Tom Temin l Editor's Desk: Baseball lessons

Thomas R. Temin

Michael Lewis' Moneyball is a great baseball book'and a great read for anyone with an interest in statistics and predictive modeling. It's the story of how creative use of statistics has smashed many long-held truths about that most stodgy of industries, professional baseball.

Lewis gives readers a glimpse of how Billy Beane, the now-legendary general manager of the Oakland Athletics, studies certain key statistics to predict a player's future performance. He applies this knowledge to find and hire, or trade for, cheap talent. The record speaks for itself. Oakland fields a highly competitive team year after year with a payroll that ranks 21st out of 30 major-league teams [www.onestopbaseball.com].

This is possible because every event in every game goes into vast databases available to all managers.

That brings me to the proposed construction of a federal spending database. This is a job some in Congress want to give to the Office of Management and Budget. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) introduced S 2590 earlier this year, and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee passed it July 27.

Certainly such a database is technically possible. But how would it be used?

The more detailed data on federal procurement and grants available, the better. That's unarguable. Right now, budget watchers rely on two expenditure-tracking systems, one for procurements and one for grants. Both are incomplete. A small industry exists to pore deeper into individual agency and bureau information. Making such detail universally available would be a big step toward greater transparency.

But it wouldn't do much to change spending patterns or habits. At the budget preparation level, the decisions are political; at the disbursement level, thousands of managers exercise wide discretion. What those managers need is a comprehensive past-performance database. Like baseball statistics, that would surely make possible the more effective placement of dollars.

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