The Recent Plague of Solvency Advocate Theory

At VBT, the argument of the moment seemed to be “solvency advocate” theory.  This article will attempt to shed light on why that was the case, what’s problematic about that “solution” to narrowing the Jan-Feb topic, and what we might do instead.

Yesterday, the National Federation of State High School Associations released the policy debate topic for the 2014-15 school year.  “Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its non-military exploration and/or development of the Earth’s oceans.”  Several months ago, the submitted topic papers were narrowed to five and then narrowed again to two in October.  We now have eight and a half months to research the topic and prepare affs and case negs before debating the topic at Greenhill. 

On December 1, the National Forensic League released the January-February topic.  “Resolved: Developing countries should prioritize environmental protection over resource extraction when the two are in conflict.”  Nineteen days later, we were debating it at CPS or Blake.

It’s not hard to see the enormous disparity between the size of the two topics and the amount of time sides have to prepare.  It’s hard to imagine a policy debate topic on the scale of this LD topic.  Policy debate has had plan-focus for decades.  In LD it is more recent, but as plans have become more common, it is harder to say they are cheating. Debates with plan-focus are also cleaner and have more clash, so it might just be true that they are better for debate, especially on an unwieldy topic where whole resolution debates would have just as many problems as debates with a parade of plans.

But with an unlimited number of topical agents or permutations thereof and a “policy” of “environmental protection” that seems open to a litany of interpretations, including some that question whether it is a policy at all, it’s easy to see the strategic appeal (and maybe the necessity) of theory as a solution to plans that are either unpredictable or predictable, but impossible to prepare for in the limited time we have.

In policy debate, a solvency advocate is less of a check on the predictability of a counterplan and more a question of whether a counterplan gets to co-opt the aff solvency cards.  The aff would point out the lack of a solvency advocate of a counterplan that is just an analytic.  Consider a plan to lift the Cuban embargo that argues that access to US markets will allow the Cuban organoponic model to spread.  It might seem intuitive for the neg to read disadvantages to lifting the embargo and counterplan that the US just adopt the model directly.  But what would “adopting the model” look like?  Would there be subsidies?  Restrictions on use of chemical fertilizers?  Funding for R&D?  In Cuba the policy wasn’t the result of a government action but developed organically because of lack of access to industrial agricultural supplies.  A CP text without a card not only makes it hard to evaluate the many disads that would link to specific instances of the CP, but doesn’t get to claim much solvency.  Even if the neg had a card about organic farming promotion, it likely wouldn’t reference the Cuban model specifically, so the aff would have a good argument that the CP wouldn’t get to co-opt their solvency.

The aff is more likely to point out the lack of a solvency advocate against agent CPs that don’t reference the affirmative plan specifically.  On the space topic, a common strat was to read a spending disad and an ESA (European Space Agency) counterplan (despite the European debt crisis at the time).  The most common solvency card said something to the tune of “the ESA should do more stuff.”  If the aff was to colonize Mars and all of the solvency cards were in the context of NASA, it’s hard to argue that the neg gets to co-opt those solvency cards given the fact that their solvency “advocate” indicates that the ESA lacks NASA capabilities.

But suppose the neg had a card that specifically said “the ESA should colonize Mars?”  They still wouldn’t have a solvency advocate.  Because despite the word “advocate,” whether the solvency card counts as a “solvency advocate” is a question of whether the ESA can do the plan, not whether they should.  Oddly enough, I actually saw a Mars colonization CP at VBT as an advantage counterplan against warming.  The agent of action was “developing countries” but the card was about NASA colonizing Mars.  Alas, the affirmative didn’t question the ability of the Somalian Space Agency to pull it off.

At Meadows, I judged a round where the affirmative argued that Congress should abolish attorney-client privilege.  The aff argued that this act would be ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, and the advantages were all due to rollback (because of strengthening judicial review).  This was clever because the neg couldn’t argue either ACP good or ACP bad—one was non-unique and the other co-opted by the aff.  The neg ran solvency advocate theory and I thought it was appropriate, because the aff had neither a card saying that ACP should be abolished (the plan text said that, but every author they cited was pro-ACP) or that it could (they argued it couldn’t—though we’d probably give them durable fiat if they actually abolished it).

At VBT, though, I’m not exaggerating when I say that solvency advocate theory was run in nearly every round I saw.  There were two problems with the way it was being run.  First, every aff had a solvency advocate under the only definition that makes any sense.  Each had solvency cards that explained what the plan would look like, and they were in the context of their agent taking the action (or explained enough of what means would be necessary for solvency that we could assess their agent’s competency).  Second, the interps seemed to be based on a misunderstanding of what a solvency advocate is.  They argued a solvency advocate was someone saying the agent of action should do the plan.  Some interps even argued that it wasn’t a solvency advocate unless the author explicitly stated “I advocate (the aff).”  Clearly this is ridiculous.  It also doesn’t really set a limit.  Anyone can advocate anything, and an author’s statement that she wants something happen neither allows us to access the feasibility of that action, nor does it explain how the plan would function.

Perhaps I’m being cynical, but I feel that today’s “solvency advocate theory” is “plans bad” in disguise.   “Plans bad” would be less palatable to judges, given that plans make this topic more debatable and given that it’s 2014.  The topic is so huge, though, that anything that limits the number of plans that can be run will have a lot of appeal.  It will be hard for affirmatives to win that they don’t need a solvency advocate.  But hopefully there is still a way for this solvency advocate nonsense to end.  A good place to start is with carefully crafted counter-interps of what a solvency advocate is.  It shouldn’t be hard for the aff to find an interp it meets that both sets better limits and leads to cleaner debates than “a solvency advocate is an author that explicitly states the agent of action should do the plan.”  This will lead to the negative having longer interps that include these as additional restrictions necessary to qualify as a solvency advocate that the aff will then have to pic out of. 

For negatives, there is an obvious theory argument that would do a better job of limiting the topic.  It’s the original theory argument.  Topicality.  A huge topic in which plans are dominant is fertile ground for some good T debates. There is a vast array of lit with conflicting definitions of “developing countries,” “resource extraction,” and especially, “environmental protection.”  If debaters would do the work and put together good T interps with defensible standards and case lists and block their files out to the end, we could not only successfully narrow the topic by the time TOC rules around, but actually have some good debates in the process.  Unfortunately, for some this means doing topic-specific research and the end products can’t be added to teams’ generic theory backfiles.  For many of us, though, that is a good thing.

Scott Wheeler is currently the head coach at PV Peninsula High school  in California. He is a Graduate of Northwestern University. 

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