Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Who wins debates?

Conservative economists generally define the value of goods or services (including securities) as the price set for them by "the market". It is an elegant definition which, of course, dovetails nicely with their reverence for "the market" and its judgements. 

(Of course, the word "value" already has a whole set of meanings which include moral, ethical, aesthetic and historical considerations, all of which can be applied to goods, services, and behaviors. Thus, by emphasizing the monetary judgement of "the market", they are subtly suggesting that these other ways of describing value are somehow secondary or derivative to market monetization -- when, in fact, the reverse is mostly the case.)

I was thinking -- in a Milton Friedman moment -- that maybe the winner of a debate could be defined simply as the person that the polls ultimately show to come out on top. At least for political debates, after all, the purpose of the verbal jousting is to convince people to vote for a particular candidate, party, or program. If you can do this, then you've accomplished your aim, and if you can't, you've failed in what is most important to you.

Thus, following this idea, it doesn't really matter what pundits or talking heads say about a debate -- unless, of course, what they say convinces enough people who listen to them to support the person or cause advocated by one of the debaters. It all comes out in the public opinion wash, and makes it easy to make a neat determination of a winner.

However, just as with the facile market-based definition of value, there are problems because words in long-time, common usage have meanings which formal and slick re-definitions don't capture. If a debater lies and most of the audience believes those lies, is that what we mean by "winning"? Maybe yes, if one is cynical enough. Maybe no, but then one has a more complicated task of defining "winning".

Needless to say, last night's vice-presidential debate made me give some thought to this. On the basis of style, annoyance factor, and other aesthetic judgements, I and many commentators initially agreed that Mike Pence "won" the debate. He was cooler, somewhat more congenial, and didn't interrupt his opponent Tim Kaine very often; Kaine, on the other hand, had a dogged, wise-guy, somewhat sneering aggressiveness about him that was certainly off-putting to many. So Pence won, right?

Well, not so fast. What, after all, did viewers themselves think? We don't know, since no "scientific" polls have yet appeared? Suppose when they do, we find that most viewers liked Pence. So Pence won, right? Well, not so fast. Suppose that in the next week or so Hillary Clinton's poll numbers climb -- or even remain about the same (much higher than Trump's). Arguably her surrogate, Tim Kaine, accomplished his objective, namely to keep the electorate's attention focused on Trump's awfulness. In addition, fact checkers have already pointed out that Pence's claims that he and Trump never said or did the things Kaine said they did are demonstrably (i.e. by video) false. Did Pence still win the debate? Was this, after all, a debate about the likeability of Kaine vs. Pence? Was it about concrete proposals on the economy or war and peace?

I wish Kaine were more likeable (and that he pointed out Pence's basic intolerance, for which he outdoes Ted Cruz). Nevertheless, the question of who "won" the debate does not have a clear answer. And, of course, as Nate Silver and Co. suggest, the whole debate will be discussed and evaluated (and be remembered) for at most one news cycle, then it really doesn't matter very much (maybe).

Just wondering...

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