“Part of what it is to be courageous is to see reality accurately and to respond well in the face of it." ~ Jonathan Lear

13 February 2015

Moneyball, applied to politics

I recently finished reading Michael Lewis’s book ‘Moneyball’ for the third time: a true story about how a bunch of people, mostly outsiders, challenged collective group-think in American baseball using rational, scientific methods, bringing the first team to adopt these methods (the Oakland Athletics, or ‘A’s’) remarkable success despite having less money than its rivals.

It’s impossible not to draw lessons from Moneyball and apply them to other institutions and to politics. I couldn’t resist exploring them a little here, though the most tantalising lesson we might take, of attempting a completely rational, scientific approach to politics, is one I think we should resist.

The book is largely an exploration of prejudice in institutions and how the Oakland A’s through its General Manager Billy Beane took advantage of this prejudice to play the market in players, picking up valuable underrated ones for little and selling on those who had become overrated for a lot.
Billy Beane, still GM of the Oakland 'A's

This prejudice in baseball was largely about looks, with Billy Beane in his own playing career exemplifying it. As Lewis writes it,

“He encouraged strong feelings in the older men who were paid to imagine what kind of pro ballplayer a young man might become. The boy had a body you could dream on. Ramrod-straight and lean but not so lean you couldn’t imagine him filling out. And that face! Beneath an unruly mop of dark brown hair the boy had the sharp features the scouts loved. Some of the scouts still believed they could tell by the structure of a young man’s face not only his character but his future in pro ball. They had a phrase they used: “the Good Face.” Billy had the Good Face.”

Beane failed as a player and gave it up to work as a scout then as a manager. There he was lucky enough to work under someone who knew the works of Bill James.

James had started writing about baseball for a tiny audience while working as a night-watchman at a pork and beans factory in Kansas. Starting with a self-published monograph in 1977, he focused on baseball statistics, with increasingly detailed – and acerbic – explanations of how the Major League baseball community was getting badly wrong many of the things it took as self-evident.

Lewis says: “There was but one question [James] left unasked, and it vibrated between his lines: if gross miscalculations of a person’s value could occur on a baseball field, before a live audience of thirty thousand, and a television audience of millions more, what did that say about the measurement of performance in other lines of work? If professional baseball players could be over- and under-valued, who couldn’t? Bad as they may have been, the statistics used to evaluate baseball players were probably far more accurate than anything used to measure the value of people who didn’t play baseball for a living.”

Indeed. As for politics, applying the Moneyball approach is tricky because it’s based on rationality, calculation and statistical evidence, but politics isn’t just about these things.

Sure, in the short term at least you can maximise your electoral returns by detailed polling, tailoring of messages and policies, and targeting those voters who are most likely to swing the result in your favour. But doing this means relegating or sacrificing what is perhaps the essential element of politics: that visceral element of standing up for a version of the good, and of actually seeking to make a difference (rather than just being successful in the immediate task at hand).

The story of Moneyball looked at the market for baseball players in the United States and showed how inefficient its major actors had been within it. But in politics there is nothing inherently wrong with inefficiency. Everything is in play, unlike in baseball or financial markets where the end is simple: to maximise your resources and win.

Some will no doubt respond that in politics the end of winning is the same, especially in a democracy where the interests of voted-for and voters are in theory aligned. But this view means instrumentalising politics, accepting a deterministic reality (‘the world of change’ that Tony Blair talks about for example), and negating the power of politics to change things. It is also to accept a particular political ideology that reduces the sphere of politics to one in which many of those things which could be contested – efficiency as an end in itself, for example – are not; where consensus reigns behind a cloak of antagonistic competition.

This technocratic version of politics, applying a Moneyball-type approach of maximising one’s resources to win as an end in itself, sometimes appears ubiquitous in politics nowadays. Following this path offers great temptations: of immediate success, being useful, acceptance and approval from one’s peers, and therefore promotion within institutional hierarchies.

However, it was these aspects of institutional life, the group-think and collective wisdom, that the main protagonists of Moneyball were challenging in order to win.

Voros McCracken, a blogger who was later employed by the Boston Red Sox under John Henry (who in turn now owns Liverpool Football Club), is quoted as saying:

“The problem with major league baseball is that it’s a self-populating institution. Knowledge is institutionalized. The people involved with baseball who aren’t players are ex-players. In their defence, their structure is not set up along corporate lines. They aren’t equipped to evaluate their own systems. They don’t have the mechanism to let in the good and get rid of the bad. They either keep everything or get rid of everything, and they rarely do the latter.”

This sort of set-up should be familiar to most people for the institutions they know and work for, including those ‘set up along corporate lines’. Group-think and collective wisdom are surely an inevitable part of life, essential for us to be able to get through life without constant misunderstandings and petty disagreements.

But they do need to be challenged for institutions to renew themselves, adapt to changing times and maintain or enhance their relevance.

McCracken points to what I think is the most important lesson for institutions like political parties to take from Moneyball besides the basic one of evaluating people based on what they can offer rather than more superficial characteristics like looks. This is that however partial they be, they should try to institutionalise the capacity and ability to evaluate internally - truthfully and honestly - what they are doing.

They can do this through internal mechanisms of criticism but also through research conducted in an impartial manner, not to make political points but to examine how truthful and also how faithful to their values (if they have any) they are being. This way they strengthen their position by anticipating and addressing good criticism before it arises from outside, while bolstering their confidence that they are being consistent with their institution’s aims. As far as I am aware, the closest approximation to this sort of thing is the commissioning of independent polling and focus groups, which is fine as far as it goes but examines surface perception rather than underlying reality within the institution.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I’m thinking that for some of our main political parties this sort of thing could be the difference between a long life of continuing relevance and a relatively quick death.

For more on not dissimilar themes, see Labour and other party politics page.

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