Moneyball: The New Structure of Ideological Change

The book I read the most during my undergraduate career decades ago was Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  In it Kuhn analyzed the difficulties of changing from one set of scientific (read ideological) accepted truisms to another. Scientists might howl at calling their systems of thought  “ideologies” (a word they associate with religion or other “false” systems of thought from which they want to differentiate themselves) but if it quacks like a duck treat it like a duck.  Kuhn believed that each scientific ideology whether that of Ptolemy that the sun revolved around the earth or Newtonian physics could resist failures because of built in “fail safes.” These fail safes explain away (or not) the inabilities of the ideological system to account for certain phenomena.  It might be something as simple as “God’s will” which was used to explain anomalies that don’t fit the system.  He hypothesized that it was only when these anomalies built up so that too much remained unexplainable, that a new “system” of explanation was considered and eventually adopted. Thus the Copernican revolution (the earth revolving around the sun) succeeded the Ptolemic or quantum physics followed Newtonian physics.

Kuhn’s book has been justly criticized over the years and I want to point out it does not consider the social context of ideological change enough either on the micro or macro levels.  How does an individual undergo ideological change?  How does an entire society change ideologies? I was reminded of these things while watching the new movie Moneyball about Oakland Athletics’ general manager Billy Beane. The movie and the book it is adapted from consider the latter of these two questions.  How does baseball “society” consider a new ideology based on sabermetric statistical analysis which flies in the face of accepted baseball “faith.” The baseball traditionalists who have their jobs, self-worth and view of the world conditioned by the old ideology are immediately threatened by any challenge to their system. Of course Beane is ridiculed and disparaged at first but as anyone who has read the book or followed baseball knows, eventually many of the principles he implemented are adopted by others once he demonstrates that they can be successful. That is the arc of the movie. For me the interesting thing is that the ideological change is driven not by the repeated failures of the old system as Kuhn would predict.  Indeed the old system fails only as often as it always has but still succeeds enough to be firmly in place.  This is not uncommon among ideologies; we still have Newtonian physics don’t we? The reason for Beane’s conversion and for the system’s acceptance is not system failure but fiscal constraints.  The “small market” teams cannot compete for the most “valued” players (they seem to always windup on the Yankees or lately the Boston Red Sox) so they are willing to at least try a new baseball “ideology.” The fact that Beane shows that a team can be competitive with this new strategy is quickly adopted by other team owners who see a chance to become profitable as well. The key ingredient for its widespread acceptance is that you can get lower paid employees and still be competitive.

As a parable of ideological change I cannot help comparing this to the current conservative political ideology. Since the “Reagan revolution” fiscal conservatism has been the dominant political ideology among both Democrats and Republicans albeit with differences between them. The liberal “traditionalists” have gone the way of the dinosaur as the recent passing of Charles Percy reminds us. Both Democrats and Republicans have vacillated on how deeply conservative and libertarian to be. Republican spending on items dear to their hearts coupled with an ideology of tax relief has driven the budget into the deficit they say they abhor.  Deregulation for business is offset by the extreme government snooping embodied in the Patriot Act that makes any true conservative turn white with fear,  red with anger or blue with frustration. The Tea Party wants to implement an even more stringently conservative ideology which calls for minimal government intrusion in the nation. My point is that none of these ideological revolutions from Reagan to the Tea Party are based on the failure of the old system. Furthermore there is no evidence that the new systems produce jobs, economic prosperity for the middle class, a better educational system, adequate health care for the masses or any other benefit for the majority of Americans. The best they produce is lower paid employees without health care as in Rick Perry’s Texas. As in Moneyball the only constant is more profitability for the “team owners,” those rich folks at the top of the system. Politics is different than baseball and that to succeed a plurality of voters must be convinced of your ideology rather than one Billy Beane. Over the last few years this has led to a Republican effort to restrict voting, a politics of fear, the injection of irrelevant so-called social issues into campaigns, and to a politics based on emotions rather than issues. As time has shown us this will benefit the team owners more than anyone else. Just look at the economic numbers about income gain and wealth distribution.

Billy Beane’s teams have never won a championship and the tax cut ideology will never produce the kind of society we say we want in this country.


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