom Golisano, a guy who makes Paterson look like a statesman in Malcolm Smith, the violent yet dithering Hiram Montserrate, and a guy who makes Smith look like a statesman in Pedro Espada Jr.

But if you've not been tracking it at all--and more power to you if this is the case--here's the brief summary: on June 8, Espada and Montserrate, both (entirely nominal) Democrats, announced that they would caucus with the Senate Republicans, flipping control of the chamber to that party by the same 32-30 margin the Democrats had previously enjoyed. Espada, the subject of multiple criminal investigations, would serve as the president of the Senate. Golisano, many times a failed candidate for governor as a Republican and/or right-leaning independent but a major financial backer of the Democrats when they took a majority last fall, soon stated that he helped fund the coup because Smith had disrespected him at a meeting--specifically by checking his Blackberry while Golisano was talking. But about a week after the initial switch, Montserrate--himself facing criminal charges for allegedly slashing his girlfriend's face with a broken glass-- announced that he would rejoin the Democrats, creating a 31-31 tie.

Ordinarily, this would not constitute an enormous problem, since the lieutenant governor could break ties... but that position had been vacant since Eliot Spitzer resigned in disgrace sixteen months ago and his lieutenant, Paterson, had replaced him. Thus, for three weeks, total deadlock--while important legislation such as renewal of mayoral control over New York City schools sat idle. (When the Senate failed to reauthorize mayoral control by the July 1 deadline, the city's long-disbanded Board of Education came back from the dead; Mayor Bloomberg and four of the five borough presidents quickly signaled their contempt for the body, entirely justified, by stacking it with Bloomberg allies. This struck me as appropriate: one good farce deserves another.) Paterson, who at one particularly low point asked the Senators to put aside their differences in consideration of the lobbyists (!), brought matters to a head Wednesday by appointing a lieutenant governor, veteran Democratic official/fixer Richard Ravitch. (Ravitch, to his great credit, was sworn in at the excellent Peter Luger steakhouse in Brooklyn. While his appointment might have been questionable, his taste is not.)

Today, the situation resolved itself in the only way it could have: with the slimy Espada re-defecting to the Democrats, as their Majority Leader.

Mr. Espada said he had ended his 31-day alliance with the Republicans because he had become convinced that Democrats were committed to overhauling the Senate and making it operate more fairly and efficiently. He characterized the intense battle that had consumed the Capitol as a family feud.

“Sometimes best friends fight,” Mr. Espada said, adding: “I never left home. I had a little leave of absence. My brothers and sisters welcomed me back, and we come back stronger than ever.”

But it appears that Mr. Espada may have been driven to make a deal to return as majority leader out of fear of being marginalized, because a separate Democratic faction was moving to establish a power-sharing deal with the Republicans.

Indeed, the Democrats have become increasingly polarized, often along racial lines. Mr. Espada and other Hispanic senators have pushed for more influence from Mr. Smith and Mr. Sampson, who are black.

Separately, the faction of seven white Democrats, led by Senator Jeffrey D. Klein of the Bronx, that had sought the power-sharing deal with the Republicans is especially uneasy with Mr. Espada, who faces investigations related to nonprofit health clinics he runs, his campaign finance practices and whether his primary residence is in the Bronx. Any arrangement they reached with Republicans would probably have pushed Mr. Espada aside.

Faced with that possibility, Mr. Espada returned to the Democrats in exchange for a job whose power beyond its title is difficult to discern. The titles of Senate president and majority leader have traditionally been combined; the president is vested with special powers in the state’s Constitution, and the majority leader is not.

As majority leader, Mr. Espada will receive a bonus on top of his regular legislator’s salary.

That's what these guys are about: grievance, money and power. Considerations of the public good are strictly for suckers.

Perhaps the strangest development in this entire debacle was that the one guy who consistently made sense in talking and writing about it was Il Douche himself, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani. A couple weeks back, Giuliani wrote an op-ed in the New York Times calling for the sort of root-and-branch reform that Spitzer had promised, but going further by calling for a new constitutional convention to fundamentally restructure government in the state. Of Giuliani's seven specific reform suggestions, the only one I'm probably not on board with is the requirement of a super-majority for tax increases (with redistricting to ensure more competitive elections, anyone who votes to raise taxes will face enough of a concern in winning re-election), and I probably could be talked out of term limits if they're badly structured; the rest--from redistricting to campaign finance reform to the budget process--seem right on the mark.

God help me, I could almost see voting for the bastard if he runs for governor next year. He's an authoritarian and a sociopath, and certainly he'd do a great many things that I'd deplore (and probably bitch about right here). But the thought of Rudy making life miserable for the likes of Espada and Smith is pretty appealing. Half the country already votes on spite; why not me?

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

A Meditation on the Death of Robert S. McNamara
In a season of one shocking death after another, it's almost oddly reassuring when somebody famous goes whom, actuarially speaking, you'd somewhat expect. So when the news came on Monday that former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had passed away at the age of 93, it wasn't a great surprise--though the very name stirred up strong reactions in death as it always had in life. At the New York Times, Bob Herbert all but declared good riddance; the rival Washington Post offered a far more sympathetic view, from McNamara's friend Walter Pincus. But of all the takes I've heard or read, my mother's reaction was the most surprising, and maybe the most admirable. She viewed McNamara, she said, with great sympathy; his anguish over Vietnam, finally voiced over the last years of his life in his memoir In Retrospect and the superb Errol Morris documentary "The Fog of War," was obviously a terrible burden to bear.

Though I thought this was a fine sentiment, it also struck me as too forgiving. McNamara's brilliance was never disputed (and the value of Pincus's remembrance, I think, is that he details the former Secretary's important and overlooked reforms to defense procurement and rationalizing the command and control processes for use of nuclear weapons--a step that easily might have saved the world a time or three over the nearly fifty years since President Kennedy appointed McNamara to run the Pentagon). But among so many other things, his career shows us that brilliance untethered from sound judgment might only magnify or perpetuate a disaster.

McNamara and his team of subordinate geniuses leapt into "how" questions--from toppling Castro to resisting the communists in Vietnam. But he never grappled with the bigger question--why do it at all--until it was far too late; and famously, he continued to fulfill his role as the architect of war policy for the better part of two years after he had privately written off the war as lost. I'm actually still not clear on whether McNamara's unstated opposition to the war during that period was based solely on his conclusion that the strategy then being pursued, and/or any feasible alternative approach, was hopeless, or also embraced the understanding (admittedly a moot point by then, but one he did articulate many years later) that the original sin of America's policy in Vietnam was mistaking an essentially nationalist and anti-colonial independence movement for a communist takeover directed from Moscow or Beijing.

Actually, it's Bill James, the father of sabermetrics and adviser to the Boston Red Sox, who seems to have had the most insightful take on McNamara. (I can't find the link online; someone I know posted this on another site. The guy who posted it is about as unlikely to make something like this up as anyone I can imagine, and the voice sounds like James. So I'm going to assume it's bona fide.) After citing McNamara's indirect influence on his own work ("McNamara is in a sense one of the grandfathers of sabermetrics. The people who trained me to think about economic issues were very influenced by the work that McNamara had done... "), James characterizes his story as "a cautionary tale":

McNamara (among many others) showed us how to study data so as to see things that we hadn't seen before, and not little things, either; big, important things. But at the same time, he shows us the great danger in over-valuing what you know. McNamara thought he could put EVERYTHING on the board and figure out what to do, but you just can't; you can't do it because you can never get everything on the board. You can't measure EVERYTHING. You can't run a baseball organization entirely by sabermetrics; you just can't. If you tried, you'd wind up with a Robert-McNamara style disaster, because you'd figure out too late that there was something there that everybody knew except you.

That life ultimately defies total quantification strikes me as something for which we probably should be grateful. Perhaps the essential tragedy of Robert McNamara's life is that he realized this too late to avoid disaster for his country, but soon enough to spend the more than four decades between his departure from government and the end of his life contemplating this truth.