I freaking loved Moneyball. Brad Pitt’s latest offering had everything I like seeing in movies. Except boobies. It had great writing, subtle performances, and was well directed. It was intelligent but explained the issues creatively, it was funny without slapstick, and I always appreciate an ostensibly non-fiction story with no real bad guys. It also didn’t preach.
For those of you don’t know, the movie was based on the Michael Lewis bestseller on how Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane was forced, by his team’s small-market circumstance, to build a contending baseball team while spending at the league minimum. With the help of a Yale-trained economist, Beane utilized statistical analysis to assess the game to a degree no other GM had ever attempted. The theory was to break down the sport to its barest essence — such as on-base percentages and whatnot — and then recruit undervalued players who outperformed their peers in those specific metrics.
The story, then, is not one of baseball,but economics. In fact, it’s one of the best films ever produced on the subject. Fredrich Hayek might have something to say about relying too heavily on numbers, and Aaron Sorkin’s script certainly doesn’t hesitate to make it seem that the numbers Beane and team picked worked perfectly well — baseball, being a game, certainly doesn’t lack for chance or blind luck — however, what the sort of analysis portrayed in the story does is limit the amount of uncertainty based on meticulous records, consistent sampling, and rigourous formulae. It is far from perfect, but it’s that sort of creative thinking that made Beane famous and changed America’s pastime (or the professionaly version thereof) forever.
Also inspiring was Beane’s character, a man driven by circumstances and a will to win to dare to think both differently and intelligently. Not only did he recognize the value of economic analysis to build his team, but he also picked the right guy to do it. You see, anyone can think differently (e.g. these idiots) but it’s combining that with a bit of intelligence and a whole schwack of hard work that’s actually makes the difference. It’s difficult to have the courage of your convictions, especially if it isn’t been done before, or at least to that extent. But Beane shows it can be done.
It got me thinking during the show how to apply these principles to our own situation. Major League Baseball is hardly the real world. There are definite winners and losers, and only one champion. All performers are elite athletes who understand the well-defined rules and traditions of the game, which itself is a very exclusive club. Under those circumstances, given the proper information, the highly controlled environment actually held very few variables. Therefore, given the extent of variables samples, and given the right algorithms, the likelihood of predicting winners and losers is actually kind of high.
In the real world, of course, things aren’t that simple. As I noted earlier, technocrats in our civil service tend to view statistical data as the almighty word of God without considering the likelihood that they might be missing some information. After watching Moneyball, my interest moved toward how that statistical data gleaned from the masses is actually being used. For example, we’re asked to provide information on the physical condition of our home. The reason, of course, is to provide info to the feds on the condition of socialized housing in the country, such as those found on Indian reservations. However, when was the last time you heard that this information led to successful completion of a significant goal? In other words, Billy Beane eventually discovered which team won the World Series that year; how many people successfully and permanently left the welfare payrolls and became productive, self-sufficient members of society?
This is not to say that we should cut welfare funding to everybody all at once, but one has to imagine that the reason we don’t hear about these success stories is that they aren’t happening in great numbers. Billy Beane didn’t use his information with the goal of fielding a mediocre team, and neither should we as a nation be content with gathering information with the intent of merely keeping people alive.
We got to build a championship in this country, and if Big Government devotees want to advocate for mandatory census to obtain their data, we should expect that they develop a clear, championship-worthy goal such as taking X people off the welfare list per annum. Otherwise, they should just piss off and let the issue drop already.
And maybe go see Moneyball a few times until that point sinks in.