When will they ever learn?

The Economist this week has a sympathetic obituary for Robert McNamara, the systems analyst-cum-defence secretary, who died earlier this month.

McNamara brought to American foreign policy and in particular the Vietnam war the economic logic and rigour that he had applied in industry: "The things you can count, you ought to count", but it did not work out as he had hoped.

In The Economist's words:

At the height of the conflict, he was called a baby-burner. His son marched against him. Jackie Kennedy once pummelled his chest with her fists, crying at him to "stop the slaughter". All this was difficult. He was an instinctive liberal, driving a battered Ford, living in university suburbs, where his recommended book for the reading group was Camus's "L'Etranger". Warmongering was not in his nature.

He was haunted by the thought that amid all the objective-setting and evaluating, the careful counting and the cost-benefit analysis, stood ordinary human beings. They behaved unpredictably.

That's the problem: friend or foe, we are still unpredictable. As we head into another recession, and the cost-cutters, bean counters and performance managers ply us with their metrics, let them remember that.