If you’ve been following this blog lately, you’d probably think I was quite the macro enthusiast. Yet I am quite the opposite – while I find some parts of macro interesting, it pales in comparison to the rich and developed literature of microeconomics. Until now, macro has been the focal point of this blog series not because DSGE is more interesting than general equilibrium alone, but because it seems more readily applicable to debate (what with its econ decline links and penchant for government policy prescriptions). And while macroeconomics might help you at the content level of debate. I believe there are not only good content-level applications of microeconomics to debate, but that a robust understanding of micro can help one better understand the form of debate itself.
Social Choice: Social choice theory is, at the risk of sounding particularly biased, one of the coolest things that the collective intellect of humanity has managed to come up, even though it is quite pessimistic by most standards. It’s a field that some philosophers have also become interested in (Allan Gibbard), and so I think it has quite a few nontrivial applications at the framework level of debate. For example, Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem (that unrestricted, independent, and Pareto-efficient aggregation of preferences must be dictatorial) pose serious questions about the way policy teams choose to aggregate preferences and the implications of the calculus that they do. Likewise, Sen’s Liberal Paradox gives a scathing indictment of any consistent theory of libertarianism (and hence the libertarianism nc) under very weak assumptions. These are, of course, only two theorems in a very extensive field of literature – yet I think they highlight some of the utility that nuanced microeconomic theory can bring into debate.
Game Theory: Game theory started out as an obscure branch of economics pioneered by theorists (and mathematicians) but which quickly found applications in everything from computer science (algorithmic game theory helps the computer beats you in chess) to international relations and political science (parties and countries are playing games with each other). For example a canonical example of subgame perfect equilibrium, where two countries both prefer peace but would rather fight than surrender to the other shows how small perturbations (e.g. miscalculation) to a current equilibrium (peace) can lead to deadly results (neverending war until one country is exhausted and/or goes nuclear). Likewise, it is commonly used in IR models (particularly realism), and provides a solid theoretical foundation upon which much of the social sciences is built. Furthermore, debate itself can be thought of as a game in and of itself (one of highly incomplete and imperfect information) – but that’s a topic for another time.
Market Design: This one is one that has fewer immediate applications to debate. Market design looks at ways that policymakers can implement policies in ways that help maximize social utility. It is, in a way, closely related to auction design, which often has niche applications in debate (for example, the auctions counterplan on the immigration topic). In addition, it provides valuable information into even macroeconomic concepts, and might help explain redistribution/growth tradeoffs and wage concepts that are often misunderstood by the “business leaders” and “economic commentators” that frequent debate backfiles.
Theories of Power: This is an important one, I think, especially in kritikal debates that make fundamental claims about the structure of the world. Much of policy debate is implicitly built upon microeconomic foundations, which is fundamentally your theory of power! The weak assumptions built into decision theory (e.g. total and transitive preferences) and its far-reaching implications in terms of social behavior are large, empirically falsified, and theoretically rigorous. The logical rigor of theory is evident, and it serves not only as a falsifiable theory of the world (see, for example Afriat’s theorem), but also as one that can oftentimes provide robust competitive theories of everything from individual interaction to state behavior (see offensive realisms models of international action). Adapted correctly and with a baseline technical competence, theory becomes a positivist description of the world, one that you can wield with aplomb to implicitly answer many of the canonical “tricks” K teams like using.
Hopefully, at this point, I’ve convinced you that theory is worth pursuing, and in many contexts, at least as important as macroeconomics. If the above hasn’t convinced you though, perhaps an appeal to the fundamental coolness of it will. Very rarely can someone start with some abstract mathematical object (for example, a preference order ≥ on a set X) and from there deductively describe human behavior. Microeconomic theory, much like physics (or even debate!) uses the power of our minds to make accurate predictions about the world–and if that isn’t reason enough to learn it, I wouldn’t know what’s worth learning.
†Absent footnotes, much of the work in this article builds on influential discussion in:
David Kreps, Microeconomic Foundations I: Choice and Competitive Markets
Robert Gibbons, Game Theory for Applied Economists
A discussion about redistribution can be found in the following excellent paper:
*For this post, theory refers to microeconomic theory. Theorists are people who work in microeconomic theory.