Alex Massie

Debating Larry Summers

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Terrifying news. Terrifying that is for anyone reared in the free-wheeling yet genial and sensible world of British parliamentary style debate. It turns out that Larry Summers, erstwhile Saviour of the Universe, was a policy debater while he was an undergraduate. Noam Scheiber reveals all in his informative profile of Mr Summers:

Personality aside, Summers has long been associated with a certain tactical and strategic brashness. "I'm somebody who wants their errors to be of trying to do too much rather than trying to do too little," he told Portfolio magazine last September. One early outlet for this instinct was the college debate circuit, which Summers joined while an undergrad at MIT. Policy debate was a labor-intensive activity. The best college programs--Georgetown, Northwestern, Harvard--had professional coaches and up to two dozen debaters. The teams would spend hundreds of man-hours in the library each week researching proposals they would defend in tournaments. (The national-championship-winning proposal in 1974: a cap-and-trade program for limiting sulfur-dioxide emissions.) MIT was, by comparison, a relatively small program with only intermittent coaching. Unlike their rivals at other schools, who could take less demanding classes, the students' course loads often limited their prep time. Nonetheless, Summers was able to make himself into a top-flight debater.

Summers was known in debate circles for two qualities. The first was his unusual pace. Elite debaters in those days spoke at dizzying speeds so as to cram as many arguments and data points as possible into their allotted time. To the untrained ear, a matchup between top debaters would be an incomprehensible hum of varying pitches. But Summers spoke about 25 percent slower than most of his rivals. "He was not a speed king," says Tom Rollins, a friend and debate contemporary. This left Summers at a critical disadvantage, since, according to the rules, an unanswered argument is a conceded argument. It also elevated the importance of the second feature of Summers's debating style: a tactical sophistication that often allowed him to overcome his deficit of verbiage.

In one semi-famous episode, Summers and a partner appeared in the final round of a tournament at the University of Redlands. As usual at this stage of a competition, Summers was overmatched speed-wise--the opposing team had put forth several arguments in support of a plan to feed the starving masses. "Larry obviously saw that, if the round was judged conventionally, it would have been a wholesale slaughter," recalls Greg Rosenbaum, a friend who was in attendance. So, rather than rebut each argument, Summers simply ignored them. Instead, he alleged that they all relied on a key misinterpretation of an academic article, thereby collapsing the debate to a single question. Summers was, in effect, challenging the entire case against world hunger on a technicality. Amazingly, it half-worked. "The judges came to the conclusion that Larry was right, there was only one argument," recalls Rosenbaum. "They just happened to conclude he lost that one." Well, let's hope he wins his current argument but no veteran of the British and Irish debating scene can be comforted by this...

I've previously suggested that Policy Debate is an activity for "autistic weirdos" that "treats debating as though it were some tortuous never-ending lawsuit rather than a convivial after-dinner activity over port and cigars." 

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleInternationaleconomics