Dan Walters: Government 'moneyball' could work

07/19/2013 12:00 AM

07/21/2013 9:55 AM

As the All-Star Game break ends and major league baseball teams head into the pennant stretch, the Oakland A's, with one of the game's smallest payrolls, are sitting atop their division.

It's another example of how "moneyball," the concept of analyzing players and their costs by contributions to winning games, pioneered by A's executive Billy Beane, is still working.

Rather than relying on the traditional, subjective evaluations by baseball scouts and coaches, moneyball applies objective metrics to get the most out of limited payroll dollars.

It's just common sense, when you get down to it – getting the biggest bang for the buck.

Two former high-ranking federal budget officials, Peter Orszag (who worked for President Barack Obama) and John Bridgeland (an aide to former President George W. Bush), wrote an article for the current issue of Atlantic magazine, lamenting that the moneyball principle is not applied to governmental services and programs.

"Based on our rough calculations," they wrote, "less than $1 out of every $100 of government spending is backed by even the most basic evidence that the money is being spent wisely."

They offer anecdotal evidence of efforts to make government spending more cost-effective that were thwarted, usually in Congress, by those who benefitted from the status quo.

If the federal government is not doing a good job of spending money effectively, is California's nation-sized government any better?

Yes – and no.

Yes, in that there is some interest in exorcising non-productive, even counterproductive, programs from government rolls.

Gov. Jerry Brown has waged successful wars against local governments' grandiose redevelopment programs and, most recently, on "enterprise zones." He has reorganized state agencies with an eye toward eliminating duplication, such as the state's multiple economic development services.

Nevertheless, there are still widespread overlaps. The state has three large bureaucracies to collect taxes, rather than one revenue department, for example. Attempts to apply productivity measures to major expenditures, such as classroom education, encounter great political resistance.

There are, too, some obvious examples of taxpayers being shortchanged. California motorists pay the nation's highest fuel taxes, for instance, while suffering from the nation's worst traffic congestion and roadway conditions that are among the nation's worst.

The sense that we are not getting what we are paying for erodes public confidence in government at all levels. It undermines the credibility of politicians who, it seems, always ask for more money to perform some vital function.

Moneyball works in baseball. It could work in government – if we were willing to apply it as ruthlessly as the Oakland A's.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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