We’ve all been there.
You’re in a round against a case you’ve never seen before. Maybe it’s at an open against a team from another region, maybe a team trying out a new case, maybe it’s just one you didn’t see coming. Either way, you’re in for an interesting time. You look through your binder (or, if you’re one of the cool kids, your expando), and- miracle of miracles- find a brief. It’s from some kid who does sketchy research, of course, because that’s how these things inevitably work, but you’re not complaining. You flip to the table of contents, hoping that the anemic-looking 7-pager isn’t terrible. Just your luck. The quotes are all one-liners. You check the sources. It’s all either blogs or FPG sources. You aren’t pleased. Since the quotes are all short, you read through them with a quickness as the 1AC’s third advantage starts to wind down and he goes into the outro. Finally, you see a card that might just be useful…
The Wall Street Journal, “New Wave of Nuclear Plants Faces High Costs”, published May 2008, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121055252677483933.html?mod=googlenews_wsj
“A new generation of nuclear power plants is on the drawing boards in the U.S., but the projected cost is causing some sticker shock: $5 billion to $12 billion a plant, double to quadruple earlier rough estimates.
Nuclear power is regaining favor as an alternative to other sources of power generation, such as coal-fired plants, which have fallen out of favor because they are major polluters. But the high cost could lead to sharply higher electricity bills for consumers and inevitably reignite debate about the nuclear industry’s suitability to meet growing energy needs.”
Do you run it, or do you not? Let’s step out of the hypothetical for a moment. Just as we’ve all been in the situation where a spending disadvantage is all you’ve got, we’ve also been in the situation of losing to a stupid spending disadvantage.
The appeals of a spending disadvantage are pretty visible. 1.) It’s easy to understand, even for the greenest judge ever. 2.) It caters to the political taste of our typically conservative judging pool. 3.) It’s easy to run. 4.) It’s applicable to almost all cases. All of these might make a spending disadvantage seem like a compelling avenue to take.
But hold on just a second. Most teams with expensive plans hate getting hit with spending disadvantages. Why’s that? Well, I call it Side Identity Spending Stupidity Confirmation Bias. No, that doesn’t make a humorous acronym. I’m not all funny all the time here, people. Sometimes I just make stuff up. Essentially, what the long, humorless name above means is that the stupidity of a spending disadvantage is inversely proportional to your negativeyness. The more negativey you are, the less stupid it seems. You beg the question, “How can they suggest that we spend a frooglepoopillion dollars on a plan I’m not running? HOW DARE THEY!”
However, the less negativey (and more affirmativey) you are, the stupider it seems. It becomes blatantly obvious that there’s no merit to spending disadvantages, since it fails basically every part of a good disadvantage. Before we start talking about that, we need to look at what makes a good disadvantage in the first place.
We all know the disadvantage is the golden goose of the Negative strategy, but it’s so often run poorly. This is what you need for a good disadvantage:
1.) Uniqueness- This is where you show that the disadvantage hasn’t happened yet and won’t happen in the near status quo future.
2.) Link- This is where you start the chain- the plan lead to something else.
3.) Impact- This is why that’s bad.
Most of the time, you’ll also have some internal links strengthening your connections. So, if your uniqueness is “Economy is good now and spending is declining” and the link is “The plan does new spending” and the impact is “New spending hurts the economy”, you’d ideally come back later with some internal links. For instance, “New spending reverses positive trends and reinforces bad habits, causing a spending death spiral” is a good internal link between increased spending and the impact. “Vastly increased spending causes inflationary malinvestment, causing a temporary boom followed by a massive bust as the market re-adjusts and entire industries collapse and die” is a good internal link between the spending death spiral you just established and economic collapse. The internal link is the key part of the disadvantage, because that’s where you establish your best warrants that they need to take out in order to win the disad. All of these points- uniqueness, link, impact, and STRONG internal links between them, are key to a good disadvantage.
Now that we know that, we can see a bit more clearly why spending disads suck. Let’s go back into our newfangled nuclear plant example
First, there’s no uniqueness- unless the Affirmative’s spending is on the order of trillions, you can’t really claim a substantial increase in spending. After all, the plants cost a few billion each. You can even kill uniqueness on the impact- the economy’s down already. Second, there are many ways to get out of the link- the affirmative can specify funding, which I don’t recommend (…and is a subject for a whole other post), they can use cost mitigation strategies like loan guarantees or tax credits to get the private sector to do their dirty work and build the plants without government funds, or some other kooky strategy. Third, there’s almost never a good impact- “you guys if we spend any more money it will hurt the economy mmkayyyyyy” is not convincing. There’s plenty of rhetoric out there about how “government spending got us into this mess”, but the warrants to those cards are either nonexistent or probably don’t apply to the case- the housing market fiasco hardly parallels well with government spending on new nuclear technologies. Fourth, a gutsy and well-prepared team could turn it- there are some good inflation-pro cards out there if you know where to look. Fifth, the internal links in the disad are massively weak- honestly, good luck proving any kind of economic or other damage anywhere but in the judge’s fevered imaginings. In short, a prepared affirmative can kill your uniqueness, link out, kill your impact, turn the disad and point out why it’s idiotic and illogical with a few quick cards and some logical arguments. That’s wasted time for you and it makes you look bad- in the minds of many judges, a Negative that gets whomped on a disadvantage is a Negative that loses credibility. A Negative that loses credibility is a Negative that winds up worse off than it started.
All of this suggests that there’s little, if any, merit to the spending disadvantage in any form. Not only is it a position easily responded to, making it a poor debate position, and not only will getting whomped on it damage your credibility in the eyes of many judges, but it’s simply untrue the vast majority of the time, making it almost border on intellectual dishonesty. If the judge votes for you based on their biases rather than the arguments made on the flow, what you’re winning on is vapid rhetoric and hollow sophistry, not a reasoned clash of ideas. That’s bad for debate as an activity, but worse still, it’s bad for our thinking.
All of these mean that many debaters and coaches (COUGH, ME, COUGH) eschew the spending disadvantage altogether. Many still run it, whether they lack a better position, or they’re debating based on what “judges like” and what gets them ballots and a moment of hollow glory rather than what is right and true and good debating, or they simply don’t know better. Understand that I’m not impugning the debaters who run spending disadvantages necessarily. My point is that it’s a poor argument and it shouldn’t be run.
Or should it?
I was thinking about spending the other day, and I think there might actually some merit to spending after all. There’s certainly a place in debate for persuasive, hypergeneric arguments. It’s something we’re all familiar with- I’d hazard a guess that every single debater in this league has, at one time in their career or another, heard spending run or run it themselves. (If you’re reading this, and you’ve been living under a rock and have never run or heard a spending disadvantage, I assume that all photographs taken of you are fleeting and blurry, as though the photographer’s hands were shaking in gratitude that his eyes could behold you before he died, causing you to appear as a suit-clad debate Yeti, doomed to be decried as a hoax by debate historians, your existence maintained only by a man long before dismissed as mad. Congratulations. You are a rare breed.)
I think there are ways to harness the benefits of spending disadvantages- ease of use and understanding, applicability, and persuasion- without making it mind-numbingly juvenile and idiotic. I had specifically five ideas for alternate impacts or scenarios for spending, listed in no particular order. Run these, of course, at your own risk. This is deep magick, and eldritch experimentation is not for the faint of heart. ‘Tis a heady brew.
- Immoral debt- “Deficit spending creates a debt that we never intend to even try to pay back, which is immoral, being essentially the same as theft. Every dollar added to the deficit is a unique violation that should not be upheld.” The internal link to immorality is a tad shaky, in my opinion, but it’s interesting to say the least, and immorality’s a neat impact if you get indignant enough about it.
- Politix link- “New spending in xyz area tanks Obama/Congress/GOP/whoever’s political capital, crippling xyz vital legislation.” Using spending as a link to a politics disadvantage has potential, and it makes link-cutting pretty easy. There’s another benefit to this argument, but I’ll discuss that a bit later.
- Statism K- “Spending money is statist, giving us links to the statism K.” Personally, I think statism is pretty weak sauce and generally a dumb K, but like the politix link, there’s another, more hidden benefit to it.
- Legal plunder- “Taxing one person in order to benefit someone completely different financially is akin to forced charity, essentially robbing the rich to give to the poor- it’s theft, and therefore immoral.” You’ll notice that this is really similar to the first scenario, but it’s not quite the same, and they link to different things. The first refers specifically to the national debt, which doesn’t apply if the Affirmative specifies their funding. The second refers to any spending taken from one person to benefit another, which neatly applies even when the aff specifies their funding, but regrettably doesn’t apply in many spending scenarios (like regulations). Also, the internal links to immorality are different- the first says that we’re creating a debt we’ll never pay back. The second says you’re robbing the rich to give to the poor. However, they both access the annoying-but-fun immorality impact.
- Fiscal irresponsibility- “I really gotta explain this? Their spending justifies more spending creating a vicious cycle of fiscal irresponsibility blah blah blah.” Frankly, I think this is kind of lame unless you run it as a kritik that justifies your “justifies” and “creates the mindset” answers that are pretty weak if you’re running it as a disad. Even run as a kritik, it’s still pretty weak. This is essentially kind of an underhanded way to bypass the fact that the disad has absolutely no uniqueness whatsoever. But hey, it’s a K (kinda), which brings us to…
The side benefit.
In the second, third and fifth examples, I hinted at a fringe benefit. Do you think you know what it is?
Using spending as links to unconventional arguments provides an easily-swallowed introduction to more technical debate.
Think about it. Everybody gets spending- literally everybody. Now, if you say “the plan spends a lot of money”, the judge will track you 100%, basically no matter what. From there, it’s really not a big leap to saying “and that’s bad for a different reason than you expected!” For instance, spending as a link to statism may not be the best kritik in the world, but- and this is important- it’s a kritik the judge won’t dismiss offhand. As terrible as interventionist judging is and as much as I condemn making an argument because the judge will like it, we need to recognize that interventionist judging happens. A lot. And if we can sway the biases of the judging pool, then I think we can start making some big changes.
That’s a good thing, because it gets parent judges thinking about less conventional argumentation, like K’s, politics disadvantages, and morality impacts. You would be shocked how receptive people will be when you put less-popular argumentation in terms they’ll understand. I had a conversation not too long ago with someone who just didn’t get the whole “kritik” thing. We wrangled about it for a while, and then I pulled up a “fear” kritik I pulled off Scribd a while back and paraphrased it for him. Once it was put in terms of the mainstream media engineering fear and why that’s evil, he understood completely. A few more examples, and he was stoked to run him some K’s. I wouldn’t be shocked if he did it at a tournament sometime in the not-too-far future. And we can change a lot more minds in the same way, through that most-reviled argument… spending.
So, in summary:
1.) Spending is a dumb argument.
2.) It doesn’t have to be.
3.) If we use alternate impacts to spending, we can debate better and make debate better.
4.) Go debate.
I was waiting for politics to show up. : )
Patrick, this is a well reasoned analysis with some helpful advice. But it presupposes a “judging pool” something I have not discovered in STOA yet. It seems more like a judging river that can’t be stepped into twice. Granted, with the few veteran judges you get, this might work.
I really appreciate your comments about the ethics of the arguments. These will resonate with my debaters. My own team refuses to run unethical arguments but gets “whomped” by those who do no matter how much valuable speech time is used to explain that fiating a regulation costs zero dollars. I want to see a “judging pool” develop. That is the only way to regulate the ethics. What is rewarded is repeated and what is not rewarded is not repeated.