The Volokh Conspiracy and the Open University are conducting a vigorous debate over the virtues vel non of a Moneyball-style approach to academic hiring (or, as we like to say on this forum, a MoneyLaw-style approach). For his part, the Conspiracy's Ilya Somin roots for the Oakland A's, so deeply does he admire Billy Beane's system for building teams for less by finding players bypassed by teams with evaluative methods as shallow as their pockets are deep.
An aside to MoneyLaw's baseball-loving audience: With the A's out of the race, Ilya should join me and other Beane counters in rooting for a Detroit-Saint Louis World Series. Whichever matchup gives the network the worst ratings in the big markets is one that Moneyball aficionados should love. No Mets, no Yankees, no problems.
Aligned on the other side of this debate is Open U.'s Daniel Drezner. A political scientist by training, Drezner identifies two distinct "downsides of academic Moneyball":
- In the end, you get poached. All approaches and areas of inquiry become fashionable at some point -- even military historians. Once a department has attained a flush of prominence, the old standbys will come with their deep pockets to make lucrative free agent signings. The cream of a department's crop gets poached, leading to a slow decline.
- The risks of overspecialization. When a department hires a lot in a specialty or methodology that is currently unappreciated, they are essentially letting these scholars run the show. A history department dominated by military historians, a political science department dominated by postmodernists, or a law faculty dominated by critical legal theorists risks appearing unfriendly to good scholars from other traditions.
Drezner concedes that the "gain of a short-term boost might be worth the price of long-term backsliding, were it not for the second hazard of a Moneyball approach." To wit:
they risk falling into a trap: they can only successfully recruit people from a particular scholarly tradition, but the best of those people will eventually be lured away to premier institutions. Because the social sciences tend to see cutting-edge scholarship emerge from different approaches over time, a department that specializes in one approach risks acquiring blinders about where the rest of the field is going. The end result: a mediocre department stuffed with tenured academics who can't get a job anywhere else and don't know how to identify the up-and-comers in a discipline.Perhaps the academic culture of political science is radically unlike that of law, but Daniel Drezner gives me little reason to retreat from the empirically oriented approach to hiring that I have attempted, bit by bit, to outline and to defend here at MoneyLaw. And I still wear this albatross that Bill Henderson so gently draped around my neck: MoneyLaw still "needs a theory."
Very well then. Let my response to Daniel Drezner (and, by extension, my endorsement of Ilya Somin) take the form of a three-part series. If MoneyLaw readers choose to interpret this series as the beginning of my long-awaited theoretical elaboration, all the better. This introduction outlines Daniel Drezner's two objections to academic MoneyBall: (1) "poaching" and (2) "overspecialization." I'll take the liberty of calling it part 1 of the series. Part 2, not surprisingly, will address the poaching concern, while part 3 will address putative overspecialization.