Exploiting Inefficiencies: Moneyball and Opportunities For Innovation in High School Policy Debate

Creativity, as has been said, consists largely of rearranging what we know in order to find out what we do not know. Hence, to think creatively, we must be able to look afresh at what we normally take for granted.
— George Kneller

Michael Lewis’s 2003 bestseller Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game chronicles the innovative approach taken by the Oakland Athletics during the past two decades to field a winning baseball team with a modest payroll. In order to compete with the league’s best teams, the A’s were forced to locate and exploit opportunities to do things better than the rest of baseball. Innovation wasn’t just a luxury but a requirement: if the A’s wanted to win, they had to rethink business-as-usual.

This essay applies the lessons of Moneyball to high school policy debate. In the same way that the A’s exploited inefficiencies in baseball’s labor market to achieve competitive success, students can take advantage of inefficiencies in debate’s argument market to best their opponents. The key is innovation.

The Homogenous Culture of Debate

In a recent post entitled “Debate and Change,” Scott Phillips argues that debaters—not coaches or judges—are primarily responsible for spurring innovations in debate theory and praxis. The thesis of his argument is simple: students, not judges, are in control of what happens in any given debate.

Argument innovation has to be driven by debaters because you are the ones making the arguments. … When you enter a debate round you decide what goes on in that room—including how the judge makes their decision. Biases are what judges use (for the most part) to resolve bad debates where issues … are not addressed by the debaters.

This is largely true, but it underestimates the importance of the culture in which student-debaters are trained. One of the most tried-and-true methods of becoming a better debater is to emulate others who are successful; this is the reason that coaches consistently implore their younger debaters to watch and flow elimination rounds. By modeling what has been successful for others, students learn to emulate a particular style of argumentation and delivery that is then passed on to the next generation of students. Very few debaters are able to successfully break the mold to the extent that they have an influence on the dominant model that future students seek to emulate.

Summer institutes play a large role as well. In the same way that individual students seek to replicate the success they see in others by emulating their style, summer institutes serve to “mass produce” a class of debaters that mirror the dominant, successful model. Most of the top students from the leading national circuit programs attend the same handful of labs each summer. Often, their instructors are college debaters who themselves attended these very same labs only a few years earlier. The result is a system that efficiently reproduces what works but that also creates a very homogenous debate culture. Variations certainly exist, but the system rewards those students who speak like everyone else, make the same arguments as everyone else, and have the same style as everyone else. The best debaters just do it better—they don’t do it differently.

Breaking the mold comes with inherent risks. If you do not sound like the most successful debaters, judges are likely to assign you lower points while making suggestions to “correct your flaws”. If you do not make the same arguments as the most successful debaters, judges are likely to hold you to a higher standard of explanation: while the judge will immediately understand your opponents’ arguments (because they have heard them before), they will be challenged to think about issues differently in order to evaluate arguments presented in a different frame. If you do not have the same style as the most successful debaters, your performances will be scrutinized more closely than those of your peers. Every judge knows what a good debater looks and sounds like: if you deviate from that ideal image even in small ways, it will be noticed. As a result, you will almost certainly lose at least a few close debates that you should have won—sometimes the judge just won’t “get it” and other times your opponent will simply get the benefit of the doubt.

Given the clear disadvantages to “breaking the mold,” it is fair to ask why a debater would be willing to experiment with innovative approaches. The simple answer is because doing so will help them win.

Moneyball and the Exploitation of Market Inefficiencies

Billy Beane faced a similar situation as General Manager of the Oakland Athletics. Baseball front offices, like high school debaters, had developed into a very homogenous group. While there were differences of opinion about specific players or on-field tactics, there existed a very strong consensus about how to build a winning baseball team: in short, hire great scouts, draft and develop athletic players with the highest ceilings, and rely (when necessary) on traditional statistics like batting average (for hitters) and wins (for pitchers) to determine a player’s value.

Beane knew that his squad could not compete by replicating the dominant model because the A’s would never have the payroll of larger-market teams like the Yankees and Angels. As Dan Drezner, a Professor of International Politics at Tufts University, explains:

[Moneyball] chronicled how Billy Beane allegedly out-drafted, out-traded, and out-thought other baseball GMs by relying on sophisticated baseball statistics known as sabermetrics. … This innovative strategy helped the A’s outperform their payroll, because Beane signed and drafted players that performed better than baseball scouts expected. He applied a simple economic principle to the practice of building a baseball team: When a business sector is run by an insular old-boy network, an outsider can exploit market inefficiencies and reap significant arbitrage opportunities.

In other words, Beane sought out opportunities to exploit the weaknesses in the dominant model of “how to build a winning baseball team”. At the time, this “Moneyball” approach centered on the use of advanced statistical analysis (sabermetrics) to identify players and strategies that were undervalued by the rest of baseball: drafting college players with lower ceilings than their high school peers, acquiring players with high walk rates and on-base averages—even if they are unathletic and mediocre defensively, appointing solid setup-men to the closer position and then trading them away when their value is at its highest, etc. Sometimes these against-the-grain approaches failed, but for the most part they were extremely successful.

At first, many baseball traditionalists balked at the “Moneyball” approach. Many still do. But over time, Beane’s pursuit of market inefficiencies that could be exploited to win more games was emulated by other franchises. Drezner continues:

[A]s sabermetric methods have become more accepted in the boardrooms of baseball, Beane and other innovators have fewer inefficiencies to exploit. Since the publication of “Moneyball,” almost every team in the major leagues has incorporated sabremetric thinking into their organization.

The Boston Red Sox won two World Series in the past four years while employing Bill James, the godfather of the sabermetrics community. Other franchises around the league have also hired young sabermetrics devotees to run their front offices. The result: The popularization of sabermetrics has left Beane with less of an advantage – it’s harder to find diamonds in the rough when everyone else is mining the same territory. The A’s are not struggling because of “Moneyball“‘s failure– they are struggling because of its success.

Eventually—and really quite rapidly—the baseball world incorporated Beane’s “Moneyball” innovations into its standard operating procedure. Franchises that initially scoffed at sabermetrics were quickly hiring statistical analysts and baseball operations departments throughout the league were never the same. As could be expected, the teams that Beane was beating emulated his approach in order to nullify the A’s advantage.

Moneyball and High School Debate: The Common Theme

So is the Moneyball revolution over? Hardly. Drezner explains:

This doesn’t mean there are no remaining arbitrage opportunities, however. Beane got more and better prospects in his recent trades than other teams received in return for trading better players. This was because Beane’s players were signed to inexpensive, multi-year contracts. Just because other GMs are mimicking Beane’s past innovations doesn’t mean he’s run out of new ideas.

And therein lies the true lesson of “Moneyball”: in order to succeed, one must constantly pursue new innovations. J. C. Bradbury, a Professor in the Department of Health, Physical Education, and Sport Science at Kennesaw State University, concludes in his book The Baseball Economist that:

The great lesson in the reversion of rewards from innovation is that inefficiencies in markets don’t persist for long. To win by innovation one must be adept at finding inefficiencies and swift at acting on them once they’re found. No organization can build a baseball dynasty off one lucky strike. Only the continued pursuit of inefficiencies will lead to perpetual success. (p. 130)

Like baseball, high school debate can be appropriately conceived of as a unique kind of market. Whereas baseball has its players, debate has its arguments—and the styles and deliveries students use to make them. Locating and exploiting inefficiencies in this “argument market” is perhaps the best way for competitors to maximize their level of success. It is difficult, after all, to emulate the approach of everyone else but do it better. And even if a given student or team has the ability to exploit the traditional model to its fullest, they will always be susceptible to innovations by their opponents.

However, baseball is distinct from debate in an important way: while baseball games are won and lost on the field, debates are won and lost in the minds of judges. While baseball traditionalists were free to criticize Beane, they could not translate this criticism into tangible roadblocks to the A’s success. Just like every other team, if Beane’s A’s teams scored more runs than their opponents, they won; if they didn’t, they lost. End of story. As a result, Beane’s innovations were able to stand or fall on their own merits based on an objective assessment of outcomes. Did the A’s win more games than their rivals? Did they win their division? Did they win more games with a lower payroll than other teams? The answers to these questions were to be found on the field, not in the court of public (or baseball front office) opinion.

Debate is different because it requires those seeking to deviate from the dominant culture to appeal to individuals within that culture for affirmation of their approach. But the lessons of Moneyball are nonetheless valuable when applied to competitive debate.

Exploiting Inefficiencies In Debate’s Argument Market

So what inefficiencies exist in debate’s current argument market? In order to answer that question, one must examine current practices and consider whether they are optimal—is the way we do things now the best we can do? In almost every instance, there is undoubtedly room for improvement. Sometimes, this requires a return to theories or practices that were more popular in the past. Other times, it requires new approaches that have yet to be attempted. But the opportunities for innovation are functionally limitless. From the way that evidence is treated to the way that theoretical issues are debated to the way that rebuttals are delivered, there are a host of places where enterprising debaters have the opportunity to pursue innovations that will set them apart from their peers.

In the same way that the A’s exploited market inefficiencies in baseball to defeat their competition, debaters can exploit the inefficiencies in debate’s argument market to improve their chances of winning more debates. If everyone else is doing things the same way and you can find a way to do that thing better, why wouldn’t you give it a try? If the dominant model has been criticized by judges, why wouldn’t you attempt to alter the way you debate in a manner that rectifies their concerns?

In addition to the obvious benefits of doing things better than they were done before, incorporating innovations into your debating will set you apart from your peers, put your opponents on the defensive, and inspire your judges. If you deviate from the norm, people will notice: your opponents will be forced to think critically and adapt to your innovation and your judges will (at worst) be intrigued that you are taking a chance and doing things differently. The innovations that you experiment with might fail; your opponents might defeat your arguments or your judges might think they are stupid. But you don’t know until you try. And in an environment where homogeneity reigns, many people are craving something different.

Innovations don’t need to be game-changing: while the most obvious recent example of an innovation in debate’s argument market is the advent of the critique (and to a lesser extent, at least in high school, performative argumentation), that represents an extreme case. To be considered innovative, a debater need not drastically alter the way they approach the round, the topic, or the activity. Indeed, the most effective strategy is almost certainly to integrate small innovations into one’s existing style of debate. If a student can master the dominant model, they should be encouraged to experiment—at first at the margins, and then perhaps with something bigger. But writing off innovations because “that’s not the way good debaters do it” or “that’s not something judges would like” is premature and self-fulfilling. Of course that’s not the way the good debaters do it – that’s the point. And improvements in debate theory and praxis will resonate with judges, especially if they allow a given student to separate themselves from their peers.

It is not the author’s goal to exhaustively list areas that seem ripe for innovation. In many ways, that would defeat the point. But for the purposes of providing some concrete examples of the innovations that debaters could pursue, the following section will outline three starting points for students (and coaches/judges) to consider.

#1—Improving Evidence Comparison

As recent discussions make clear, there is a pressing need for improvement in the way that evidence is compared and debated. While “prefer our evidence” is a frequent refrain in most debates, the explanation that follows this utterance is almost always shallow or even non-existent. What sources should be considered authoritative when evaluating the desirability of a policy proposal? What qualifications are necessary for an author’s arguments to be considered credible? Do hyperbolic claims make an author’s argument more or less credible? What standards should be used to determine “the better evidence”? These and a host of other questions typically go unasked and unanswered within a given debate.

Can a student do better? Undoubtedly.

Instead of advancing simplistic “prefer our evidence” claims (“more recent!”, “from a professor!”), why not establish a set of guidelines for the evaluation of all evidence in a debate? If the opposing team presents evidence that does not meet the guidelines you’ve established, explain why — this gives you a “link” to the “don’t evaluate this evidence” “impact” you’ve already developed.

Instead of relying on self-serving analytical arguments to discuss the relative merits of the evidence in a debate, why not research standards for quality scholarship and cite experts to support your contentions? There are an abundance of books and journal articles dedicated to discussing these issues; debate is not the only venue in which new information technologies are forcing a reconsideration of academic standards and scholarship. Reading evidence to support your comparisons can help bridge the gap between the “cult of evidence” and the “cult of intelligence”—it will help debaters package more nuanced source quality arguments in a way that appeals to almost every judge.

#2—Bringing Persuasion Back

It wasn’t that long ago that a not insignificant subsection of the nation’s best debaters was slow. It was not uncommon for 2NRs and 2ARs to slow down to a nearly conversational pace to emphasize important arguments; that technique was even used in constructive speeches to make clear a critical distinction or comparison or to read damning lines from the opposition’s evidence. Over the past few years, this has become a lost art—most debaters deliver their speeches (all of their speeches) at full speed and are loathe to slow down even when such a technique is warranted. Critics often point to the lack of persuasive speaking as exhibit one in their case against the national circuit style of policy debate. While it is easy to discount these claims and instead point to the many benefits of rapid delivery, we would be doing ourselves a disservice if we stopped emphasizing persuasion entirely.

Debate certainly relies on a specialized language and delivery that is not accessible to a general audience. But that does not mean that persuasion is not an important part of our game. In reality, the debate judge is just persuaded by different things than would be typical among other audiences. High-quality evidence, strong cross-examinations, logical arguments, empirical examples, effective rebuttal framing, and many other things are persuasive to judges. But debate judges, try as we might, are not exempt from the frailties of human subjectivity—some people just sound better than others and make you want to believe them.

Too many students ignore the importance of ethos when approaching a debate. You do not just need to win your arguments on the flow, you need to win your arguments in the judge’s mind. And judges, like everyone else, appreciate it when debaters slow down and communicate with them instead of at them. Integrating more persuasion into one’s delivery and style is one of the most obvious opportunities for debaters to succeed through innovation.

#3—New Twists on Old Arguments

Most judges have heard most of the arguments advanced in any given debate at least a dozen times before. In some cases, debaters are presenting an argument to their judge that s/he has heard hundreds of times over the course of their career in the back of the room. Even when these arguments are strong and well-evidenced, the mere fact that they are repetitive and stale makes them facially unappealing to judge.

What is an enterprising debater to do? Why not repackage existing/old arguments in new ways that will keep them fresh for your judges and force your opponents to adapt? Nearly every argument can be refashioned: the only limit is the imagination of the debaters and coaches developing it. Arguments can be upgraded in terms of their content and in terms of their presentation. Changes in content should be obvious: instead of reading the same old Calabresi impact to your federalism DA or the same old Dillon impact to your critique, try experimenting with different pieces of evidence or different uniqueness/link/impact narratives. Changes in presentation can be equally fruitful: change the structure of a position, for example, or change the way you deliver its overview in the negative block.

Debaters naturally want to replicate what works. But slight (or even major) modifications to the default arguments that everyone else is reading (and has read for years) can pay major dividends for those students willing to invest the time and creativity into pursuing innovation.

Conclusion

The pursuit of innovation in any field is no guarantee of success. The A’s, after all, have not won a World Series during Beane’s tenure and have missed the playoffs the past two seasons. In debate, as in baseball, hard work and skill are vital components of a winning team—there are no shortcuts to a pennant or a national championship.

But for those that are willing to take the risk and do things differently, the opportunities for leveraging innovation toward competitive success in debate are endless. By exploiting the inefficiencies in debate’s argument market, students can set themselves apart from the rest of their peers in ways that will challenge their opponents and resonate with their judges.

This essay is not a call for radical changes in high school policy debate. It is the most rigorous and academically beneficial activity that any student could choose to pursue. But for those that play this game at a high level, finding ways to improve the way it is played offers a clear pathway to competitive advantage. Look afresh at what we normally take for granted, and the “W” won’t be far behind.

This is the first in what will hopefully become a series of full-length essays published by The3NR.com. If you are interested in syndicating or republishing these essays, please contact the author.

9 thoughts on “Exploiting Inefficiencies: Moneyball and Opportunities For Innovation in High School Policy Debate

  1. Zanezor

    “And judges, like everyone else, appreciate it when debaters slow down and communicate with them instead of at them.”
    I find this line almost perfectly worded.
    Talking to debaters from a decade ago, it seems that our current attitude towards judges forgets that they are people, not cold-hearted calculative machines (for the most part).
    Very interesting and helpful.
    thanks.

  2. chosen1

    This is an extremely well written and well communicated piece. If homogeneity is suffocating the roots of diversity, it seems to me that debate institutions including summer camps, schools, etc. should advocate new protocols.

    Upon entering the competitive world of policy debate, the debater models his/herself on the methodology that senior debaters or coaches employ. While this method is definitely educational, it subconsciously restricts the debater into defined parameters that they have to operate in.

    You had a very nice quote – “And in an environment where homogeneity reigns, many people are craving something different.” This craving, though existent, is not expressed enough by judges and debaters. I think this is the major problem that the debate community faces. Change can happen, but will happen faster with support from members of the community. The craving for the defiance of norms should be more apparent.

  3. Nathan Ketsdever

    A very closely related issue was covered by Malcom Gladwell in the New Yorker in his article “David vs. Goliath”

    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/05/11/090511fa_fact_gladwell?printable=true

    I think four others are:
    –evidence production/workflow
    –research perspective
    –learning to love the C/P or the K
    –theory, theory, theory.
    –going old school (George Washington was probably one of the best at this tactic in recent history. Kentucky did this for 2ac answers to the K)

    I think if teams really went after evidence comparison they could win 10 to 15% more debates…perhaps more.

  4. Meruvejea

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  5. Antonucci

    Meruvejea is a contemporary James Joyce! Only 25% kidding – if you read that section aloud, it's eerily evocative.

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