Thinking in Time

The authors analyze many blunders of past presidential administrations, and a few examples of wise decisions shaped by sound historical insight, to show how decisions should and should not be made. The facts of these case studies, drawn from recent American history, were taken from the public record, supplemented by interviews with key decision-makers.

To help decision-makers avoid blunders, the authors set forth their so-called mini-methods, a series of questions to ask whenever a situation seems to demand action. The authors urge decision-makers to separate what is known about the situation from what is unclear and from what is merely presumed; to study the history of the issue, thereby putting it in perspective; to beware of easy historical analogies when current circumstances differ from those of the past; to examine the assumptions behind any proposed course of action; and to study the backgrounds of those persons and organizations upon whom success depends.

Because the mini-methods are outlined in a step-by-step fashion and are repeated often enough to give the work a textbookish quality, the unwary reader might conclude that such rules offer the precision and certainty of a mathematical formula. Yet human decision-making is by no means an exact science. The authors themselves admit that following the mini-methods will produce only a marginal improvement in our policy-makers’ success rate; nevertheless, they insist that such marginal improvement is well worth the effort.

In the final chapter, Neustadt and May urge decision-makers to spend their spare time reading books about history, including ancient Greek history, in an effort to go beyond the mini-methods to acquire the kind of higher wisdom shown by great statesmen. Unfortunately, the authors’ own practice of relying largely on events of the past twenty-five years of American history to illustrate their mini-methods does little to persuade the reader of the utility of learning more about other countries and earlier eras.

Despite these caveats, this book can be recommended to any reader who is interested in how questions of public policy are decided and how this decision-making process could be improved. THINKING IN TIME is, despite an occasional lapse into political science jargon, generally readable and easy to follow. The examples given are both entertaining and instructive.