This is part of an ongoing series of blog posts where I talk about Debate and Economics. In this issue, I discuss in greater depth some of the reasons for economic misunderstanding in debate and (tentatively) attempt a few solutions. You can find the first post in this series here.
The last post focused on the impact debate; this one is about solvency and causality. The generalist nature of debate often precludes the ability to specialize and understand fields; debate is one of few activities where nonspecialists avidly discuss and interrogate academic papers and conclusions at the highest levels – and it’s appeal to form over content (logical rigor, critical thinking, contingency planning, decisionmaking, etc.) is one of the foremost reasons that it is a pedagogically valuable experience. Yet I believe that debate’s failure to impart solid economic grounding in its discussions are unique-and below, isolate a few reasons why this occurs.
Lack of Commitment to the Literature
The standard for evidence in economic debates, is, frankly, not it. While most other topics require some individualized specialization or background knowledge, (think Baudrillard or questions about federalism), many debates about economics use investopedia, marketwatch, or other “popular” websites to impart the vast majority of their knowledge. This is problematic, because economics is, as a whole, a complex, technical field where intuition often fails. While in both critical and policy debates on other subjects, academic sources are regularly consulted, peer-reviewed papers are often cut, and coaches are known for “specializing” in the literature, none of this happens with economic theory. In fact, the canonical sources for econ-esque arguments, (Clary, Tonnesson, Drezner, etc.) often do not even have formal training in economics. While lectures exist to explain and define offensive realism or hyperreality to eager young debaters, very rarely do camps teach students about nash equilibrium or the expenditure multiplier. All of this aggregates to create a reality where intuitionism reigns supreme (think about it – this causes growth), and an appeal to formal economic literature or models is never invoked.
Bad Evidence Quality
This issue is not unique to just debate, but is a problem with the discourse regarding economics in general (perhaps best epitomized by the recent nomination of Judy Shelton to the Federal Reserve). While many other fields rarely involve scathingly uninformed popular opinion, economics has somehow burdened itself with a political-pundit-esque level of popular opinion, blogs, and intuitionism. Perhaps because of its apparent accessibility, (it’s just money and common sense!), everyone forms an opinion about it, leading to a lot of “hot takes” for which it would be generous to even describe as a bastardization of heterodoxy. While this problem is not unique to debate, it certainly exists, mathematically incorrect economic positions percolating into debate via the erosion of evidence standards. Anti-intellectual, intuitionist schools of thought like the Mises Institute have qualifications that are often sufficient to constitute a card on an economic argument (a perfect “answer”to a spending counterplan like investment). Yet even these look like Esther Duflo’s breathtaking RCTs or Roger Myerson’s brilliant theorems when compared to some of the op-eds and blog posts that are regularly cited as evidence. It doesn’t need to be this way; even if debaters regularly misinterpret and recontextualize authors (from IR concepts like realism to Wilderson to Baudrillard), at least they cite articles, journals, and books that have passed peer-review and are written by academics, a practice which at the very least sets a floor for the intellectual quality of ideas and mandates a basic understanding of material. Yet, for some reason, this standard flies out the window when the econ disad or dedev comes into play. Debate—in order to avoid falling prey to the same toxic, anti-scientific pseudo-intelligentsia dominating modern societal economics discourse today, must hold the line—with acceptable research, speaker points, and ballots—to make economics incentive compatible again.
This is not to say this gap is entirely the fault of the debate community (or even society writ large!). Economics seeks to tackle extraordinarily complex questions, and its preferred tool(s)—solid econometrics and clever mathematics—are not particularly accessible. Yet this is also true of other fields whose literature is oft-cited in economics (think the statistics of political science or the dense jargon of Lacan). The economic calculus is clear: the return on the blogs is higher, and the cost to comprehension is considerably lower—so deviation towards sophistry is always an attractive option. Yet when such lazy substitutes were not available, (which Mises fellow knows about “jouissance”?) debaters rose to the task and read the literature, however inaccessible—because that literature held strategic value in debates. The existence of a solution where economics meets this standard is trivial; the salient question is simply, will we play it?