Economics: learned a lot about the company dough

One of the important skills to gain this year to be successful in debate, especially at the novice level, is a firm grasp of economics. That sentence is going to scare the crap out of some of you. Don't let it. Economics isn't numbers and spreadsheets and TPS reports, at least not at the outset. Economics is the decisions you make every day, the story behind the objects you interact with on a daily basis.

Consider, if you will, a backpack. You probably have one, what would you say it is worth? What value does your backpack posses?

There are obviously lots of ways to answer this question. We could look at a backpack's ability to hold and organize things, we could look at all the work it took to assemble the backpack from raw materials, we could just ask you what it's worth, etc. One particularly useful way to measure value is price. When you went to a store and paid 50 dollars for your backpack, you sent a clear signal that that backpack was worth $50 to you at that place and time.

Price is a useful measure of value in that it can be easily recorded and compared. We can measure the value not just of your backpack, but of every backpack sold in the United States this year. Add in all the other clothing, food, televisions, cars, orange peelers, all the consumer products that are sold in the US. Plus all the services people pay for: mechanics, gardeners, lawyers. Plus all the items that businesses invest in to provide these goods and serviecs: sewing machines, delivery trucks, orange peeler molds. Plus all the stuff that the government buys: fighter jets, roads, $120 ashtrays. Add all that up, and you've got a measure of all the value produced in the US this year, a measure of the value of the US Economy at large.

This particular measure is so important that we give it a name: GDP, or Gross Domestic Product. GDP is a high-level metric for the state of the economy, not so much in the actual number, but in what direction it is moving. Is our GDP from this year higher than it was last year? If it is, that means that our economy is growing, and growth has been the goal of the US economy since it's inception. It may sound strange for an economy to "have a goal," but not every economic theory holds that growth is good or even possible. But in the United States, the mainstream economic theory (capitalism) maintains that growth is good.

So why should the economy grow? Well, a growing economy means businesses need to hire more people to produce more goods, which means more jobs. Growth frees up capital; if you have some extra cash laying around, you can loan it to me, and I can hopefully use it to get even more money for the both of us. Growth means that we can afford to spend money on items outside our basic survival needs and improve the collective standard of living.

It's also important to look at what happens when the economy runs in reverse. Long periods of no-growth (flat GDP, a recession) or negative-growth (falling GDP, a depression) correlate with massive unemployment, increased poverty, lowered standard of living, and worse. For instance, There's a general consensus among historians that the great depression contributed to the outbreak of World War II, which claimed millions of lives.

So, what makes the economy grow? Or, if the economy is growing, what makes it stop? Well, a lot of stuff. The beast that we call "The US Economy" represents millions of people and businesses making billions of economic decisions every day. It's impossible to say things like "X caused the recession" without vastly over-simplifying beyond comprehension. However, the study of economics gives us a variety of tools to look at macro- and micro-level behavior and make conclusions about the past and predictions about the future.

You'll be introduced to many of those tools in this guide and in your debate career as a whole. For right now, though, I'd like to introduce a principle that is at the bottom of many of them, something you need to understand before you really "get" anything else in economics: the principle of Supply and Demand.

Think back on your backpack, on the moment that you put your $50 on the table in exchange for a new bag. Two conditions had to be met for this transaction to happen: you had to want a backpack (demand) and the store had to have one for sale (supply). Of course price also factors into this transaciton, IE you had to want this backpack enough to spend $50 dollars on it and the store had to be willing to part with this backpack for $50 dollars.

So what if one of these conditions changes? Let's say that tomorrow there's a global shortage of ripstop nylon. Suddenly the backpack manufacturer is going to have to charge the store much more for that backpack to make a profit, so in turn the store prices it at $100. But you aren't going to spend more than $50 on a backpack, so the transaction never happens. Lower supply of ripstop nylon with the same demand raises the price. You can imagine a similar interaction if demand moves. A new trendy (high-demand) backpack can be sold at a higher price, but if schools everywhere ban backpacks (cutting off demand), stores will have to cut their prices to keep selling backpacks.

Now, It's easy for me to show in the abstract that high supply/low demand means low prices and low supply/high demand meand high prices, but in the real world it's not always so simple, especially when we get to the macroeconomic (large) scale. A common argument amongst economists is the chicken/egg question of whether the government should focus on supply or demand when trying to coax a hurting economy into growth.

Another important consequence of the supply/demand principle is that a mismatch of supply and demand creates incentives. Return to our nylon shortage. Right now the store is losing out on your business (and, perhaps, the business of others in a similar situation) because their backpacks are too expensive. This demand-without-supply creates an incentive. If someone discovered a new, cheaper method of manufacturing nylon, they could sell a backpack for half the price. Their $50 backpacks would be flying off the shelves while the $100 backpacks collect dust. One of the foundational tenets of modern economics is that people, in general, respond to incentives.

Picking Up: A Debater's Guide

This is the index to Picking Up: A Debater's Guide. Articles are arranged into sections by topic, and each section is loosely organized in advancing complexity. Articles are added to the index semi-regularly; To receive notification when new articles are posted, use the feed or twitter

About this Guide

On Debate

On Policy Debate

On Strategy and Tactics

On Preparation

On the Poverty Topic

About Picking Up: A Debater's Guide

About the Author:
My name is Ryan Ricard, although people in debate circles tend to call me Lucy. I coach debate at Rosemount High School in Minnesota, where I myself competed in debate many moons ago. I was never one of the best debaters in the country, but I did have the pleasure of debating some of them. I'm not one of the best debate coaches in the country, but I have had the pleasure of working with some of them.

About the Guide:
This is a guide to competitive debate, especially competitive debate at the high school level. The guide is made up of a series of articles, each focusing on a particular topic. Subjects covered include preparation, in-round strategy and tactics, and some more mundane questions like "which debate event should I choose?" It's written to be accessible to beginners, but I'd hope that experienced debaters/coaches get something out of it as well.

Reading the Guide:
Well, you can read it any way you want, obviously. I'm not going to stop you. But I don't think you'll get as much out of this guide if you try to tackle it all in one sitting, "cover to cover." Like your mom told you about your Halloween candy, Picking Up is meant to be consumed a bit at a time. Read an article a few times a week on the bus, skim an article on the topic you covered at practice after you get home, maybe go back and read some of the first articles after you have a few rounds under your belt. This book is best served with face-to-face instruction and plenty of ice cold experience.

Reviewed: Poverty in America, A Handbook

In an attempt to break out of our culture's crack-addled attention span shortening (BTW, did you see that I'm on twitter now?), I've gone so far as to start reading books again. Remember books? Well, turns out that you can go on the internet and get them delivered to your house. Download speeds suck, but you can't beat the battery life.

Har de har har. Anyway, Every once in a while I pick up something debate-related, and so I thought I'd be useful and do a debate-centered review. First up is John Iceland's Poverty in America: A Handbook, chosen semi-randomly from an Amazon search for "Poverty in America". It was high in the rankings, reviewed generally well, and the Table of Contents suggested a focus on some topics of relevance to the upcoming season. Looked like it would make a good debate book.

Speaking of "good debate book", I should probably explain what I mean by that, IE how a book is "good for debaters." Really this is one of two things: a book can be a "good debate book" because it has a lot of good cards, or a because it makes you smarter, provides a deep, well explained introduction to important debate-related content. It is the rare book that succeeds at both (Nye in 03, for example), but succeeding at one or the other is still laudable.

Unfortunately, Handbook doesn't really succeed at either goal, failing at both for the same reason. Though Iceland has clearly done his research, the book lacks a strong enough sense of advocacy to really produce any good cards. For example, he does wonderful explanation of the various ways of defining poverty (via absolute, relative, or hybrid measures), but only lukewarmly comes down in favor of a particular metric, and without enough warrants to produce a good T card.

This pattern repeats itself throughout the book: either Iceland will present both sides of an argument with enough caveats that he never really takes a position, or he'll hint at his position without spending the ink to defend it. For example, he brings up some of the popular counter-arguments to increasing spending on social services, such as the notion that the poor will become dependent on aid. Though he discredits this argument, he does it with a simple "studies show..." statement, leaving us guessing at the data behind his rebuttal (or fishing through the footnotes). All of the cards in this book would be easy enough to find just about anywhere.

As an introduction to the topic, though, Handbook is substantially better. As I mentioned, Iceland has clearly done his research. This book presents a detailed analytical picture of who "persons living in poverty" are in america, how they came to be in poverty, and what is being done about their condition. Iceland does a good job distilling raw data into explanatory trends.

I worry, though, that the best audience for this book as an introduction would be put off by Iceland's very mechanical tone. This is definitely not the book to give your novices to get them excited about the debate topic. Iceland's lack of rhetorical fire helps maintain his objective stance, but if you want to hook newbies you need to give them something spicier than "fact soup."

One particular vein of explanation that I found helpful was the discussion of the history of poverty policy in the United States. Iceland traces America's attitude toward people living in poverty from colonial poorhouses and indentured servitude, through reconstruction, the great depression, the great society, and into the 21st century. A lot has changed in the American narrative on poverty over the years, the increase in government aid for example, but a lot hasn't. We still seperate the poor into two groups, the "deserving" and the "undeserving", and a lot of times we draw the line between the two groups in a way that's not entirely rational. I think that there will be many a Kritik next year (aff and neg) that starts at that division, so it's a useful background to have.

Another thread that Iceland weaves into the book rather well is the idea that there are many popular misconceptions about what poverty is like in the United States. I wouldn't be surprised if my debaters (especially my novices) begin next year with the notion that most people who live in poverty are minorities (they aren't, though disproportionately many do), that most people in poverty don't work (most do), that people in poverty tend to stay there all their lives (they don't), and other bits of folk knowledge about poverty. Iceland does a good job dispensing with these myths, though it'll take some cut-and-paste to get all those sections together.

I think that's the bottom line on the Handbook. There's a lot of material that can provide a useful introduction, but it's spread out in a book that comes off pretty dry and mechanical. I get the impression that Iceland could have condensed the tasty parts of the book into a long article that would get a huge recommendation from me, but as it stands the book gets my tepid recommendation.

Writing Blocks, or What Would Darwin Do?

One of the great features of Wikipedia (aside from the "random page" button, which has destroyed countless hours of my life) is the ability to view the entire history of any article. Popular articles have hundereds, even thousands of edits, and you can look at every last version if you are so inclined. If you poke around in the history of major wikipedia articles, a pattern starts to emerge: most of them started out as total crap.

Take the Empire State building, one of our country's most famous landmarks. Surely a topic worth a pretty big article in an encyclopedia, right? Here is the entire contents of Wikipedia's First Article on the subject:

A 102 story Art Deco building in New York City was designed by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon Associates and built in 1930. It is the tallest building in the city, and was the tallest building in the world for many years.

At 9:49 a.m. on Saturday July 28, 1945, a B-25 Mitchell bomber accidentally crashed into the 79th floor, where the offices of the National Catholic Welfare Council were located. The fire was extinguished in 40 minutes. In the accident 14 people got killed.

That's it. Two small paragraphs, with nothing but basic information and a single factoid. It even has an inaccuracy: construction of the tower didn't finish until 1931. This article would be bad by third-grader essay standards, much less the high standards of an encyclopedia.

But look at the article today and you get something completely different: an execllent article, with sections on the tower's history, design, and significance, as well as some excellent photographs. For one person to research, write, and fact-check this article (not to mention take all the pictures) would take a paid professional the better part of a week. How did the article get so good all of a sudden?

The answer, of course, is that it wasn't "sudden" at all. This article has nearly 9 years worth of editing - thousands of revisions in all. One edit might add a new section, correct an inaccuracy, even remove vandalism like "A public observatory at the top of the building offers impressive views of your butt." There's no guarantee that any particular edit makes an improvement, but over time the article gets better and better.

This process goes by many names, but I'm a computer scientist so I'm going to call it Evolutionary Design. Instead of being built from meticulous blueprints and specifications, like the tower itself, the Empire State Building article emerged from many small design decisions, each one taking something that exists and attempting to make it just a little bit better.

Evolutionary design is a pretty crappy way of creating skyscrapers (say I go out back and build a dog house, am I any closer to building the Empire State Building?), but it's a great way to create less "physical" work: computer code, online encyclopedias, and (I'd argue) debate evidence.

Imagine you've never written a block before, or that you don't know what a block is, and I give you the assignment to "write me a block of Solvency answers to Zumbrota's Food Stamps case." Where the hell do you start? Maybe you've seen what a block looks like, but blocks have all this evidence and tags and jargon... where do you even begin? This is the problem: most Novices see a bunch of blocks before they are given the assignment to write one. It's like being given the final Empire State Building article and saying "there. Now go home and write one on the Leaning Tower of Pisa." Seeing the finished product, it's hard to imagine it's humble beginnings.

Now imagine a different assignment, something like "Zumbrota's case increases the number of people who qualify for food stamps, can you think of some reasons that might not work?"

I think that with a little bit of coaxing, your average novice debater could come up with a list that looks something like this:

  1. People won't user the food stamps because there's a social stigma.

  2. Food is just one expense. People also need housing, transportation, etc so they'll still be in poverty

  3. People will sell their food stamps on the black market and the use the cash to buy stupid stuff

Sweet. There's a start. Copy-paste to word. Control+S. You've just made a Block, a set of arguments prepared to answer a possible opponents' position. It's incomplete, it lacks evidence and strategic vision, and it probably isn't formatted very well, but it's a start. Like that first article on the Empire State Building from 2001, it has the potential to become something great, given care and attention.

Now, though you've just gotten started, you've already done the hardest part: getting started! After taking a few seconds to mentally celebrate your first block, it's time to start revising. Maybe think of some more reasons that their plan won't work. Maybe track down the cites from Zumbrota's case and add in an indict of their evidence, maybe track down a card of your own that makes one of the points on your block, but better. There are lots of ways that you can revise your block (and I plan on discussing many of them in this guide), but the point is that you're block is never "done," only "better." Your success as a debater doesn't hinge on how good your first revision was, but rather how well you revise it, and how well you incorporate your experience into your evidence.

I can't tell you how many times I got to the end of a debate round and thought to myself "Man, our 2AC block for that argument was crap. We sure got lucky this time." Maybe 5% of the time we'd actually go back and revise the block to make it better. By the time one of us sat down to re-write the block, we'd usually long forgotten the advice the judge gave us about how to make it better. Which is sad, because modern technology has made it so easy to revise your writing. I think that our set of tools has a long way to go in supporting evolutionary design (more on that later), but we've come a long way since the days of scissors and tape. Even if you don't have a laptop, you should be making constant edits to blocks, even if scrawled on the back of the pages, of how you can make that block better. Over time, all of your little improvements (and the improvements of your teammates) can turn mediocre blocks into deadly weapons.

Credit where it's due, the idea for this post borrows heavily from Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody