Cross Examination: Robots are everywhere and they eat old people's medicine for fuel

Seems like it's long overdue that I discuss Cross Examination, since it happens so early in a debate round. Novices seem to have a love-hate relationship with Cross Ex. Either you're foaming at the mouth to get in there and match wits mano-a-mano or you're absolutely terrified of getting caught with your pants down. Both predispositions have some truth to them: It's nerve-racking to have to face whatever questions come from your opponent, but it's a heck of a rush to get the chance to skewer the other team.

There's also a word of warning here for the "bring on the CX" folks. There's a distinct possibility that you have an inaccurate idea of what Cross-Ex looks like, especially if you watch a lot of Law and Order. This isn't a court room, and it's especially not a TV court room. You aren't going to get them to admit to murder, or even that their plan is a bad idea. If you do your best "Sam Waterston Gets All Angry and Wins the Case" impression, you are probably just going to look like an ass.

That's not to say that CX doesn't matter. It's a great opportunity to make yourself seem smart and your opponents seem less smart. It's a great chance to point out over-tagged cards or over-claiming authors. You can poke some critical holes in your opponents position, and get them to concede links to your arguments. The problem is, all of that takes practice. You'll have to watch a lot of rounds before you can recognize a good CX question, much less ask one. Winning in Cross-ex comes from subtelty and strategy, not from yelling until you are blue in the face.

You'll have to do crawl before you can walk, so to speak. I think that most judges evaluate CX on a sort of "level" system like you'd see in an Role-playing game or a standardized test grading rubric. Different people would rank these behaviors differently, but I think that most students progress through these stages roughly in order

  • Level 1 - Fills time: Is able to ask 3 minutes worth of questions that are relevant to the other team's arguments. Questions don't go anywhere strategically relevant, but is able to keep a conversation going.

  • Level 2 - Fills holes: Uses most of CX time to fill in holes in their flow. Questions sound like "What was your third answer on the Spending disad?" and don't go any further. Shows that the student is at least making an honest attempt to flow, even if they don't have a complete picture of the round.

  • Level 3 - Pokes holes: Uses CX to find flaws in specific cards/arguments, but not particularly important holes. Might spend an entire cross-ex drilling their opponent about how their Uniqueness evidence is "too old" from a few months ago, but when their speech rolls around their non-uniques are just as old.

  • Level 4 - Link Fishing: Asks CX questions that establish links to positions they plan on running, but aren't terribly subtle about it. "So, uh, plan spends money, right?" Shows that they are at least thinking a little bit about using CX strategically, but also that their strategic considerations are shallow.

  • Level 5 - Pokes deep holes: Asks questions that expose deeper flaws in their opponent's positions: necesary trade-offs, flawed assumptions, biases that cut along multiple pieces of evidence, etc. Also, their constructives/rebuttals actually use and impact those flaws.

  • Level 6 - Link Harpooning: Uncovers links, but without being clumsy and obvious about it. Opponents/Judge might not know what links they are going for. Is able to use opponents' fear of linking into arg A to link them into arg B. Uses the Reverse Pit of Doom.

  • Level 7 - Yomi: From the Japanese word for "reading," as in "reading the mind of the opponent. This debater is always one step ahead. Asks the questions that their opponents are most afraid of, exposes the links that they are most vulnerale to. Is focused on winning the round, not just the 3-minute CX time. Uses the Level 5/6 behaviors along with this "reading" to gain ground on the opponent.

This list isn't meant to be a step-by-step guide, more like a thermometer. A level 7 CX is evidence of a good debater. You can't just tell yourself "OK, I'm going to start asking smart, strategic questions" because you don't know what those questions are yet. Use this list to take your own temperature on occasion... are you stuck at Level 2? Did you miss an opportunity for a Level 5 question last round? Also, when debating/watching more experienced opponents, watch for their higher-level questions, and take note of them. Maybe even steal them when the opportunity arises. Like all parts of this activity, I think that learning to appreciate a good CX question goes hand-in-hand with being good at CX yourself.

Answering Disads, or Communism was a Red Herring

Twice now I've set out to write the "answering disads" article, started on some sub-topic, decided that the sub-topic should be it's own article, and wrote it. So, for reference, you are going to want to read about turns and impact comparisons along with this post, as these are critical concepts in answering disads. Now for attempt number three.

I'm a sucker for a surprise ending, the big "oh my god" plot twist that movie critics sneer at and call a "gimmick." Warning: I am about to spoil such an event in A Beautiful Mind. You've been warned.

The movie is a biography of John Nash, who for most of the audience is "some smart guy you've never heard of." The story starts with John in college, working on some super-smart research project on a cushy scholarship. We learn that he's crazy-smart, but also kinda eccentric. He has awkward conversations with girls, follows pigeons around campus, knocks over board games when he loses, standard Hollywood-smart-nerd behavior.

So he makes friends with his roommate, awkwardly courts a wife, comes up with a sweet theory, lands a super-secret government job, has a kid, gets caught up in a communist conspiracy to overthrow America, it's a kinda-sorta-interesting movie about a smart guy, until bam. We learn he's crazy. The roommate, secret government job, and communist plot never existed. Figments of his schizophrenic imagination.

The real brilliant part of this movie is how the one pivotal scene changes the whole frame of reference of the story. We thought it was about some smart guy who makes a theory, but it's really about a man's struggle with his inner demons, with his very conception of reality.

Such is the disad. It's your plan, but with a surprise ending. The story starts out the same (plan happens), but instead of saving the world from poverty, suddenly your plan ends in an economic disaster. Through an cascading series of events, your well-intentioned plan causes some seriously nasty dominoes to fall.

The point that I am making (...eventually) is the most important part of answering disads effectively is knowing the story. What dominoes fall, how exactly do we get from plan to the impact? There are lots of ways you could possibly draw a line between social services and world war 3, so it's not enough just to know where the disad ends up.

Every link that the negative has to use to get to the impact is a liability, for two reasons. First of all, you can prove that this link is wrong (or turn it, win that the opposite happens). But what most novices forget is that you can also win by proving this link is non-unique.

Take a sample disad from last year:

  • plan increases alternative energy, let's say by giving tax credits for more wind farms

  • More alternative energy means that oil prices will drop because there is a wider global energy supply

  • Lower oil prices ruin Russia's economy, which is very dependent on oil

  • Russian economic collapse causes a collapse in the government

  • Which means a terrorist acquires a nuclear weapon and uses it

Think of how many different Uniqueness claims the negative has to win: that alternative energy is not increasing now, that oil prices won't drop in the status quo, that Russia's economy is doing fine in the status quo, that Russia's government is stable, that terrorists can't get a nuclear weapon now.

They definitely didn't read cards on all of those claims in 1NC. They probably have some evidence on all of those points, but how new is it? Is it any good? Can you find better?

Also, I'm sure that a couple of those cards aren't very specific to wind farms. The "alternative energy -> oil prices drop" card is probably generic to any alternative energy, which provides you with the opportunity to either read a more specific turn (maybe wind in particular raises oil prices? unlikely, but you get my drift) or use a more specific non-unique. The neg can usually be better prepared on their disad of choice, but you should always be more prepared on the specifics of your plan.

Aside from just considering the various links in the story, you also need to think about how their story interacts with yours. If their disad ends in a US economic collapse, how does your plan affect the US economy? You might not be able to prove that your plan "solves the impact" outright, but it's probably true that the neg authors didn't consider whatever positive economic impacts your plan had when they wrote that card. At the very least, if you can win some positive economic effects then you've got a probability argument to make.

That actually leads me to another important point about evidence. 99% of all disads piece together snippets from different articles by different authors who are writing about different things. Occasionally this creates "tension" in the neg's evidence that you can exploit to cast doubt on the disad. For instance, if I sit down to write an article about how the economy is going to recover this year, I want to seem really smart and enlightened. I'm going to pad my article with "even if"s - arguments about how the economy will recover "even if" some bad stuff happens. Maybe I put in a little aside about how the market already anticipates new government spending, so new spending won't trigger a downturn in stocks.

Bam, potential link takeout, right there in the neg's evidence. That example is a little (ok, very) contrived, but pay attention to the neg's evidence and these little contradictions will start to pop out like a magic eye puzzle. They might not always be on the pages the neg reads in round (why you should always track down cites to their killer cards), and they might not be round-winners, but with a little work you can usually carve out some doubt in the neg's story.

And that's really what it's all about in the end. You wanna make your story sound believable and their sound ridiculous, made-up, dumb. Even if he was crazy, Nash still won a Nobel prize, after all.

On the subject of "The Turn"

Now onto the turn, a concept that I've mentioned a few times, but one that really ought to be given it's own article. I'm going to allow Mr. Calum Matheson to introduce the turn for me:

This snippet (a deleted scene from a debate documentary) is everything I love about debate in two minutes. Calum starts with a very dry, methodical description of what a turn is. The examples of turns, at first just for illustration's sake, become like battle scars, reminders of wars fought long ago. Notice the kid-in-a-candy-store smirk at about 1:00 when discussing the pollution turn? Calum hasn't just heard about this argument. He's given sweat and blood and tape for this argument, and he's definitely won rounds on this argument.

That's the thing about turns. Merely describing what a turn is doesn't do it justice. A link turn isn't just "winning that your plan prevents the impact," it's using your judo skills to flip the 300 pound thug straight over your head. Impact turns aren't just winning "their impact is bad," it's destroying your opponent's entire worldview, it's force-feeding them the blue pill and blowing the matrix out their butts. It's having the power to answer an argument with just about anything.

You're really only limited by what qualified authors say in published materials. That sounds rather constricting, but if there's anything that debate has taught me over the years, it's that the universe of "arguments made by smart people" is much bigger than it looks. Pretty much anything short of the blatantly offensive (holocaut denial, racism good, rape good) is fair game. Debate is about challenging assumptions: find an assumption that your opponents are not ready to defend and you've got an opportunity, a chink in their armor.

Now, just because you can argue anything from here to ridiculousness doesn't mean you should. Some students go off the deep end when it comes to counter-intuitive arguments. The reason that there's a certain badge of honor that comes with winning rounds on nuclear-war-good is because it's hard. It takes a lot of preparation, forethought, and technical skill. Just because an argument is off-the-wall doesn't mean that your opponents won't be able to think up the common-sense answers.

There's a bit of a tension here, I think, between the practical and the sexy. Say you are answering a disad that says that plan crashes the economy, which would be bad. The link turn (we help the economy) is, in most cases, the path of least resistance. You can generally be better prepared about your plan than your oppoents can, so make the debate about what your plan does. Let them leave their piles of "growth good" cards in the tub. Pragmatic. Practical. It's boring, but it's boring because it works.

And even though this article is about "offense" (as opposed to defense), it's worth noting that sometimes the right argument to make is even less sexy. Maybe you beat the disad on a non-unique, or "congress will ignore plan." You should generally have some sort of turn as part of your strategy, but you should be making arguments good enough that dropping any of them means you win, no matter how un-sexy.

Let your creativity run wild, sure. But edit. Part of being a successful debater is knowing when to be crazy and when to be boring. It usually doesn't take long in the season before you have more argument options than could fit in an 8-minute speech, so preparation will become not about what to add, but about what to take away.

Getting this eye for editing early might help you prevent the worst "everyone does it" mistake of novice debate. A link turn plus an impact turn equals a double turn, and double turns are bad. If you say, in the same round, both that plan saves the economy (link turn) and that economic growth is bad (impact turn), you've given your opponents a free disad just by conceding your arguments. Worse, it's a free disad that you don't get to answer. Remember, once your arguments are made they can't be un-made. You are stuck with this new "growth bad" disad the rest of the round.

Sounds easy enough to avoid, right? Just never run link turns and impact turns together. But when the ink starts flying it's a lot harder than it seems to keep everything consistent. And there's no guarantee that both parts of the "double turn" will happen on the same piece of paper, or in the same speech. If you aren't keeping your stories straight, a good opponent will find ways to punish you.

Now, there are ways of preventing this debacle, but all of them boil down to "know what you are doing." The biggest step you can make over your first year is to move beyond thinking of debate in terms of "their third argument on the politics disad" and start thinking in terms of the round. Strategy instead of tactics. Editing instead of just grab cards and read.

It's hard, but there's a benefit in all this. Really, debate, when done well, allows you to unlock parts of your mind you wouldn't have ever explored before. Returning to my video snippet, I love this quote:

"I love these arguments because some of them are so ludicrous, but people will think so little about them that in the end, many people are incapable of dealing with them... these are issues that one cannot discuss anywhere but in a debate"

When I die, put that on my tombstone.

I'm laying knowledge on us, predict like Nostradamus, or the Three Great Impact Comparisons

Imagine, for a moment, a hyper-simplified model of a debate round that has only two kinds of arguments: "yours" and "theirs." "Your" arguments are the arguments that you introduced, that you have well researched, and that you are used to debating. Your opponents are similarly prepared to debate "their" arguments. Let's also suppose that you and your opponents are of roughly equal debating skill.

Which arguments are you likely to win in this debate? Why, your arguments, of course. And, by extension, which arguments are your opponents likely to win? Their arguments. So, if you win all your arguments, and they win all their arguments, who should win the round?

Or, in more concrete terms, say you win that your plan saves a million impoverished people from dying of starvation, but they win that your plan will crash the US economy and cause war to break out, say between the US and China. Who wins? If a million people dying of starvation is worse than the war, then plan is a good idea, and you win, and they win if the opposite is true. The victory, in other words, goes to the team that prevents the "worse" impact.

So, what makes an impact worse than another? Arguments that answer this question are called Impact Comparisons, and these arguments are critically important in competitive debate. The "You win all your arguments, they win all their arguments" scenario doesn't often play out exactly, but some version of it does happen quite a bit, for exactly the reasons in my hypothetical scenario. Impact comparisons also focus the debate on a core concept, so if you can win an impact comparison you may be able to make a large part of the rest of the debate irrelevant.

The question that is probably burning on many minds by now is "well, how many people does the US-China war kill? Is it more than a million?" This is a magnitude comparison. For countable impacts like this, magnitude is fairly straightforward: how many die? how far does global GDP fall? For some other impacts, this can be a bit tricker: Is societal sexism worse than societal racism? Is a genocide a worse atrocity than war even if fewer people die?

Of course, magnitude is not the only thing that matters when it comes to making decisions. Say you are considering walking to the library. If you decide to go, there is a small (but real) possibility that you could get hit by a bus on your way. Getting hit by a bus has a much greater magnitude than going without the latest Harry Potter, but yet you go to the library anyway. Why? The probability of getting hit is so low that you decide it is worth the risk.

It is the same way with policymaking. Higher probability impacts are more important than lower probability impacts. Here is where a smart debater can sway a debate in their favor. You might not be able to win your link turn on the Econ Disad, but you might be able to mitigate the probability. After all, there are a lot of things that have to go wrong for a crash to lead to a war... maybe you've got evidence that the US wouldn't want to attack China. And maybe your case harms are worse than a 20% chance of war, even if fewer people die.

When comparing impacts based on magnitude and probability, it's important to note another characteristic: whether an impact is Linear or Terminal. Terminal impacts are a yes/no proposition. War either happens or it doesn't. We either get hit by an asteroid or we don't. Linear impacts have varying degrees of bad (that scale "linearly" if you were to plot them). We might be able to save all 1 million impoverished folks, or we could save 500k of them, or 100k of them, or none of them, or any amount in between.

The upshot of this is that a statement like "their impact has 50% probability" is ambiguous if I don't know much about the impact. A 50% chance of saving a million people from starvation (and probably saving 500k) looks much different than a 50% chance of a war breaking out.

In addition to magnitude and probability, the last of the "three great comparisons" is timeframe. It's an intuitive notion that a bad thing today is worse than a bad thing 100 years from now, but it might pay to reflect on why. If a policy now would cause a war in 100 years, maybe we'll figure out how to stop the war in the meantime. If plan costs a lot of money in 10 years, maybe we'll be able to save up.

For many affirmatives (especially on this year's topic), timeframe is an important weapon, because harms like poverty are happening now (they are "systemic," as some like to say). Of course, this can be taken too far. For example, people are infected with AIDS right now, with 100% certainty. But say we want to put more research money into finding a cure. The research has maybe a 10% chance of finding a cure (generous), and it might take 10 years. Suddenly your timeframe advantage is less definite. If your opponents know what they are doing, your advantage is only as short as the longest link in the chain.

The three great comparisons are powerful tools, but a few more Dos and Don'ts are in order so that you can use them most effectively.

  • Comparisons aren't comparisons unless they actually Compare. Don't just tell me your war happens fast, tell me why it's fast-er than theirs.

  • Most of the time, you can't win all three. Much better to tell me why the comparisons you are winning are more important than grasp at straws

  • Get specific. Not all wars are created equal. A "nuclear war" between the US and Korea wouldn't be fun, but it would pale in comparison to a US-Russia nuclear conflict

  • The three biggest lies in the world are: "The check is in the mail", "This might sting a little", and "Our plan results in extinction." Don't let your opponents over-claim their impacts.

The Jump to Conclusions Mat: Choosing Between Policy and LD

Since this can be something of a hot-button issue, I feel like I ought to be upfront about my background and how it might effect my lay of the land. The only form of debate that I've ever formally coached or participated in is Policy. I have watched a fair amount of LD debate as a judge, coach, and casual observer, though. Also, I will soon be marrying an LD debater/coach, and she does a pretty good job of keeping me honest (read: calling out my blatant bull-pucky).

If you've been in debate more than a few days you've probably already heard this, but it's worthwhile to point out all of the reasons that these activities are really not all that different. They are both forms of competitive debate, and (depending on where you live) there are excellent opportunities to compete in both at the Local, State, and National Level. Neither activity is considered "better," "smarter," or "harder" than the other by anyone who matters. Competing in either activity gives you the opportunity to develop speaking, researching, strategic, and critical thinking skills that is pretty much unrivaled, in my humble opinion.

So. Differences. Well, in policy you have a partner and in LD you don't. For most novices I think that this is the biggest determining factor because it's the one you best understand. You know that working with a partner can be infuriating, but it's nice having someone who's "got your back." Similarly, Working on your own means you get all the glory, but you're on your own out there. Now, these are all true, but they tend to matter a whole lot less than you think. You have to work in groups in both activities to prepare arguments, and in either activity you are going to have to pull your weight if you want to win. Most debaters tend not to stay with the same partner for long anyway as novices, so don't sweat the partner dynamics too much.

Now about the topics. The way I've always heard this is you debate "Questions of policy" in policy debate and "questions of value" in LD. This explanation tends to favor policy in most kids' minds, because most kids at least some fleeting idea of what policy means, while "value" is kind of vague. The hard part is, once you start explaining LD with words like "ethics" or "philosophy," kids get the impression that LD involves questions like "What is beauty?" and they run for the hills.

Interestingly enough, the two types of debate have covered some of the same subject matter over the years of resolutions, so I think the best way to compare and contrast the different debate styles is to look at how they approach the same topic. For example, take this pair of resolutions:

Policy Resolution (2009): The United States federal government should substantially increase social services for persons living in poverty in the United States.
LD Resolution (2008): Limiting economic inequality ought to be a more important social goal than maximizing economic freedom.

Both of these resolutions deal with the question of income inequality, but the different phrasings lead to different sets of important arguments. The LD resolution asks the general question of whether limiting inequality "ought" to be more important than economic freedom, while the policy resolution asks debaters to evaluate the merits of a particular type of action (social services) to limit inequality. The policy resolution is rooted in a particular place and time, meaning that arguments must take the present-day US into account, while arguments in the LD resolution can be somewhat disconnected from any particular society's laws or culture.

Another important difference is that the Policy resolution specifies a particular actor, IE the United States Federal Government, and the LD resolution does not. Some LD resolutions will specify an actor (though sometimes a more abstract actor, like "a just society"), but all policy resolutions will. This further constrains the debate to the limitations of that actor. Most policy debate rounds are further constrained by the particular plan the affirmative proposes, while LD debaters tend to defend/attack the "whole res."

Notice also the weighing systems in both resolutions. The LD resolution asks us to pick a "societal goal", something an entire soceity should strive toward. The policy resolution just asks us the bare "should?" This is implicitly asking: "The affirmative's plan, is it a good idea?" Now, the aff's plan might be a good idea because it meets some societal goal, but the policy resolution doesn't ask us to debate the goals themselves, at least not exclusively.

There are some other differences (time limits, how often the topic changes), but these are bad things to base a decision on, in my opinion. If you love LD debate, it's because you love debating LD resolutions. Same goes for policy. You could make policy a 1-on-1 activity with rotating bi-monthly topics, and policy debaters would still want to debate policy. They love the subject matter, not the set-up. You don't have to pick a favorite exclusively, and you definitely don't have to know right away, but you should play the game that excites you, debate the things that you feel need to be debated.

This is fuzzy, but LD debates tend towards the general case, the underlying decision-making systems. Policy debaters seek local truths, predictions of the future based on the world we live in. Remember this scene in Office Space?

Peter Gibbons: Our high school guidance counselor used to ask us what you'd do if you had a million dollars and you didn't have to work. And invariably what you'd say was supposed to be your career. So, if you wanted to fix old cars then you're supposed to be an auto mechanic.
Samir: So what did you say?
Peter Gibbons: I never had an answer. I guess that's why I'm working at Initech.

Michael Bolton: No, you're working at Initech because that question is bulls*** to begin with. If everyone listened to her, there'd be no janitors, because no one would clean s*** up if they had a million dollars.

Samir: You know what I would do if I had a million dollars? I would invest half of it in low risk mutual funds... and then take the other half over to my friend Asadulah who works in securities...

Michael Bolton: Samir, you're missing the point. The point of the exercise is that you're supposed to figure out what you would want to do if...
[printer starts beeping]
Michael Bolton: "PC Load Letter"? What the f*** does that mean?

Micheal is a LD debater. Samir is definitely a policy debater.

The Safety Net: an Introduction to the 2009 Policy Debate Topic

Despite the fact that the United States was founded on the premise that "all men are created equal," our economy is built in a way that makes people very "un-equal" over time. Capitalism, the only economic system the US has ever known, creates winners and losers. That's the point. My desire for fame and fortune gives me an incentive to build a better mousetrap - new business ideas, new technology - and sell that mousetrap in the market. With everyone competing, trying best to maximize their personal gain, in aggregate we all do better off.

Of course, there are some ugly realities in this system: businesses fail when they are out-done, new technology displaces existing workers, my better mousetrap can be your undoing. For the past 70 years or so, the prevailing political philosophy suggests that we should temper the ugly effects of capitalism with a "safety net:" last-resort services for the "losers" of capitalism. Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, etc. are all components of the US's safety net.

This metaphor of government social services as a "safety net" is fundamental to this year's policy debate topic. Not only is it a useful rhetorical device to justify the existence of social services, it is used throughout the literature base to refer to the concept, both positively and negatively. It pervades thinking about social services.

So much, in fact, that pretty much every possible aff on the following topic can be described as attempting to do the following two things, often in combination: (1) Make the saftey net wider so that more people are protected by it or (2) Make the safety net better so that those that it does "catch" are better protected from poverty. Though there will be plenty of attempts by affirmatives to loosen this definition, "persons living in poverty in the united states" is a fairly well-defined group, and there are only so many worthwhile things that the government can do for them.

As an effect of this, there are three "advantage areas" that will cover, I'd say, about 85% of the affirmative ground on next year's topic. First of all, you have the individual-level effects of poverty - people dying of starvation, disease, or other forms of "structural violence." Affirmatives will claim that these deaths are easily preventable with more money, so we'd be a fool not to increase spending on social services. There are also wider, societal-level effects of poverty - the relationship between poverty and crime rates, for instance, or the effects of income disparity on economic growth. Affs will argue that these societal-level effects are coming to a crisis and that we must lower poverty rates to avoid this crisis.

The final advantage area is what I'll call "philosophical" justifications (deontic, more technically speaking) for social services. Perhaps we have an obligation to provide every human being with basic necessities, or perhaps the status quo represents racist negligence of groups who are disproportionately poor. These obligations will be phrased in a bunch of different ways, but the unifying theme is that they don't depend on the consequences of social services. They come down to "We should widen the net, not because it's good for the economy (or whatever), but because it's the right thing to do."

Unfortunately, widening the net isn't free. Every dollar we spend on health care or food aid either needs to be taken from more well-off folks (in the form of taxes) or from other government programs. In case you've been living under a rock for the past year or so, it turns out that the government doesn't have piles of extra cash lying around to spend on social services. Social service spending can have beneficial effects on the economy, but these tend to be long-term. If we ruin the economy before we see the benefit, then social services would be a very poor investment. The question of what state the economy is in right now and how social services spending will effect it will be a key debate on this year's resolution.

Widening the net also has political costs. Just as our budget is constrained by a limited amount of dollars, our politicians (especially President Obama, himself an advocate of the safety net) have a limited amount of Political Capital they can use to convince congress and the public. The overarching narrative in the political press since the election is that Obama has some great opportunities for the next 4 years, but he will have to be choosy in what he decides to push. Negatives will argue that social services spending will "trade off" with other parts of the agenda. These Politics Disads are popular negative arguments every year, but this year they will be more directly addressed in the literature base, essential part of the "core of the topic."

The interesting part of the safety net metaphor is that it also feeds the philosphical arguments against the topic. Opponents of social services see a different kind of net - not a benevolent failsafe, but an ensnaring instrument of control. Thinkers from the far left and far right alike discuss the negative implications of "widening the net" and putting more people under the coercive influence of government. Government aid generally comes with many strings attached, and causes some people to become entirely dependent on the state. The safety net is essentially a compromise between capitalism and socialism, which means that purists of either economic philosophy would rather see the social net go away, either in favor of a collectivist society or a minimalist government that lets the market rule.

There's one more debate on this topic that I'd be irresponsible to ignore: the interrelationship between the Federal and State governments. The safety net is currently administered by both the national and state governments in varying levels of cooperation. The topic requires the federal government to act, which probably means taking some additional amount of control. Negatives will often advocate state-level action instead of federal action. Minnesota novices won't have to worry about the "States Counterplan" right away, but this section of the literature will filter down to the novice level through "Federalism Disads" and other arguments about the balance of power between Federal and State governments.

Answering Topicality, or How the Hell Did You Just Lose on T?

One would think that my first piece of advice about defending the Topicality of your plan is, well, pick a plan that is topical. You don't have to worry about T if your case is topical, right? There are plenty of strategic reasons to choose a case that is (mostly) Topical, but that isn't one of them. Try as you might, you can't just make T arguments go away by choosing the right plan.

To illustrate, a quick war story. My junior year of high school, the debate topic required the Aff to "substantially increase the protection of Marine Natural Resources" or something to that effect. Rosemount LR (that's me and my partner) ran a case that created Marine Protected Areas (MPAs as we called them), basically big "no boats allowed" zones in the ocean. No fishing, no exploration, nothing. The idea is that the healthy ecosystem in the MPAs can keep fish stocks up in the ocean at large.

It's a pretty topical case. That's one of the reasons we chose it, thinking "OK now we won't have to worry about Topicality." Big mistake. Early on in the year, we debated Mankato West GR, who ran a T argument that defined "Natural Resources" as "non-living materials that can be used by humans." The debate went something like this

Rosemount LR: Here's our plan, isn't it nice? It solves some harms and stuff.
Man West GR: It's not topical. Natural resources are rocks and minerals, not fish. Extra topicality is a voting issue.
Rosemount LR: But plan protects rocks too - you can't go mine minerals in the MPA either
Man West GR: But we already said that extra topicality is a voting issue. If you protect anything other than non-living resources you're extra topical.
Rosemount LR: Well, uh, that's a pretty dumb standard.

And it was, except by now it was the 1AR, waaay to late to be pointing this out. Man West GR won this debate easily. They didn't win because they had a better interpretation of the topic (could you imagine an ocean's topic where the aff can't protect fish?), they won because they were better prepared and they exploited a particular place that we were under-prepared. Their argument was bad, but it took us too long to point out the reasons that it was bad. By the time we figured out the flaw in their argument, it was too late. One would think that our "core of the topic case" would have given us the upper hand in a T debate, but our laziness was our undoing.

The point is that you need to be prepared to answer T arguments. Well, ideally you should be prepared to answer any argument, but T arguments are higher-stakes and tend to be harder to answer on the fly.

So how do you answer a Topicality argument? Well, to win a T argument, the negative has to win (1) that your plan doesn't meet their interpretation of the topic, that (2) their interpretation is a good/correct one, and (3) that T is a voting issue. If you couldn't guess, your basic options to answer Topicality are to prove any of these three things false.

First of all, you can argue that your plan meets the neg's interpretation. These arguments are usually tagged with the phrase We Meet. There's not really a whole lot to say about we meet args - Usually when the neg decides to run a T argument it's because they have an interpretation that your plan doesn't meet. That being said, there's usually some way you can spin/explain your plan so you at least have an argument as to why you meet. There are lots of ways to construct this spin, and this will largely be dependent on the specifics of the plan and violation, but there are two kinds of spin that have become popular enough that the community has bestowed on them a name.

Effects Topicality is arguing that your plan, once implemented, results in a topical action. Take a drug legalization case (a perennial example of an effects-topical case, for whatever reason). An aff could argue that legalizing drugs will cause the federal government to shift the resources it currently spends on the "war on drugs" (cops, raids, prisons) to additional treatment facilities. Since many persons living in poverty are also dealing with drug addiction, additional addiction treatment facilities would be a huge social service. Notice that the aff's plan wouldn't be "increase the number of addiction treatment facilities," but they are arguing that more facilities would be an effect of plan.

Of course, if you make an effects T answer, you are going to want to be prepared for the following arguments - that it's a slippery slope, that it makes the topic too big, that mixes burdens between "Solvency" and "Topicality", and that it decreases education about the topic. It's got a name because it's popular, and negatives are generally going to be prepared

The other classic "we meet" spin is Extra Topicality. This is the tactic that Rosemount LR tried in my story - "sure, we protect minerals too!" even though all our case advantages were about fish. Man West made the predictable answers - pretty similar to my list of reasons that effects T is bad above - and we weren't prepared to answer these in the 2AC. How easily you can seperate the "topical part" from the "not topical part" and how not-topical the not-topical-part is are both going to be factors in how easy it is to win with an extra-topical case.

Your next option is to win a Counter-Interpretation, a better interpretation of the topic. Your arguments about why your interpretation is good are going to look a lot like the negative's arguments defending their interpretation, so you might want to read my previous post on topicality. A few more things you should consider in crafting a strategy to defend your interpretation:

  • You better make sure that your plan meets your interpretation, otherwise you are going to lose this debate in a hurry

  • Your interpretation probably lets in a few more cases than theirs - is there anything particularly educational about this class of potential debates?

  • Remember that the size of the topic is not the only question. Another important one is how easily everyone can predict the limits of the topic. An obscure interpretation might be bad just because it's obscure

Your third option is to win some type of no voter argument, that Topicality should not be a voting issue. Now, you're going to have a tough row to hoe to win that T shouldn't be a voter at all, but you've got a better chance of winning that T shouldn't be a voter in this round.

For example, maybe you aren't topical, but maybe the neg isn't really any the worse for it. If they still have access to all the important negative arguments on the topic, then the usual "fairness and education" reasons start to make less sense. Perhaps the negative needs to prove in-round abuse in order to prove that T is a voter.

A related question is how the judge should evaluate the framework debate. If the negative wins that their interpretation is better, they haven't necessarily one that the aff's interpretation is particularly bad. The aff might be able to indict the Competing interpretations framework, telling the judge "don't just vote for the best interpretation. if we prove that there is a debateable interpretation that plan is topical under, don't vote on T."

This isn't a blueprint for a round-winning 2AC T block, but it should inspire you to think the kind of thoughts necessary to stop losing so many rounds on T already.

The Fundamenals of Debate Strategy, or Ryan Battles the Pink Robots

For the purposes of this post, I am assuming that you have seen, heard, or read some piece of science fiction involving a robot. If you haven't, please close this web browser, make haste to your local library, and read Isaac Asimov's I, Robot.

The reason that I recommend I, Robot in particular is because every other piece of fiction involving a robot is really just I, Robot in disguise. Asimov's collection of stories introduces and explores the Three Laws of Robotics: a system of rules that control all robot behavior.

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

  2. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

You can see these principles in every Robot character written since Asimov. Every good-guy robot follows the three laws (See: Data, Autobots, C-3PO, H.E.L.P.eR, every character in WALL-E). Every bad-guy robot deliberately flaunts the three laws (See: Decepticons, the T-1000, "The Machines" in The Matrix). Every funny robot character is a satire of the three laws. From the pilot episode of Futurama:

Fry: Wait a second. You're a bender, right. We could escape if you would just bend the bars.
Bender: Dream on, skintube! I'm only programmed to bend for constructive purposes. What do I look like, a de-bender?

The great thing about the Three Laws isn't just their influence over science fiction (and real-world robotics, actually), it's how these three simple rules can create such deep, interesting worlds. Asimov uses these rules to transform unthinking mechanical men into three-dimensional, relatable characters. Testing the limits of the Three Laws opens up a world of gripping plot devices. This system of rules takes a paragraph to describe, but you could fill an entire library with the fiction and nonfiction that uses this system to do interesting things.

One of the hard things about being a novice debater is that there are just so many things to remember. Hell, I've only yet covered a handful of topics in my "Intro to Debate" series and I've already introduced over a dozen vocab words. Especially when the rubber meets the road in a round, it's daunting to remember and act on all the "dos and don'ts" that you learn in your first few weeks of debate.

Which is why I'd like to make an attempt at the organizational simplicity of the Three Laws of robotics, applied to debate. Like the Three Laws govern the entirety of robot behavior, my "Three Laws of Debate" are the fundamental basis of a debate round. None of these are written in rulebooks (that I know of), but these three principles are widely accepted norms of how a debate round ought to function. Most of the strategic advice that I have to give stems from these three principles. So without further ado, here's my stab at the Three Laws.

  • An argument, once made, cannot be un-made

  • A conceded argument becomes true

  • No new arguments in rebuttals

Time will tell if these laws prove as powerful and influential as Asimov's (I wouldn't bet on it), but I think that they do a pretty good job setting up the logical foundation of our little game. Allow me to explain some of the implications of the Three Laws of Debate.

An argument, once made, cannot be un-made

We've all said things that we wish we could take back. In debate, just like real life, we are stuck with the consequences of what we choose to say. If the plan I advocate in my 1AC gets trounced by the negative, I can't just introduce a new plan in the 2AC. If my harms scenario gets turned by the negative (let's say that they win that Global Warming is necessary to prevent a coming Ice Age), I can't just say "never mind" and get rid of the advantage. My strategic decisions have consequences, and I must always be "responsible" for my arguments.

Of course, the mere existence of an arugment doesn't guarantee that it is in any way important or useful. Much of that depends on how my opponent reacts to that argument, leading to the second law:

A conceded argument becomes true

If you make an argument, and I concede it whether explicitly (by saying something like "I concede their argument about blah") or implicitly (by not addressing the argument at all, or "dropping" it), then you get to use that argument for whatever you want. This is the fundamental reason that speed developed as a debate strategy: If I can make so many arguments that my opponent cannot answer them all (or cannot deeply answer them all), I force them to choose which arguments to answer and which to concede. Hopefully I can get them to concede something important that I can win the round on.

Of course, concessions aren't usually that clean cut. If I concede an argument that says that the earth is warming, and you concede an argument that says that the earth is cooling, both of those statements can't simultaneously be true. We're stuck having to debate out the relative merits of those arguments. Also, the strength of the conceded argument matters in determining how important the concession is. Conceding a one-line claim-without-warrant that my plan will crash the economy carries much less weight than conceding a well-warranted piece of evidence that my plan will crash the economy. There are different amounts of "true," in other words.

The second law creates an incentive to make as many arguments as possible, but this incentive is checked by the third law,

No new arguments in rebuttals

The classical formulation of this argument is that "Constructive" speeches are for making new arguments and "Rebuttals" are for discussing/evaluating/rebutting arguments that have already been made. Actually, I think that the law is better viewed as a contiuum, where arguments must get "less new" as the debate goes on.

One of the few types that most judges will unashamedly "intervene" against are new 2AR arguments. The rationale is pretty simple: the Negative has no chance to respond, so 2AR arguments are obviously unfair. Progressing backwards through the debate, the 2NR can make new arguments, but all the 2AR generally has to do to defeat them is point out that they are new. The 1AR can usually only make new arguments in response to new arguments in the block. The block can generally make new arguments, though new Topicality arguments are generally frowned upon. The 2AC can do pretty much anything except run a new plan, and the 1AC and 1NC are wide open.

Now, I'm attempting to make a generalization here of what is allowable in each speech, so obviously there are exceptions and caveats, but the point that I am trying to make is that there is a general consensus in the community that arguments must become "less new" as the debate goes on.

My goal for my remaining articles on Strategy is to show, whenver possible, how my random bits of advice are connected to one or more of the three laws. The great experiment of these laws hinges on my ability to do so naturally, and without adding any laws. Like I said, I'm hoping for success but I'm not yet ready to bet on it.