Friday, October 12, 2012

Architecture and Implementation, Strategy and Tactics

Before I retired, I was a software architect.  It's a strange job.  Software architects typically don't code (at least in big companies); instead, they sit the intersection between marketing, engineering, and project management, and attempt to describe how a product should fit into overall corporate strategy, and how it should be constructed so that it's easy to build, easy to maintain, easy to use in conjunction with other products, and easy to extend.  A good architect can explain to the engineers why they're building something, while only sketching out the roughest outline of how to build it.  Good products can happen without architects; indeed, the most innovative--and disruptive--products usually happen without architects.  But a lot more bad products happen without architects.   When you're engaged in a major evolution of a huge, complex product line, good architecture provides a road map for implementation, which can save millions of dollars in misguided development.

Architecture is to implementation what strategy is to tactics.  A good strategist has a gift for knowing what it is that a government--or a campaign--really needs to accomplish, and can suggest the broad outline for how to achieve that goal.  It's then up to the tacticians and the troops actually to accomplish it.

The Romney tax plan is an architecture.  Romney steadfastly refuses to come up with specifics for the tax expenditure cuts because he knows that an architect that dabbles in implementation over-constrains the final outcome, which usually prevents the best implementations from emerging.  (Mind you, the "best implementation" of a piece of legislation is almost an oxymoron, but that's often because the problem is already massively over-constrained by the various legislators' pet peeves and favors they owe their supporters.)

It is completely legitimate to ask, "Can this architecture be implemented?"  We have a variety of studies that have argued that the answer to that question is "no" and another set arguing "yes".  My impression is that the TPC study, the most famous of the "no" variety, has managed to generate a bad answer by exactly the kind of over-constraint that Romney has sought to avoid.  I'm pretty sure that Romney's architecture is valid, although maybe with a 15% tax cut instead of 20%, and maybe with some investment tax expenditures on the table.  Romney's not going to say that, for the same reason that he's not going to propose any of the details about cuts.

The tax plan may be good architecture, but I'm not sure it's good strategy.  It's opened his campaign up to charges of vagueness that have real traction.  It's further opened it up to charges that he's being disingenuous.  This looks like a fundamental tradeoff--Romney wants to get elected, but he wants to get elected to do something, so he has to preserve his ability to act in the event he gets to be President.

But let's look at another example of strategy:  the Obama-Biden approach to the debates.  I think that the Obama campaign's over-arching strategic assumption going into the debates was that all they needed to do was make Romney and Ryan look stupid.  This was a fundamental mistake because neither Romney nor Ryan are stupid.  The fact that Obama and his team thought that they were is a colossal misjudgement, one that many voters quite rightly may decide disqualifies them for office.

Even worse, after being presented with evidence to the contrary in the first debate, the campaign doubled down on the "they're stupid" strategy and had Biden attempt to bully Ryan into submission.  But, while Biden landed a couple of solid hits to Ryan, Biden's contempt for Ryan, whether manufactured or real, came through so plainly that the content of the debate, which might have given Biden a slight edge, became irrelevant.  Again, the Obama campaign made a fundamental strategic mistake, compounded by poor execution by Biden.

I'll make a prediction:  Obama's performance in the next debate will be much more aggressive, but his strategy won't change.  The idea that his opponents are stupid and/or unworthy is so deeply ingrained in his personality that it's incomprehensible to him that a simple demonstration of contempt won't be enough to carry the day.  The next debate will be a draw, but the audience's greatest takeaway will be what Obama thinks of Romney, rather than what he thinks of his own policies.

The failed debate strategy might be forgiven if it weren't part of a pattern of consistent strategic miscalculation that pervades Obama's entire term:
  • The diplomatic "reset" strategy only succeeded in convincing both our friends and our enemies that the US would be reluctant to act in the face of any aggression.
  • Obama decided to expend all of his domestic political capital on a health care law that nobody can understand.
  • Obama decided that there would be no consequences to booting Iraq Status of Forces Agreement.
  • Surging troops into Afghanistan while simultaneously setting a rigid timetable for their withdrawal has allowed the Taliban to adopt a hit-and-run strategy as they run the clock out.
  • Finally, Obama has adopted a strategy of encouraging legislative gridlock and blaming the Republicans for it, based on the assumption that he can get anything through Congress once he's been reelected.   We'll see whether this one worked in about a month.
Obama's strategic deficiencies might be partly forgiven--as Clinton's were--if he were a good political tactician, deferring to his staff for the strategy while concentrating on the tasks of executing on legislation and selling it to the American public.  But he's not very good at that, either.

We elect presidents for their ability to think strategically.  Evidence of consistently poor strategy should always be a disqualifier for office.

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