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Bring on the Stats Nerds

State government needs a good dose of sabermetrics.

“The Milwaukee Brewers’ Ryan Braun is the best young hitter in the major leagues.”

Utter such a sentiment among casual baseball fans, and you’re likely to get some nods of agreement. Braun, after all, had the second most home runs in baseball history after two seasons, ahead of legends like Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and Babe Ruth.

Make a claim to Braun’s greatness over at the Baseball Prospectus website, however, and you may need to put on a helmet to absorb the punishment you’ll likely take.

You see, they’ve developed a statistic they call VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) that statistically measures a player’s value relative to an average player at their position. According to this formula, Braun currently ranks 12th in the National League, even behind his own teammate, Prince Fielder.

For the better part of a decade, the Internet has been swamped with rabid armies of statistics nerds who live to debunk common perceptions about the value of baseball players. These basement number-crunchers find poetry in statistical analyses, creating formulas with names like VORP, Win Shares, PECOTA, WHIP, and OPS to give the public a true representation of whether players are actually doing their jobs.

The irony, of course, is that these unpaid baseball stat wonks conduct these complex statistical analyses for an industry that merely serves as entertainment. Despite the very real pain Brewers fans felt over the team’s 26-year absence from the playoffs, baseball statistics don’t really mean anything in terms of how we live our lives.

And yet there are armies of statisticians, spending days on end working for free, analyzing the sport inside and out to give us an accurate look at what works and what doesn’t.Now, compare this to the world of things that actually do matter in our lives—say, government programs. Federal, state, and local governments vacuum money out of our wallets on a daily basis to pay for expensive pet programs—most of which never receive any meaningful performance review.

Where is the army of stat dorks telling us, for instance, whether the billions of dollars taxpayers pump into agricultural subsidies actually do any good? Where is the hot new statistical formula that gives us a more accurate look at whether the state paying billions of dollars for government employees’ retirement benefits actually aids the taxpayers who fund them? Does paying the teachers more money lead to a better educational experience for our kids?

All of these examples seem to be taken as gospel by Wisconsin politicians. But how do they know?

The answer is simple—they don’t want to know. They avoid hard statistical analysis like vampires avoid garlic.Politicians earn re-election by telling stories. Stories of how supposedly underfunded our education system is. Stories of how if one more butterfly gets the flu, our delicate ecosystem will collapse due to lack of environmental programs.

Numbers, statistics, and serious research have no place in our Legislature, where re-election is priority number one. Unbiased facts just spoil the fairy tales our politicians tell us. For instance, explaining to legislators that raising the minimum wage actually increases unemployment would be like telling your kids the story of how Sleeping Beauty contracted cold sores from Prince Charming.

Of course, the Legislature employs the Audit Bureau, an impeccable service agency dedicated to rooting out fraud and waste in state government. But oftentimes, the LAB is directed to do studies ordered by the Legislature merely to make it look like elected officials are doing something about a problem.

When the Audit Bureau does release studies that make recommendations to better a state government program, they are almost always ignored, as if they were a pretty girl at a Star Trek convention.

The underlying dynamic of state government isn’t helping people—it is simply maintaining its own inertia. Our governments exist to keep themselves alive and growing, and the less scrutiny they receive, the better their chances of doing so.

It’s as if government is an 18-wheeler, barreling down the road uncontrollably, with deep-rooted special interests at the wheel. Studies conducted by the likes of WPRI and the Legislative Audit Bureau can serve as a GPS navigation system for this out-of-control semi, steering it where it needs to go to truly benefit the people it purports to aid.

Until then, as if it were a baseball player with a low OPS, state government will continue to flail wildly at the plate, extending Wisconsin’s losing streak. Let’s just hope the stat nerds catch on before our fans all give up, relocate, and find a new team to cheer.

Christian Schneider, a former legislative staffer, is a fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. His blog can be read at WPRI.org.

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