Argument Update: VBT

Editor’s Note: Today we’re introducing a new feature called the VBD Argument Update.  We’ll be analyzing some of the argument trends we see at major tournaments, so that you can stay in the loop even if you couldn’t attend. Our first Argument Update, written by Rebecca Kuang and Daniel Tartakovsky, features a discussion of debates over the legitimacy of plans on the January-February topic, based on what they observed at the Victory Briefs Tournament.

Argument Update: VBT

Plans Bad?

By: Rebecca Kuang and Daniel Tartakovsky

At the Victory Briefs Tournament this past weekend, you’d be hard-pressed to find an affirmative that wasn’t a plan. Teams read cases about policy actions ranging from regulating overfishing near coral reefs, banning oil drilling in the Amazon, restricting various mining industries in African countries, and even creating a conservation zone in Sudan. From a judging perspective, the wide diversity of plans was fun to listen to, and a welcome relief from a monotonous whole-res debate.

But from a competitive perspective, the huge plethora of affs was somewhat frustrating to deal with. Almost every neg pre-round prep period was spent frantically cutting answers to plans disclosed on the wiki, since very few generics applied to every affirmative. Which brings us to this article’s topic: how theoretically legitimate are plans on the Jan-Feb topic?

[RK] The biggest objection against plans, as is on most topics, is that they are difficult to predict and prepare answers to. This topic is especially bad in this regard, since it does not specify an actor and deals with a very broad subject area- most sources agree that there are over a hundred developing countries, home to multiple different resource extraction industries that can be changed with an almost infinite number of policy proposals.

This objection might seem silly to policy debaters, who are used to a huge number of affs on every topic; in fact, in policy, whole-res affirmatives are something of a joke. However, policy resolutions are usually worded to narrow down the range of possible affirmatives to a far smaller subset than this resolution does. They typically specify an actor (the United States Federal Government) and clearly define the range of possible actions (substantially increasing economic engagement toward Cuba, Mexico, or Venezuela.) Going into the first tournament of the year, most policy teams have a good idea of what the most common affs will be on the topic, regardless of the resolution’s subject area. That isn’t the case here.

Even previous LD resolutions have been much more plan-friendly than this one- all three topics last year were US-specific with clearly defined subject areas. In contrast, this topic has hundreds of possible actors and even more possible policy actions. I’m usually of the opinion that the more plans the better, and that debaters who complain about having to research multiple affs are just being lazy. On this topic, though, even if a squad devoted several hours a day just to research case negs against every possible aff they could think of, they still likely wouldn’t have enough prep.

[DT] Perhaps plans on this topic should have a specific solvency advocate who specifies both a topical actor and implementation mechanism. Under this view, someone arguing that an extractive industry is harmful wouldn’t be a solvency advocate. For instance, we might think that it’s bad for Iran to mine uranium, but should affs really be allowed to fiat that Iran stop mining? On any other topic this would be object fiat, and the fact that Iran isn’t technically the object anymore doesn’t make the fiat less abusive.

[RK] “Must read a solvency advocate” was just one of the ways that debaters attempted to deal with hyper-specific plans at VBT. Other interpretations we heard were “must disclose the plan text before the round even if you haven’t broken it yet” and “must defend action by more than one country.”

These theory objections are creative, and I appreciate that squads were trying to avoid the classic “plans bad” debate, but I’m not sure if these interpretations really address the problem with plans. Even if plans are permissible only if they have a solvency advocate, there are still over a thousand possible solvency advocates in the literature. The same problem applies to allowing plans as long as they are disclosed before the debate. The interpretation that debaters must defend more than one country led to somewhat absurd debates at VBT where the aff defended unrelated actions by two different countries-i.e., two plans at the same time, which obviously didn’t resolve the predictability problem.

[DT] On the other hand, we shouldn’t be so quick to write off all plans on the topic. A whole-res approach seems to lead to a disingenuous discussion of what developing countries actually should do and makes it confusing to think coherently about offense and solvency.

The standard whole-res affirmative at VBT went something along the lines of, “I defend that all countries choose to protect the environment whenever there’s a conflict with resource extraction, so I won’t delink from any disad you run.” While this might seem fine at first (how kind of the aff to let the neg run anything!), is it really that reasonable?

First, the whole-res approach seems to either grant debaters automatic solvency or muddle solvency so that it is nearly impossible to compare arguments. There are many ways to restrict resource extraction. Leaving aside questions of topicality, if the aff doesn’t specify whether it imposes a carbon tax on industries that create fossil fuels or bans the industries directly, can the neg indict the tax or the ban or both or neither? If the aff plan were the carbon tax, at least the neg would know what solvency mechanism to indict. If the aff is whole-res, how can the neg indict solvency? Either the neg has no way to do so, since the aff just claims to solve and talks about the harms of extraction, or the neg can do it in any number of contradictory ways because it’s unclear what the aff defends. Neither option seems particularly plausible.

Debaters who run framework-heavy affs might think that there’s no reason to specify a solvency mechanism. Who cares about solvency if the aff framework is about intention? Well, from the aff’s perspective, a plan that bans overfishing can turn a food security DA, since sustainable fishing might lead to more food security in the long-run. But without any actual policies specified in the AC, can a whole-res aff turn the DA in the same way by all of a sudden claiming to ban overfishing in the 1AR? Refusing to specify thus impedes aff strategy if the aff framework becomes less relevant later in the debate. Presumably, the aff could run the overfishing plan with any framework; specifying in the AC can give the aff more strategic options later. A potential way to allow for solvency debates under a whole-res approach is to specify various policies under different scenarios, but this still doesn’t address whether the aff can solve for scenarios not in the AC.

Second, a whole-res advocacy seems to disadvantage the aff by forcing it to defend radical policies. Presumably all mining has some potential for conflict with the environment, so would a whole-res aff have ban ALL mining? Does anyone think we should actually do that? Whatever the harms from a deteriorating environment, the massive impact of shutting down all extractive industries tomorrow is presumably worse. Even for debates that don’t focus on a cost-benefit analysis, advocacies that seem to ban all extraction are inconsistent with how actual experts consider these policies. If, on the other hand, the aff doesn’t ban all extraction but also doesn’t run a plan, how do we know what the aff is doing and/or how strong the links are to any neg DAs or Ks? I’ve heard many affs respond to DA links by saying, “I don’t ban all extraction, only some of it, so your link isn’t that strong.” But isn’t that also true for the neg with environmental protection? And how do we even know what it means to ban some of something without specifying policies?

The whole-res approach also forces judges to choose one policy over another when neither policy impedes the other. What does it matter to Chile’s copper extractors or South Sudan’s oil companies whether we should ban overfishing in the Coral Triangle? An approach that lets debaters just compare thousands of policies that aren’t mutually exclusive sidesteps important nuances in the literature and encourages debaters to just weigh random impacts without engaging each other’s policies. I’m also not sure how proving that one thing in Chile outweighs another thing in South Sudan without narrowing the topic to those countries actually affirms or negates the resolution.

[RK] Finally, plans make a certain group of negative strategies possible. Plan inclusive counterplans, agent counterplans, and disadvantages with specific links do not interact as well against on-balance or philosophical affirmatives. While philosophical debate is well and good, there are also valuable educational benefits from debates involving plans, disads and counterplans. Every debate doesn’t necessarily have to be a comparison of policy options, but debaters should be able to choose whether to engage in that style or not.

In conclusion, we are inclined to think that at least some plans should be allowed on this topic, even if it’s hard to draw a clear boundary between which ones should and shouldn’t be read. For example, plans that we think are more theoretically legitimate than others are:

– Plans that deal with a large group of countries, such as the African Union or the Coral Triangle Initiative countries

– Plans that deal with a diversity of resource extraction industries rather than just one

– Plans that ban extraction and have the effect/intent of protection, but not plans that improve protection but have the effect of less extraction

At the very least, it would be ridiculous to require every affirmative to defend the resolution as a general principle in every round. Plans can make the topic more interesting and spark nuanced, deeper discussion about areas of the topic we might otherwise brush over. However, there are good theoretical objections against narrowing the topic down too far. The trick over the next few months will be figuring out a reasonable boundary between plans that should and shouldn’t be allowed.