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The Gift of Debate

February 1, 2013 5 minute Read by Amity Shlaes
If there’s one big takeaway from the presidential debates, it is that Americans know economic policy matters and like to debate it themselves. When Vice President Joe Biden claimed that a 1980s Social Security commission of which he was a member “made the system solvent to 2033,” a veritable horde of citizens and bloggers launched their own personal inquiries into whether Biden’s definition of “solvent” was accurate. When Biden’s opponent, Paul Ryan, said “Jack Kennedy lowered tax rates, increased growth,” the multitudes moved back to pore over the seemingly obscure topic of 1960s growth rates and the minutiae of the Kennedy-Johnson rate cut. Nielsen reported that more viewers watched the first presidential debate than any other show in 2013 except the Super Bowl. There’s something magic about debate. Americans don’t merely enjoy watching the candidates. They enjoy talking back – or thinking about what they would say if they did talk back. The very action of talking back helps us to think our lives through. But let us face it: A prime time presidential debate is not the optimal moment for many of us to encounter a topic like payroll-tax reform for the first time. If you are learning of the existence of the Social Security Commission of the early 1980s three weeks before an election, it is hard for you to evaluate whether that commission’s finding is salvation or a joke. The viewers who enjoy the debates the most are the ones who earlier had the chance to think through, even debate themselves, topics like tax cuts or Social Security. People who gained the knowledge and the experience of talking back earlier — far earlier. In college, or even in high school. That is why this weekend the George W. Bush Institute, the Dallas Urban Debate Alliance, and St. Mark’s School of Texas are launching a high school debate program on economics. This Saturday, more than 100 students from the Dallas area will convene to debate. Since knowledge is key, the debaters will first learn with experts from the Mexico Business Forum, who will instruct the students on the substance of the region’s transport and energy challenges. The students will then immediately apply what they’ve learned by engaging each other in a series of debates. The debates will be judged, with prizes awarded to the Dallas winners. On Sunday the debate weekend continues. This time top local Dallas pupils will join high school debate students from across the country to compete in an impromptu contest on an economic topic handed them that morning. Those debating will include Saturday’s winners as well as varsity debate students from over 110 public and private schools nationwide, already in town competing in the annual “Heart of Texas” debate tournament hosted by St. Mark’s. Next year, when the George W. Bush Center is complete on the campus of Southern Methodist University, the same event will take place, this time with Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto leading an instruction team. It is certain that young debaters will leave these presidential economic weekends with a knowledge of economics that will never leave them. It is also certain that the more kids that debate, the better. The evidence suggests that debate helps in ways that go far beyond a crash course in current affairs. As a Journal of Adolescence study shows, debaters are 3.1 times more likely to graduate from high school. Even when debaters do not win, the very fact that they participated in debate increases their chance of graduation. Research shows that young people who are labeled “high risk,” either because of troubled families or the family’s own economic challenges, also fare better academically when they participate in even a few rounds of youth debate. The National Urban Debate League has done pioneering work bringing youth debate to cities across the country, and the Bush Institute is proud to follow in the League’s footsteps. The television debates and the election will end soon. But not, we hope, the (lively) discussion of big issues. The gift of the presidential debates was to get Americans in touch with their inner debater at a time when so much is at stake, economically, in this country. But that gift will endure only if more Americans, especially young ones, get a chance to stand up and talk back.