Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Art Of Winning An Unfair Election

I went and saw Brad Pitt's latest movie, "Moneyball", this past weekend. It's about how Billy Beane, the GM of the Oakland Athletics (played by Pitt) broke with traditional baseball wisdom and used an unconventional player selection strategy during the 2002 season in an attempt to defeat richer and more advantaged teams.

The film is remarkably even handed, showing the interplay between conventional baseball wisdom, analysis of player statistics, and simple luck and superstition as the experiment plays out. As the team bounces back and forth between success and failure, you are left wondering how it could have gone if this or that change had been made, or if what we're seeing is part of some larger phenomenon that nobody can really explain. It's clear the new thinking broke ground and that traditional thinking was an obstacle to success, but there was a steep price to be paid and without smart application of the new strategy, things could have been very, very different.

Importantly, the numbers-based approach doesn't always work. When the team does well, Beane and his Yale-educated economist assistant Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill) are lauded on talk radio, by the fans, and by the players. When the team does poorly, the players are surly, fans are furious, and people call for Beane's head. Tense scenes between Beane and his family, his team's manager, his scouts, and his players abound as they try to get him to reconsider.

In the crucial 20th game of what could be a record-setting 20-game win streak, Beane- who never steps out on the field during a game- hears that his team is up 11-0 in the fourth inning and, ignoring his daughter's warnings not to jinx it, swerves off the highway and drives to the ballpark to watch the victory unfold. But as soon as he steps on the sidelines to watch, clouds roll in and the triumphant music stops. His team suddenly starts giving up runs, missing line drives. Before long they've blown the lead and head into extra innings with the game tied at 11-all.

Watching the (extremely well-done) scene, you feel the momentum break. Why is this happening to the team? Is it a sudden run of bad luck? Was the experiment doomed to fail from the start? Or did Beane actually jinx the team by walking out on the field? This question is never fully answered.

To great effect, you watch people offer explanation after explanation for what is happening only to be proven wrong, then right, then wrong again. And when the outcome is finally decided, a voice-over pipes in, giving you an I-told-you-so account from someone you never see, but who somehow knew all along what was going to happen. A voice we've all heard.

In the film's most affecting scene, Beane's daughter plays her guitar in the middle of a music store and sings a song to her father, a song which is repeated before the credits.

She sings the song about not knowing where to go, but he -the seasoned professional- could just as easily be singing the song to her. As could any of the self-professed experts in this film. She doesn't know. He doesn't know. They don't know.

I think you all see where I'm going with this.

Six months ago, things looked very different for the PCPO than they do now. And in six months, things may look different again. When they do, people will take credit for knowing all along how it was going to turn out, just like the Liberals are taking credit now. And when the moment comes that leads the Liberals to their downfall, they'll be just as much at a loss to explain why they didn't see it coming.

So, if we are smart, we will wait for that moment to happen while doing everything we can to make it happen faster than it would otherwise. Until then, enjoy the show like the song says.


  1. A quick note: Paul DePodesta, the person that the Peter Brand character is based on, went to Harvard, not Yale.

    Aside from that I agree. The biggest mistake people make is assuming that there is any sort of linear trajectory or stasis in politics. Any talk of the next election should be focused on what we can do now to better our odds, not predictions or forecasts.

  2. In the film, Brand specifically says he was educated at Yale. "His name in the movie was thus changed to Peter Brand and instead of being a graduate of Harvard as DePodesta was, Brand was a graduate of Yale." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_DePodesta

    I realize this is a big thing if you are a Harvard grad, though. ;)

  3. I like baseball a lot, but I found the movie had a lot of slow patches (even more than baseball itself). Brad was fantastic, but you really have to be a baseball fan to sit through the shots of computer screens and statistics.

    A bit like the Social Network movie, but a less sweeping portrait of a generational change.