When it comes to everything from politics, to business, to even teaching, I consider society’s way of making important decisions to be woefully lacking. Of course, I don’t say this every time I am working with a group, but when I turn on the news and see the latest radical proposal from either political camp, I have the urge to tear my hair out and yell “Why do people not heed the stock issues?!”
The stock issues (which I will be explaining later in this article) were formally described long ago—at least as far back as the Ancient Greeks, who referred to them through concepts such as “stasis” and deliberative rhetoric—and the basic concept is simpler and easier to learn than many of the concepts we already require in high school (e.g. algebra, chemistry, physics). However, their formal use today has been limited almost solely to policy debate. In fact, I imagine that >99% of people have no idea what the “stock issues” are, and if my experiences with group decision-making at college or watching politics reveal anything, these seemingly intuitive principles are often neglected in important decision-making. Perhaps the problem is that people—even debaters—don’t realize that the stock issues can (and were long intended to) be used for more than just policy debate or even “policymaking”: the concept can be applied in almost every aspect of life that involves decision-making, whether it be studying, corporate pitches, academic research, journalism, etc. Thus, the real world could “reclaim” the stock issues through a slightly modified version of policy debate’s traditional “stock issue model.”
Ultimately, I am writing to help spur change towards improving decision-making; I want to see more people understanding the following concept and putting it into practice, even if that doesn’t mean always consciously thinking of the concept. Thus, I am devoting this article to explaining and recommending “the stock issues for real life.”
Disclaimer: Because this is meant for a more general audience, I occasionally trade off precision for simplicity. Still, on the whole, I consider the general points made here to be accurate and “precise enough.” If you have any questions/objections, feel free to comment!
Brief introduction to the stock issues
Author’s note/update: I now consider the following stock issue model to be outdated, but this article has value aside from describing the stock issues and the model presented here is simpler and thus can be easier to use quickly. For my current view on the stock issues, see this article.
If I seem to be going a bit fast at first, it’s because I’ll be re-explaining them with examples later on—and examples tend to be the best way to explain stock issues.
Basically, the stock issues are a list of concepts that help answer the question “Is this a good decision (or policy, law, etc.)?”
With that note, my list is as follows: topicality, inherency, significance, solvency, disadvantages, alternatives.
I will address topicality last, for reasons I will explain then. The rest are as follows:
- Inherency is unfortunately both the first and most complicated, but for now, I can just say it’s the concept of “already-ness”: most iconically, it simply asks “is the plan already in place?” For example, a proposal to lift the oil export ban lacks inherency, since the ban was already lifted. Unlike the next issue, it does not consider if the situation is good or bad; it simply asks “what is the situation,” especially as it relates to our own policy?
- Significance asks whether the supposed/assumed situation is “bad” (or “not as good as it could be”). So for the oil export ban proposal, it would ask “Is it harming our economy?” While this may seem to be obvious, it certainly can be an issue, especially when proposals appeal heavily to unrepresentative, emotional anecdotes.
- Solvency asks whether (or how much) a decision/plan solves the described problem. For example, passing a law against tax evasion doesn’t 100% prevent tax evasion. However, the issue usually is not “either 100% or 0%.”
- Disadvantages are simply the problems caused by the plan.
- Alternatives consider whether there are better alternatives. However, it is important to note that an “alternative” needs to be something that either couldn’t or shouldn’t be done with the original plan; in other words, you have to be able to answer “Why not do both”?
Now, regarding “topicality”: this refers to whether the discussion at hand is on topic. For example, in a debate about healthcare, many infrastructure policies would be totally off-topic. However, I actually don’t consider it a “true” stock issue outside of competitive debate—in which it is a stock issue because it relates to the rules. This is because although it might be a nice “shortcut” concept, technically, any topicality argument will impact to another stock issue. For example: “other meetings/committees will address this” (inherency) “it’s a waste of our time (when we have other things to discuss)” (significance/alternatives); “We aren’t qualified or prepared to talk about this” (solvency/disadvantages). In essence, topicality questions whether a subject should even be debated, but this is a decision in itself—subject to all the other stock issues.
Ultimately, these aren’t rigorous definitions, but they should begin to convey the idea.
What’s so special about them, and why learn them?
- The amazing thing about the stock issues is that when debating for or against a decision, it is basically impossible to make a logical/relevant argument that doesn’t ultimately impact to any of the stock issues. In fact, I have never encountered a legitimate argument which does not fit somewhere into the stock issue model. In this sense, the stock issues are a more structured, logical form of a “pro-con” list. Using it helps you avoid making mistakes. Because:
- You can’t justify a decision without upholding all the stock issues; it’s like multiplying by zero or a really small number: if any of the stock issues (e.g. solvency) = 0 or 0.01%, it most likely doesn’t matter how great the significance is.
- The problem is that people often don’t consider this second principle, as I illustrate later. For example, all too often in politics, people support policies based on ideas like “the current situation is terrible” (significance), even when the policies in question might have practically zero or even “negative” solvency. Or in other cases such as research, people might be overly focused on “what can we do,” (solvency) while not thinking enough of the real value (significance) or dangers of their research.
Now, I’ll start describing the non-policy value of this:
Applications outside of policy
Application #1: This article—and journalism and teaching in general
In considering what to write about, I loosely consult the stock issues—even for this article.
- Inherency: Does my audience already know this concept, or has this been done before? No = (check)
- Significance: Do I think this is worthwhile for people to learn/consider? Yes = (check)
- Solvency: Can I stay within a word limit, explain the concept, and keep my readers’ attention? I at least hope I have been doing so…
- Disadvantages: Might I possibly be giving bad advice or be misunderstood? I don’t think so = (check)
- Alternatives: I thought this was the best option = (check)
A sub-application – Studying: If I need to study for a test, I determine how/what to study by asking: 1) Which things do I not already know (inherency); 2) Which things will likely be on the test and/or significant portions of the grade; 3) Which things can I actually understand/memorize. (Usually, I don’t worry about disadvantages or alternatives to studying; I wouldn’t want to lose my motivation!)
Application #2: Business
Let’s suppose you want to create a startup, and your one major goal is to make money (for simplicity’s sake). I would recommend consulting the stock issues (and yes, it is okay to go out of order sometimes):
- Significance: What does the market want? Shoes? A new app? Novelty popcorn?
- Solvency: Can you meet that demand?
Unfortunately, too many people stop here, which is why it is important to consider the whole framework:
- Inherency: Is the demand already being met? I.e. is there market saturation and competition? Even Dirty Jobs’ Mike Rowe has noted the importance of inherency, just not by name.
- Disadvantages: What are the costs you face—especially regarding time and capital risk? Assuming that you already accounted for this through solvency, this is mainly important as it relates to:
- Alternatives: What other opportunities are out there?
Also similar to all of this is the issue of choosing a career.
Application #3: Research topics
- Inherency: Do we already know the answer to this question?
- Significance: How meaningful/valuable would it be to know the answer?
- Solvency: Can this paper really find the answer?
- Disadvantages: Could this paper give the wrong answer and mislead people? Is the research costly? And in some cases: could this information be harmful (e.g. “How to create a black hole”)?
- Alternatives: What other topics are there?
Ultimately, there are plenty of other instances one can apply the stock issues outside of policy. But I would definitely say their best application is for policy since policymaking should be held to more rigorous standards than everyday choices.
Stock issues in policy
At this point, I will just focus on the important stock issues in each example.
To begin, I’ll use one of my favorite examples for illustrating how people ignore stock issues:
The proposal to build a wall:
As I have watched pundits and politicians talk about building a wall, I constantly see both sides arguing over the costs and benefits of illegal immigration. This is definitely a complicated and debate-worthy issue, but what frustrates me is that so few people talk about the plan’s solvency and consequences outside of “Is some illegal immigration actually good?” and “How much would it cost to build the wall.” What I have found is that a wall should not be expected to have the solvency that many proponents assume, if it has any serious net solvency. In fact, at an Ethos camp, I diagrammed a massive insolvency+disadvantage that could be caused just by tunnels (although I admit it is exaggerated since I didn’t qualify the outcomes, and it was mostly based on speculation and this source). To be fair, some think tanks have argued that even minor rates of solvency would pay for the cost of the wall (although I still question the “net” cost assumption that source relies on).
Ultimately though, this is just to illustrate that even if a situation is supposedly “terrible,” that does not justify “doing anything.” For another example of this, we can turn to:
People were outspokenly decrying Obamacare (legitimately in certain areas), but the Republican Congress which ran on “Repeal (and often, replace)” has thus far failed to provide an alternative deemed suitable. This is not to say there is no alternative; the problem was that the populace elected congress on a (perhaps valid) premise that “the situation is bad,” but not with the necessary “—and we genuinely know how to make it better (and can agree and get legislation passed).” Again, failing to consider all the stock issues will fail to produce good policy (or any policy, in this case).
Model UN and government duplication:
I have loved my experience with Model UN so far, but I have to say that the “policy discussions” at the conferences are stock issue wastelands. Perhaps the worst issue is, surprisingly, inherency: Delegates will constantly make proposals that are already in place, in some form, such as “let’s monitor the conflict,” or “let’s establish a dialogue.” But in general, I found that the vast majority of proposals fail at least one of the stock issues.
Inherency is also the issue that plagues governments small and large in the form of duplication and over-redundancy. This is obviously wasteful, but it is done because attention is given to “the problems” or “threats”—not to what is already being done to improve the situation.
The thing is, it’s not as if the stock issues are really complicated. I certainly don’t expect everyone to “memorize the stock issues by heart,” but if some people can still remember “Kings Play Chess On Fine Glass Sets” more people could and should learn the stock issues—especially considering how the stock issues can actually be useful in many life/career/social/policy decisions (unlike biological taxonomy).
Thus, even if people don’t remember it in strict rubric-form, the general concept of the stock issues should at least be actively present in people’s minds when politicians say “the situation is terrible” or “but this plan is good (enough),” so that voters at least consider questions like “what will he actually be doing differently,” “will we actually solve the situation,” and/or “might this cause even worse problems?” Certainly, respectable political pundits should more often and more directly reference concepts of inherency, significance, solvency, etc.
If we want to see an improvement in policy (and politics), we should start focusing on voters’ evaluation framework. This will help expose and discourage insolvent, non-inherent, insignificant, disadvantageous, and/or inferior plans in policy. But even outside of policymaking, society, in general, would benefit from a promotion of a loose stock issue framework in everyday decisions.