Paul Krugman Says Debates Are Worthless

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Paul Krugman “debated” Ron Paul yesterday, and afterward he had an epiphany: debates are useless.

Think about it: you approach what is, in the end, a somewhat technical subject in a format in which no data can be presented, in which there’s no opportunity to check facts (everything Paul said about growth after World War II was wrong, but who will ever call him on it?). So people react based on their prejudices. If Ron Paul got on TV and said “Gah gah goo goo debasement! theft!” — which is a rough summary of what he actually did say — his supporters would say that he won the debate hands down; I don’t think my supporters are quite the same, but opinions may differ.

Krugman is right, but I think he’s also missing the point here. Wars of ideas are typically won in print: in journals, in books, in magazine articles, and in monographs. The audience is fellow professionals in your field, the language is often technical and abstruse, and you keep score by counting citations, being invited to conferences, and amassing disciples.

Public debates, including their gruesome modern variant, the three-minute hit on cable TV, aren’t about that. They’re solely designed to influence public opinion, and you keep score at the ballot box. Nobody cares if Ron Paul is technically right about the Romans debasing their currency, and nobody cares whether that really has anything to do with the modern global economy. All that matters is whether he’s found an analogy that moves a few of the rubes to his side. Truth isn’t just an obstacle in public debates, it’s a handicap.

If you want to increase your understanding of a subject, public debates are worthless. But that’s because that isn’t their purpose. Their purpose is emotional appeal, and understanding actively gets in the way of that. Ron Paul already knows that. I hope Krugman does too.

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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