Open University

'moneyball' For Everyone


by Cass Sunstein
Dan Drezner raises questions about the Moneyball approach to academic hiring. In my view, Moneyball tells us a ton about academic hiring--and about much else besides. Moneyball is, or should be, for everyone.

The basic point of Moneyball is that in baseball, the top people have long relied on simple cues that often work well but that can lead them in bad directions. For example: Does the hitter look like a hitter? Does the pitcher throw fast? Billy Beane doesn't emphasize these questions. He tries for performance measures, based on statistics (the right ones). If a hitter gets on base a ton, he's worth a lot of money, even if he's short and fat.

In many domains of academic life, we need more Billy Beanes. Law
schools, the institutions I know best, rely heavily on interviews. But as a first approximation, interviews tell interviewers exactly nothing about job performance. (They do tell interviewers one thing: how much they will like the interviewee.) We should rely much less on interviews and much more on objective indicators about what we value, such as objective evidence with respect to research and teaching.

Dan Drezner does offer some legitimate worries about institutions that play Moneyball. George Mason, a suddenly strong law school, is at risk of losing good faculty members. But that's a terrific sign of success! Would it be better if George Mason had faculty members that other law school did NOT want to hire? By the way, the University of Southern California Law School is a good answer to Dan's last question. It has stayed in the top tier for a long time in part because it uses excellent performance measures for hiring.

The general point is much broader. Baseball involves a lot of money; people have strong incentives to make the right decisions. But even experienced people make systematic errors--and it took a Billy Beane to show a better way. In academia, institutions could do a lot better if they relied on simple performance measures for hiring. We can all think of departments that fail because they do not take this advice. The same is almost certainly true in journalism: A magazine that played more Moneyball would hire better writers and deliver a better product. Too many businesses, even profitable ones, really on
memorable anecdotes and "what everyone knows," rather than on
objective measures of who, and what, is likely to do well.

But the point may be most important for government, where high-level hiring could easily be based on more systematic measures of actual and likely performance. FEMA, anyone?

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