Customer: Um…now look…now look, mate, I’ve definitely had enough of this. That parrot is definitely deceased, and when I purchased it not ‘alf an hour ago, you assured me that its total lack of movement was due to it bein’ tired and shagged out following a prolonged squawk . . . This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! He’s expired and gone to meet his maker! He’s a stiff! Bereft of life, he rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed him to the perch he’d be pushing up the daisies! His metabolic processes are now history! He’s off the twig! He’s kicked the bucket, he’s shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisibile!!

-Monty Python, Dead Parrot sketch


Over the past few years, there has been a rather confused debate in the US. Indeed, there have been a series of confused debates, discussions, arguments, flame wars, political campaigns, claims, and counter-claims, most of which have never reached a satisfying conclusion. This is especially true in the fields of politics and economics. (Primaries and elections only reach a denouement because of a date certain, but the issues debated are not resolved).

We here in the USA have forgotten how to have an intelligent argument. I don’t mean a marital spat, I refer to the process of deciding issues through informed argument, discussion, etc. Somehow, zealous advocacy has been replaced with over zealous absurdity.

We seemingly have forgotten the purpose of debate — to engage in a principled argument in order to reach a discernible Truth. It is not, as seems to be occurring more often, to temporarily win, at any and all costs, in short term polling. These policy back-and-forths have become futile, time wasting rhetorical displays, not worthwhile even for their entertainment value.

John Milton understood the long term advantages to any society of pursuing the Truth through a broad and open debate. Thomas Jefferson argued that in “the marketplace of ideas,” the truth will emerge out of free competition in open and transparent public discourse. This was considered so important to any democracy that it was codified in the very First Amendment to the US Constitution.

I am not so sure that Milton or Jefferson would recognize what our discourse has devolved to.

One of the advantages of plying your trade on Wall Street instead of in Washington DC is that regardless of the never ending debate, there are metrics that suggest winners and losers. Stock markets go up or down, AUM increases or decreases, market capitalization rises and falls, companies gain and lose market share. Investing by its very nature drives some resolution to the great debates of the day.

Note I am not referring to the minute-by-minute or even day-to-day action, but the longer term results. Benjamin Graham famously stated that over the short term, the stock market behaves like a voting machine, but in the long term it acts like a weighing machine. We get some resolutions to the greater issues of investing — eventually, often following long periods of what looks like irrationality. Those lengths time when investors are irrationally exuberant or persistently pessimistic reflect a period of information dissemination, where eventually, group psychology coalesces around a specific investment posture.

DC has a similar mechanism — they are called elections — but they can be the result of so many other factors besides the debate on the great issues of the day, that we often do not seem to find any form of satisfying resolution. There are still people who defend their banking buddies by trying to pin the blame for the crisis on government policy; ongoing climate change denialists have turned their back on science and instead employ agnotology to persuade the public. Those people pushing for austerity continue to ignore the real results out of UK, Ireland, and elsewhere. Even here in the United States, there is disbelief that the slowdown in government spending led to the first negative GDP quarter since the recession ended.

But whether it is a debate on GDP or Government Spending or any other priority, it never seems to resolve in quite as satisfying a way as capital markets do.

In those markets, the key issue under debate is whether or not we are topping out, a Fed-driven but tired and pricey market at the end of a 5 year cyclical run. Or, are we starting a new secular cycle, a new economic expansion, with the credit and housing crises long behind us.

This won’t be resolved tomorrow, but I suspect we may not have to wait very long to find out which viewpoint is correct . . .

Category: Markets, Politics, Psychology, Really, really bad calls

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

39 Responses to “Have Americans Forgotten How to Debate ?”

  1. CSF says:

    An interesting comparison. I’ll venture that Wall St. offers higher quality discourse than Washington. Yes, we see much foolishness on the television, and to a certain degree we read more of the same from columnists like Professor Krugman or his counterparts on the right. We know the playbook: the blame game, straw man arguments, ad hominem attacks, and selectively chosen data. On the other hand, these particular sources are flawed precisely because they are politically motivated. At least in the financial and economic world we have forums like Tom Keene’s Surveillance, or The Big Picture, where informed people engage in intelligent debate based on the data. Sometimes they even listen to each other and revise their opinions when the facts change. That’s something we don’t see in Washington, even after an election.

  2. constantnormal says:

    “The key issue under debate is whether this market is topping out, Fed-driven but tired and pricey at the end of a 5 year cyclical run — or starting a new secular cycle, an new economic expansion, with the credit and housing crises long behind us.”

    It’s a puzzle, all right … I cannot recall any similar time in our history (or any other history) where a central bank has been as diligent and tireless at combatting deflation, and given that we are seeing no inflation and only a very modest economic recovery, it would appear that the battle could go on for quite a while longer (I suspect until all the toxic debt is written down and removed from the books of the banksters).

    That might even mean a new “longest interval between recessions”, greater than even the Greenspan-Fed-fueled expansion from 1990 through 2000. Even matching that would run us out to 2017. The methods employed to drive the economy are similar enough to make this a plausible scenario (at least in my eyes), if an unlikely one. There are a lot of significant differences between then and now, in the strength and character of the US economy, the US demographic situation, and the global economic circus.

    My money would have to be on some exogenous event (e.g. an extraterrestrial Black Swan, or a keystroke error by a coder of a CDS trading ‘bot, leading to the creation of a quadrillion-dollar bet on something, that would immediately vaporize several of the dark pools before spilling onto the public exchanges and going global. It would require an extraordinary combination of unaudited, unregulated, highly leveraged electronic trading for this to happen, shrouded by a veil of non-transparency, but that’s pretty much the direction we are headed in … it would be a grand experiment to re-create the Big Bang. Who needs the LHC?

    When such a thing might happen is impossible to say, as it would occur suddenly, without any warning, and it would all be over before anyone realized anything was happening.

    If this does occur, BR, you might want to consider a new name for the blog, or for your next book.

    BTW, I’m not sure that you can say that “the credit and housing crises” are “long behind us”, with the amount of foreclosures still in the queue and an unknown amount of toxic debt being masked by the mark-to-make-believe rule. I doubt that it is possible for us to return to normalcy until FASB 157 is restored to its earlier form, when some measure of confidence might mistakenly sprout. That and some improvement in the distribution of incomes, so that many more people will be able to afford homes.

    It may be that things never “return to normal”, as the confluence of the boomers retiring and the relentless progress of automation might finish off the classical labor pyramid, making out current economic system completely unworkable. I’m just beginning to see some of the experts begin to express concern about this.

    We are gonna need a new game plan, and I see no one in the political landscape capable of delivering one.

  3. McMike says:

    A quote from my mom comes to mind: “It’s impossible to reason with an unreasonable person.” -Mom

  4. BottomMiddleClass says:

    One test to use on someone before discussion is to ask, “Is there any amount of evidence or event that would make you change your mind?” If they answer “NO” then why bother discussing it?

  5. with..

    “…This is especially true in the fields of politics and economics…”


    “…I am not so sure that Milton or Jefferson would recognize what our discourse has devolved to…”


    might be, because those two understood that those Fields are Inseparable, and, thereby, studied “Political Economy”..

    Ye, with..

    “…to pin the blame for the crisis on government policy…”

    Given, the Nature of our ‘Economy’, lo, it would be accurate, afterall…

    Allison, below, states the Case, clearly..

  6. Invictus says:

    How do you debate someone who’s convinced the earth is 6,000 years old? What is there to say?

  7. Don’t turn Jefferson into a market worshipper. He believed that error could be tolerated where reason was free to combat it, but he never said “marketplace of ideas.” I doubt he referred to “competition. Not trying to nitpick, but your formulation of Jefferson’s ideas sounds like the Chicago School dogmatists that I know you often disagree with. At any rate, some things shouldn’t be explained in market terms, IMO.


    BR: Fair enough

  8. WFTA says:

    Informational tribalism. It scares the bejesus out of me.

  9. wally says:

    I’m not sure it is any worse today than ever. You quote Jefferson, for instance… but if you go back and read some histories of his day, you’ll see that he was not necessarily a shining example for open public debate. You can describe him as a brilliant proponent of freedom or as a hypocritical slave owner who backstabbed Washington at every chance he got. He was both, of course.


    BR: You are probably correct about that . . .

  10. Oral Hazard says:

    Debate is the traditional sense is still available in places like Intelligence Squared. Christopher Hitchens was well known for his debates on religion and faith and they are worth a watch on Youtube.

    The problem is depressingly simple. There is a stratification of discourse based on audience. Politicians pander; it’s what they do and always have. So you’ll see a senator or congressman who you would swear based on media appearances is deranged/moronic have a policy debate sponsored at an elite university and all of a sudden they are showing prodigious intellectual chops. You get hints of this also from interviews on PBS’ Frontline (again, a program with a well above average educated demographic).

    This cynical slipping in and out of public personae just depresses the crap out of me, because oftentimes these figures’ truer, more thoughtful, selves is hiding in plain sight.

  11. Concerned Neighbour says:

    The talking heads – politicians, pundits, “analysts”, etc. – haven’t forgotten how to debate. They’re highly educated. They just don’t use those skills in front of the camera for a host of (shameful) reasons.

    That said, a good chunk of the population is either incapable (poor education, can’t separate fact from fiction) or unwilling (my God told me this is TRUE, so your point of view must be FALSE) of changing their minds. That’s why the country is so deadlocked politically, and only perhaps 10-20% of the population ultimately decide each election.

  12. gordo365 says:

    Single issue “Rage addicts” (Matt Taibbi term) can’t debate cause the brain’s need to feed the rage with more rage interrupts their ability to listen and speak with others.

  13. wally says:

    To quote another Python sketch:

    An argument isn’t just contradiction.
    CAN be!
    No it can’t! An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.
    No it isn’t!
    Yes it is! ’tisn’t just contradiction.
    Look, if I argue with you, I must take up a contrary position!
    Yes but that’s not just saying “no it isn’t”.
    Yes it is!
    No it isn’t! Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes.
    No it isn’t.
    Yes it is!
    Not at all!

  14. whskyjack says:

    I suspect that Milton and Jefferson would recognize today’s debates. Remember every tactic these nutballs use has a Greek name to describe it so this stuff goes way back

    Remember sturgeon’s law, 90% is crap
    It is true now , it was true then, the past just looks better because history has removed the 90% from the record. Even so if you just read the 10% there are still some real nutcase stuff going on.

  15. whskyjack says:

    The Monty Python quotes remind me of preschoolers arguing. A good deal of our population and thus popular media operate with a preschool mentality. Not being too cynical here , am I?

  16. ben22 says:

    “How do you debate someone who’s convinced the earth is 6,000 years old? What is there to say?”

    Well, it would seem, Invictus, that there’s lots to say. Christopher Hitchens left a couple examples on YouTube if you care to see.

  17. CN,

    if you’d care to Witness a, truly, beautiful instantiation of..”…The talking heads – politicians, pundits, “analysts”, etc. – haven’t forgotten how to debate. They’re highly educated. They just don’t use those skills in front of the camera for a host of (shameful) reasons…”

    see some of..

    Current and former members of Congress, journalists, and policy experts participated in a role-playing simulation. They responded to hypothetical scenarios related to the global economy, sequestration and the debt ceiling

    Confirmed players include:
    -Former U.S. Senator Bob Bennett (R-UT), Senior Fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center
    -Journalist, author and blogger Farai Chideya
    -U.S. Representative Donna Edwards (D-MD)
    -The Atlantic National Correspondent James Fallows
    -Former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina
    President of the Bipartisan Policy Center, Jason Grumet
    -Former Mayor Pam Iorio (D-Tampa, FL)
    -Former Governor Bill Richardson (D-NM)
    -U.S. Representative Scott Rigell (R-VA)
    -President, Center for American Progress Neera Tanden
    -Former U.S. Senator Fred Thompson (R-TN)

    Emmy award-winning journalist Frank Sesno will moderate the event.

    truly Classic is, while trying to ‘wrap up’, Sesno lets the ‘Cat out of the Bag’..

    the last ~3 Minutes should earn him an(-other) Award..

  18. James Cameron says:

    > Have Americans Forgotten How to Debate ?

    I wonder . . . our nation’s history is punctuated with events and periods filled with vitriol, some of it far worse than what we see today.

  19. ZedLoch says:

    If you haven’t seen Lincoln, I highly recommend it. The debates today have a lot less name calling.

  20. Expat says:

    Well, we don’t have many debates which end in duels or canings, so I suppose it’s true that we have lost part of this “art”. Politicians no longer give long speeches. They work the media with soundbites.

    If you want to get your point of view across to your own constituency (and no politician these days bothers to try to educate or explain to the Enemy), you need vitriol, ad hominem attacks, and pithy catch-phrases. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was mocked in its day for being far too short. It lasted only two minutes. Imagine how Lincoln would be treated today.

    *This is Burrita Johnsnap for Fox News reporting live from Gettysburg where the President has just laid out his major plan for installing a communist regime. In his excessively long speech…many members of his own party were seen squirming about during the agonizingly long two minutes of pseudo-poetry…Lincoln stated, and I quote, “All me are created equal” and “the great task remaining before us…that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Words which could just as easily come from Karl Marx as from Abraham Osama Lincoln. Back to you at the studio, Candy.”

    *Good Morning and welcome to the Morning Bell. I’m Jock Euler along with Mary Metoarichguy and Steve Shouting at the NYSE. Following the Presidents shocking comments at Gettysburg, markets are reeling on the announcement of plans to nationalize our nation’s fields. Our guest today is David Koch. David, what’s your take on this?”

    Thanks, Jock. It’s sickening when in this modern age of capitalistic freedoms, an American President has suggest ” We have come to dedicate a portion of that field”. He was, of course, referring to the Gettysburg battlefield where so many brave American consumers lost their lives defending free markets. And now he wants to keep free markets from benefiting from that sacrifice by nationalizing American battlefields and keeping true Americans from creating jobs by selling tours, selling souvenirs, and, why not, selling bits of bone or teeth they dig up.”

    No, Lincoln would have been limited to 15 seconds tops and would have said, “After this great victory, our mission is a success but we remain ever vigilant. Americans should remember the dead here by going out and spending in their memory. A strong America is one with a strong economy. God Bless America. God Bless all of Us.”

  21. Invictus says:


    I’ll have a look. A link or two would be appreciated if you can.

  22. romerjt says:

    I just get a distant stare when this topic comes up because having spent 30 years on the front lines of this debate battle trying to teach teenagers the logic of the five-paragraph essay all I can say is, “you have no idea”.

    But more to the point, comparing debate and rhetoric of today to early America, especially using Jefferson who was unusually civil, doesn’t make a good point because, as others have stated it was pretty rough in those days. All the newspapers were as opinionated as Fox News. The comparison might be best made to a few decades ago, before 24/hr cable news and the Internet.

  23. MorticiaA says:

    I agree with those who think the Jefferson-times aren’t a good comparison; I prefer to consider the evolution (or devolvement) in my own lifetime.

    It wasn’t that long ago that I enjoyed talking public policy with people who voted differently than I did… Those talks wouldn’t have changed my vote but they at least left me feeling more intelligent for having been given a peek at another point of view.

    Today, I wouldn’t dare tell anyone here in my Red State (that used to be Blue, BTW) I voted for Obama. I believe the discourse has gotten so bad that I might lose clients over it, despite the fact that I can articulate very substantive reasons for my vote (well, at least the 2008 vote anyway; the 2012 vote was because I went with the devil I knew).

    Much of the downward spiral is brought on by Fox AND MSNBC… they can’t report “news” (I use that term loosely) without bringing on talking heads who yell at each other…. Fox can’t talk about any Democrat without painting a picture of someone whose single purpose on earth is making us all Communists.

    MSNBC can’t talk about a Republican without making him out to be a Bible-thumping w*$r#monger. And ALL of it is strictly theater for the purpose of ratings – and pandering.

    Add to the mix local newspapers are now online, and the masses get to comment on every story yet stay anonymous. I cringe at much of the things people post – racist, sexist, hateful, and vastly uneducated crap posted without fear of any consequences.

    Before I long for the good-old-days, though, I remember my 5th grade year. I was in private school, and my parents both had McGovern bumper stickers on their cars. One day a kid in my class said, “My parents say your parents are voting for a baby-killer.” I didn’t even know what that meant. My mom had to explain his position on abortion, and then explain what abortion was. When I recall that incident I’m reminded that maybe discourse isn’t so different after all in 40 years.

  24. ToNYC says:

    Bishop Desmond Tutu rephrased and old heuristic: “It is most difficult to awake someone who is only pretending to be asleep”. Debate is not possible with anti-science, anti-evolutionists. The only change they will consider is growing thicker shells and building deeper and more well-furnished caves where their minds went to atrophy. They had it good in the great white past and want it back. Yesterday JoKernan wished he could jump into the future and see how it worked out with the huge hot and sweaty chunks of Lithium in the Boeing Dreamliner so he could get the story right. That’s not the kind of creative thinking we need here in science land, but nobody missed his former bioscience efforts either.

  25. 873450 says:

    Owner : Oh yes, the, ah, the Norwegian Blue… What’s, ah… W-what’s wrong with it?

    Mr. Praline : I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it, my lad. It’s dead, that’s what’s wrong with it.

    Owner : No, no, ‘e’s ah… he’s resting.

    Mr. Praline : Look, matey, I know a dead parrot when I see one, and I’m looking at one right now.

    Owner : No no, h-he’s not dead, he’s, he’s restin’!

    Mr. Praline : Restin’?

    Owner : Y-yeah, restin.’ Remarkable bird, the Norwegian Blue, isn’t it, eh? Beautiful plumage!

    Mr. Praline : The plumage don’t enter into it. It’s stone dead!

    Owner : Nononono, no, no! ‘E’s resting!


    Much blame falls on news media equating willful ignorance with factual reality. Partly in reaction to FOX portraying absurdity as a legitimate position, Python’s dead parrot “debate” would now go on for years without resolution.


    McMike Says:
    A quote from my mom comes to mind: “It’s impossible to reason with an unreasonable person.” -Mom

    Today nothing is unreasonable, no matter how crazy, no matter how extreme. In fact, crazy extremism wins out.

  26. ben22 says:


    you’ve never watched a hitchens debate on YouTube?

    when you have some time….enjoy, there are tons of them:

    if you just do a search for “hitchens debate” on youtube there is a never-ending list of them almost

    people can say what they want about CH…but these debates should make anyone ….think

  27. ben22 says:

    btw, its not so much that the specific question of the Earth’s age is debated in all the hitch videos…but science is a major part of most all of the debates…

  28. DeDude says:

    A real debate can only occur when all parties are interested and open to finding the truth. The problem in more recent times seems to be that most of the the debating parties already have found their final “truth”, and instead see the debate as tool to win supporters for it.

  29. beaufou says:

    It isn’t only in the US, the political discourse in France from what I read and hear is just as sterile or confused depending on how you perceive it. Personally, I am having trouble figuring out who truly embodies the left or right way of thinking as the political debate seems to have dissolved into a polemical circus rarely venturing into a true philosophy.
    Economics was always the absolute ruler but it seems it has now become a single rule for all with politics doing background noise to pretend it is alive, the rule of law is quiet but is equally ineffective it seems.

    Politicians of old weren’t better behaved, although they seemed to be more eloquent, they would run smear campaigns with the complicity of papers attempting to disgrace or get their opponents jailed, dueling pistols were then what 18 holes are now. They did believe what they said and presented a clear ideology however.

  30. hue says:

    “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

    TBP is great because Barry is such an optimist, posting things like the Rise of the Empiricists. We always long for the good old days, the 1950s? Was that our best, were we like Leave It to Beaver or Joe McCarthy? 91% top tax rate. Despite all of our problems, we are the most progressive today, today, 2013. Do you think at anytime before 2008, we would elect a black president? Back during the booming 1990s, what was Washington obsessed with? Whitewater …

  31. ToNYC says:

    “We seemingly have forgotten the purpose of debate — to engage in a principled argument in order to reach a discernible Truth. It is not, as seems to be occurring more often, to temporarily win, at any and all costs, in short term polling. These policy back-and-forths have become futile, time wasting rhetorical displays, not worthwhile even for their entertainment value.”

    That’s exactly the winning report of the Conservative strategy. That you could believe that ” it’s we’ve forgotten how to debate” is the result. Conservatives win by paralysis and calcification in a failing evolution strategy that we might do well to not consider a fight, a but a moment to moment defeat as long as Congress is set on not working and Winning! Yes, they need to be playing their chess against the clock or move off the chair, but the game is then and now to not. Debate is not forgotten, but delayed Truth.

  32. theexpertisin says:

    When the norm for debating now is a checklist, sliming individuals through semi-clever social media shortcuts,YouTube references and out of context quotes from Media Matters or Glen Beck types, it is no wonder the art of debate is now at a pathetically low level of competence.

  33. jbegan says:

    Debates in the US have always had an issue with logic. We look at pictures of our original Congress all gathered solemnly around a table and presume that they had what we “don’t have”…a logical discussion. Turth is they had the same issues we do…Calls to emotions, out and out lies and slanderous statements and twisting of facts to make a point. Nothing new here.

    However, I do notice a tremendous lack of awareness on the part of most Americans on how to cull illogic and purposeful manipulation in order to win over a debate. As an ex-teacher, I’ve always wanted to see all students take classes in “Logic” and “Debate Maneuvers”. How can we have that Jeffersonian “informed electorate’ if people mistake emotional comments as facts, bald faced lies as fact and purposeful repositioning, without training in logic and debate?

    I’m amazed at how often “Guns kill our kids” is twisted into “That gun used in Sandy Hook isn’t an assault weapon! Assault weapons have a muzzle velocity of 400…..” , and “In a country that states there is a division between Church and State, and individuals have the right to the pursuit of happiness, same sex marriage should be accepted.” is twisted into “The Lord has stated that marriage is only between a man and a woman and as we are a Christian Nation, we (whoever we are) should be able to define the word and enforce it on everyone.”

    Remember Day Lewis as Lincoln commenting on how if A=B and B=C, then it follows that A=C? This very basic logic escapes most these days.

    A good place to begin is :

  34. Hey You says:

    Invictus Says:
    January 31st, 2013 at 9:07 am
    How do you debate someone who’s convinced the earth is 6,000 years old? What is there to say?

    Are you suggesting that an understanding of evolution is the key to all knowledge? I live in a small town where the town council, the mayor and city manger are all “climatic global change” believers. They may be aces at evolution but give them a D minus minus on understanding the town’s financial situation. They have run the city finances into the ditch so far they can’t float any more bonds to take care of basic water and sewer issues.

    just saying.

  35. Greg0658 says:

    constant and oral .. both good replys .. slight’g others too (BR some class u run here)
    48min to post wow (your on the proof list – aren’t u)

    I fab’d this up this morning and never posted .. gave you all a chance to beat me to the punchline:

    “over the short term, the stock market behaves like a voting machine, but in the long term it acts like a weighing machine” .. “and in the 21st – like a fishing net” cMe
    copyright right now – here @TBP – royalties all mine (ok 50% to Benji’s heirs) – forever and ever :-)

    and did a FnPtSc for safety :-)

  36. McMike says:

    @jbegan Says, Sir/Madam, You can lead a man to logic, but you can’t make him think.

  37. ravenchris says:

    One term in Congress in one lifetime.

  38. culhnd says:

    It is rare that there is even agreement on the problem that we want solve or the truth that we are seeking. Without first articulating that, no meaningful debate can occur. We simply talk past each other, preaching to the choir and treading water.

    That is part of the beauty of the market, a common goal and way to measure progress.

  39. DarthVader'sMentor says:

    The level and skill of the debate and discourse is always directly proportional to the level of understanding of those who listen to the debate. Americans are just dumbing down thanks to media.