By now, a good portion of America is familiar with Moneyball, either Michael Lewis’s book or the movie, but here’s an abridged explanation: A baseball obsessive and amateur statistician named Bill James began positing data-driven theories about what makes for a winning team. James’s research upended a lot of conventional wisdom, e.g., a player’s on-base percentage might be a better measure than his batting average in evaluating his contribution to winning games.
Eventually, an ambitious general manager, Billy Beane, applied James’s theories at the professional level and turned the Oakland A’s—a team that has long had one of the lowest payrolls in baseball—into a consistent winner.
In recent years, the term moneyball has come to be both overused and abused, such that any nonobvious observation paired with threadbare data is now hailed as a brilliant new insight. The Internet is littered with articles about the “moneyball approach” to wealth management, urban planning, higher education reform, health care, business hiring, information technology, and on and on.
Frankly, The Scrapbook is surprised it’s taken this long for someone to finally get around to applying the “moneyball approach” to the operations of the federal government itself. But of course it finally happened. On October 18, Peter Orszag and John Bridgeland published a Politico op-ed under the headline “A Moneyball approach to government.”
Given the prominence of the authors—Orszag is a former head of the Office of Management and Budget under Obama and Bridgeland was director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under Bush—the article’s bipartisan byline turned some heads. Here are the three key points: “First, government needs to figure out what works. . . . Second, once we know what works, government needs to shift dollars in that direction. . . . Finally, we need to stop funding what doesn’t work.”
Like The Scrapbook, you’re no doubt stunned at the depth of the analysis. Why hasn’t anyone in Washington advocated this revolutionary new paradigm in government spending until now?
Now, Orszag and Bridgeland are smart guys, so we assume they’re aware that in the context of this particular argument the term moneyball is meaningless. Nonetheless, it’s good to know that influential wonks on both sides of the aisle are worried the federal government is throwing trillions down ratholes. It’s not so reassuring, however, that we’ve reached a point where the most basic common sense must be tricked up as counter-intuitive in order to get people in Washington to take it seriously.