So I decided I don’t like debating economics, for the same reason I don’t like extemp speeches about science and technology. You need a master’s degree at least to talk about these issues directly in a way that can be debated.

In an ordinary comfortable LD debate, at issue are ethical issues which have voices of authority behind them, but at root there are no correct or incorrect answers once one has passed a relatively low bar of understanding the resolution at hand. Once you understand, say, that a question about security in a terrorist-threatened society is about protection versus liberty, you’re off to the races.

But what we faced this weekend in PF at the Just Another Tournament was a debate over economic issues; will Bush’s little checks and their related goodies actually dig us out of this economic hole? The trouble with this topic is that your average high school student, and average person, can argue effectively in terms of ethics and philosophy, but in the world of the economic, there are clear cut correct and incorrect answers in some fields. What do you do as a judge when a team flings a case of unmitigated falsity up there, and you know it? You can wait for the other team to tear it down, if they can, but it still leaves one unsatisfied. In extempland, I’d just write a ballot explaining the errors and move on, but that’s intervention in debate, and not fair ground.

Furthermore, what should a team do when their opponent starts flinging out (warranted!) things that are flatly untrue, based on misunderstandings of basic economic principles? Stuff becomes a push in debater terminology when really one team was absolutely correct and the other was not, and sometimes the judges know it and sometimes they don’t, depending on their own background.

Result? Lots of really awful debates. The resolution ultimately wasn’t about a question of thought and ambiguity. It’s a technical prediction. The question of whether Bush’s economic package will work does have an answer. It’s ambiguous not by nature, but by complexity; the model is too vast to know, but if we did comprehend it, we could have a clean cut binary answer. At root then, the only debates on this topic are debates as to interpretations of known facts trying to fill in unknown facts. That got messy, to say the least, especially given that the high schoolers in question somehow are not fluent in a field where PhDs still can’t make accurate predictions. Go figure.

This is not true of ethical questions that make the usual stuff of debate. We’ll never have an answer as to whether hate crimes are just or not; exploring that issue is exploring thought, not fact. That’s better ground for debate, and I hope the mysterious back room topic writers stay there in the future. There is room for economic debate of course, but it should redirect towards the social questions of economics; how much assistance should a society grant its poor? How should goods be allocated? Stick to that and we’re OK; but for now, watching high school kids trying to do the work of dissertation writers is nobody’s idea of fun.