Econ Uniqueness: 13.84 Trilion Dollars in a Thousand Words

I've been meaning for some time now to follow up on my intro to economics article with some more concrete advice concerning the economy debate on the coming high school topic. The poverty topic is basically an economics topic at heart, so there are many possible arguments to address. As an attempt at organization, I'll break down the debate into three relevant questions:

  1. Will the US Economy continue to grow in the status quo?

  2. Are social services for persons living in poverty good or bad for the economy?

  3. Is US economic growth good or bad?

Astute readers might identify these topics as "Uniqueness," "Link," and "Impact" or "Inherency," "Solvency," and "Harms" depending on which side of the debate we are starting from.

So I'll start with Will the US Economy continue to grow in the status quo? This is the general form of the Econ uniqueness question, but since this topic happens in 2009 it might be more accurate to ask "Will the US Economy Recover?" It's not really growing now, after all.

I assume that you know that the economy is doing poorly right now, but if you are an average highschooler (or even a well above-average high-schooler) you might not know much of the reasons as to why, or how we got where we are. And, like just about every aspect of our multitrillion dollar economy, this is a matter of some debate.

Let's start with the symptoms: Housing prices were too high (called a price bubble), major investment banks had way too much capital tied up in housing-related investments including "sub-prime loans" to risky borrowers, and prices for food and oil were skyrocketing. In late 2007 it all began to unravel. Banks began to take losses from bad loans and investments, other banks became more reluctant to loan money, and a combination of harder-to-find credit, falling house prices, and high food/energy costs caused consumers to spend much less. Less consumer spending means businesses can't sell as many products and must cut back on employees/investment, which means businesses that sell to those businesses must make cuts, and so on. Instead of growing, our economy begins to contract.

Whew. Quite a horror story. Of course, that explanation leaves some questions out, (why were housing prices too high? why were banks playing with so much risk? etc.) but these questions are hard to answer so soon in the recession. attempting to do so quickly devolves into partisan narratives - democrats blame too little regulation, republicans blame too much goverment interference - that is not particularly relevant to debaters.

In response to this malaise, the federal government has done the following: bought up $700 billion worth of bank stock and "toxic assets" (colloquially, "The Bailout"), Lowered federal interest rates, gave some loans to banks so that they could buy other banks, Spent a bunch of money on tax cuts/umemployment benefits/social welfare programs/infrastructure projects ("The Stimulus"), Taken over the world's largets car maker, and more. These policies are massive, complicated, and techinical, but they share a few goals - Prevent major institutions from failing, provide a safety net for those most hurt by the recession, and put money in the hands of consumers so they can spend it and reverse the economic contraction cycle. In general, the government is attempting to stir up demand to prevent businesses from further contracting supply.

I know that the preceeding wall of text is a lot to take in, but it all boils down to a simple question: did it work? In other words, is the economy going to rebound or is it going to get worse? In most economics debates on this resolution, you are going to want to argue one or the other. And as it turns out, there are plenty of analysts willing to offer their opinion on the matter. Finding cards that say the economy will or won't recover is just about the easiest assignment you could give someone these days.

Of course, like all things in life, 90% of those cards will be crap. Why? Well, say I was an editor at a major newspaper and I gave you the assignment "write a column on whether the economy will recover." That's a pretty tall order - you have to seem smart and bold, but you have to cover your ass in case you get the prediction wrong. Nobody wants to be wrong in print. You are probably going to do any of the following:

  • Write a "good news, bad news" article, and never actually take a strong position on the subject

  • If you do take a position, you'll pepper your article with caveats like "the economy will recover as long as consumers don't get scared again and stop spending again"

  • Instead of doing the massive amount of research necessary to fully answer this question, you'll cherry-pick a few statistics that support your point.

Finding a card without any of these problems will be hard enough, but you'll also need something that takes account of the most recently-available economic data, is from (or quotes) an author that is actually qualified to talk about the economy, and answers the most popular arguments from the other side.

Of course, I'm describing a holy grail card, and I'm sure that many debates this year will be won on "good enough." Regardless, this should get you thinking about the ways that you can be one step ahead of the economics uniqueness debate.

Another complicating factor (last one, I promise) is that if the economy doesn't start showing signs of improvement over the next year or so, the government will probably do more. In fact, it might even do something that includes increasing social services for persons living in poverty. Smart debaters will be carrying good cards not only for the basic uniqueness questions, but on all sorts of "link uniqueness" - will the government spend more money soon? Will the businesses get additional help? Will the poor get additional services? Will interest rates go up or down? The list goes on and on. This coming debate topic will allow plenty of room for smart, strategic, well-prepared debaters to get a leg up on economics.

Talking Fast (With charts and graphs!)

I'd like to talk a little bit about talking fast. I haven't touched on this topic yet mostly because it's just not that big a deal. At least it's far less important a topic than you might think having seen, say, a TV news segment on competetive debate. Lots of novices are intimidated by how fast us crazy debaters can flap our jaws, though, so I figure I ought to give some concrete advice.

But before I go into the how of talking fast, let's talk for a moment about why debaters talk fast. Remember when I layed out the three laws of debate strategy? Well, one of the fundamental rules of the activity is that an argument, if conceded, becomes true. This gives us an incentive to make lots of arguments, because our opponent might drop one, or in their rush to cover all arguments their answers might be lacking in depth or strategy.

It follows, then, that a good tactic is to make many arguments in our speech. Think of your speech as conveying information, and we want to convey the maximum amount of information in a given time. Remember that.

So how do you learn to talk at 100 miles per minute? You read the words on the page. Only do it faster. This may be dissapointing, but I swear that's all there is to it. All the things that make you a good reader at normal pace - standing up straght, deep breaths, clear diction, and lots and lots of practice - are what give you ability to hit the gas pedal. Sure, there are some training exercizes that help you develop a bit faster, but they pretty much all boil down to "practice reading a lot." Just like if you wanted to train to be an olympic weightlifter, most of your excercizes are going to involve lifting a lot of increasingly heavy things.

But just like you need proper form when lifting heavy things so you don't damager your back, you need to be mindful of a few things while you practice reading so you don't develop bad habits.

First of all, remember Clarity is King. New debaters tend to want to push themselves too hard, especially during actual rounds. The problem with this is that everybody starts to develop "speed artifacts" as they push the envelope of speed. You start to slur your consonants, you cut off the end of words, your pitch is too high or your volume too quiet, you start gasping for breath, etc. Don't do that. If your speech is any less understandable than normal speed, you need to slow down.

That advice is not followed very widely in the high school community, so allow me to justify my position on the matter a little more. In my experience, debaters tend to see clarity as a binary proposition, either I'm "unclear" or I'm "clear." They want to push their speed as hard as possible until the judge yells at them, thinking that they will be able to squeeze in a few more args. Their mental model of clarity looks like this:

They think that the faster they try to go, the more information they convey, until they become "unclear" (and the judge will surely warn them of that).

As it turns out, though, clarity isn't a binary proposition. Sure, if a debater is so unclear that I can't understand anything I'm going to let them know, but there is a whole lot of gray area. If I'm catching 80%, 75%, maybe even as low as 50% I can still flow, but I'm going to get less of the speech. I'm going to understand the cards less, I might make minor flowing errors, I'm going to have a harder time piecing together the debater's story. Remember our goal for talking fast - Maximise information? If I can go "10% faster" but the judge only catches 75% of my slurred words, I've defeated the entire purpose of talking fast

To use another poorly-drawn chart, the real model of clarity looks like this:

I drew the red dotted line in the same place, but see how the information conveyed slopes downward as you push it too hard? You want to avoid that. The sweet spot as fast as you can without any speed artifacts, or maaaaaybe just a little bit faster to keep improving your baseline speed.

The other important piece of advice to remember about talking fast is All information is not created equal. Your speech isn't just one homogenous blob of text, so don't treat every word the same. It doesn't matter how well I'm flowing your cards if I didn't realize you moved on to a new disad, is it? Here's a rough list of the kinds of information in the average debate speech, ordered by importance.

  1. The "Highway Signs." When have you moved on to a new position? What is that position's name?

  2. The "Street Signs." When have you moved on to a new argument within a position?

  3. Poiting out major drops, voting issues, other stuff you want the judge to extra-special-remember

  4. Overviews of your argument that "tell the story"

  5. The Tags of cards

  6. The Tags of your analytical arguments

  7. The Cites of cards

  8. The Text of your analytical arguments

  9. The Text of your cards

We might quibble over which item goes where on the list, but the point is that you need to treat different types of information differently. Phrases like "Next off is the Healthcare Disad!" are the most important bits of your speech - they need to be clearer, slower, and with more "dead space" on both sides to allow people to flip paper. Don't mash the end of one card into the beginning of the next, or else I won't realize that there are two different arguments here. The tag and cite should be set out from the text in some way - louder, slower, more dynamics, something.

Note that this heirarchy doesn't give you an excuse to be unclear during the text of the card. Even there, you want a judge to be able to understand every last word. You (or someone) spent blood, sweat, and battery life cutting these cards, and you want them to have the maximum impact. If your cards aren't important enough to articulate clearly, why are you even reading them?

Well Hello Again

I'm officially back from my little unannounced hiatus. Got married! Went to Vegas! It's summer! etcetera.

I'll start posting new articles again next week, though I'm not sure if it will be back in the old two-a-week schedule.

And just to add some actual content to this post, I love how this activity finds new ways of re-exciting me. I offered to judge a few rounds at the Minnesota Debate Advocacy Workshop, and I can't tell you how satisfying it was to create a new folder on my laptop entitled "Poverty Topic Flows."

Ahh the new season, full of possibility.