This weekend we held the State Debate tournament. It was a small affair, but that fit well into a small school, enough so that we could flight the Varsity LD and Public Forum divisions and zip through the day three hours ahead of the intended finish, while adding a fifth prelim round. That left the novices with 4 prelims and a final, but if they wanted to step up, they should have stepped up; it’s not like it’s hard to qualify for States in debate. Nor should it be, so long as it stays small enough to host.

We had, after much promotion and excitement, 5 Miss America pageant winners of various stripes in attendance. They were led by Amanda Liverzani, who judged mostly LD.   The others, who hadn’t seen debate before, were in Public Forum. Their presence amused the hell out of everyone, though it was accompanied by a faint sense of doubt in everyone who had seen the infamous Miss South Carolina YouTube video. I wasn’t worried, though; Amanda was obviously sharp, and came highly recommended, so I doubted she would bring rank morons to a tournament. Any remaining doubts were dispelled by their first round ballots, which were crisp and insightful explanations of their decisions.

They were also terrific sports; they wore their tiaras all day, judged the Public Forum final together, and took pictures with the finalists and teams. I really hope they come back.

That got me thinking about aspects of exclusivity in our event. Public Forum, for all its foibles, has at its core a belief that it’s necessary to keep debate honest by routinely injecting fresh blood into the judges’ pool. Oliver Wendell Holmes described the law not in terms of an overarching theory, but rather simply as the accumulated set of actions judges take. If a judge will rule x, then x is law. Debate can be framed the same way. If judges collectively vote for something, then it will win; if not, then it won’t. If you have a stable judging pool with a long apprenticeship period, as exists in LD and Policy, you eventually grow a large body of unwritten rules and conventions that simply must be followed to win a ballot. In Policy and LD, the end result has been emphasis on argumentation that is logically sound, but ultimately unpersuasive; no one is going to change their own beliefs on the strength of most LD and Policy argumentation. But judges will change their ballots, so the students pick up on that, and leave aside the much tougher task of being persuasive.

Public Forum is an attempt to narrow the gap between ballot and belief, by constantly welcoming reasonably intelligent judges who have no preconceived notions of competitive debate. These judges are ignorant of jargon and must have it explained, so jargon is limited. But more to the point, they’re much more likely to vote on what they find more persuasive than some ethereal sense of context-less flow-logic. That keeps the event honest, and it brings a unique set of values to the forensics community.

The inclusiveness of the judging pool in PF highlights the exclusivity of the judging pools in LD and Policy. LD can be judged by novice judges, and the students sometimes adapt with success. LDers will often complain when they actually have to do this, even as they do grudgingly recognize the value of the adaptation skill. However, Policy doesn’t care at all. And therefore, it’s dying. The barriers to entry for new judges — understanding the event — are the same barriers faced by new programs. Those barriers are prohibitively high in Policy: the learning curve, and most of all, the lack of an immediately apparent educational benefit, together conspire to keep policy a closed and exclusive club. Forensics programs are not immortal, and every time a Policy team dies, it dies for good. We were down to 8 teams from 3 schools at States. Should one of those three programs decide to throw in the towel, especially Lexington, the league will likely have to follow suit.

I get a sense in talking to the true believers in Policyland that they’re waltzing on the deck of the Titanic; as a culture, they’re convinced of the complete superiority of the event, so they cannot countenance adjusting to others. Many don’t even recognize the value and abilities of those who do LD or PFD, to say nothing of IEs. So nothing changes. I remain sympathetic to their difficulties in finding rounds, but cannot do much else other than sympathize, and suggest subversively they give LD a whirl, or take a weekend and do Public Forum. I’m not going to start a policy program of my own, certainly.

On top of that, the expense of debate tournaments is amazing; our MFL events still cost $5 to attend, from the smallest Novice tournament to the State tournament. Debate events, however, can run up from $40-75 an entry, easily. As far as I can tell, debate is expensive because debate is expensive, and everyone’s passing the money around in greater amounts. It’s also expensive because travel is the norm, given the difficulty of finding those policy rounds especially. That effect too keeps new schools away; new programs are consistently willing to blow $5 on a day of trying debate or speech, but raise the tag to $75 and then you’re talking money; without a pre-existing, successful debate team in place, most folks aren’t going to bite. Most new programs are going to be creamed at first, until they gain some traction; they’re not going to continue to pay their $75 to get creamed week in and week out, but $5 for a year or two and that’s worth sporadic success until you can get traction.

With spiraling gas and air travel costs, however, the logic flips. I wonder if the debate community isn’t in for a severe retraction in the coming years, with former national circuit programs unable to travel, standing isolated amidst their local neighbor schools they ignored and kept out for years, not due to hostility but the inherent nature of the events we run now. PF will continue to flourish in Massachusetts, and I bet LD would grow given the big schools’ needs to host more local tournaments. But that will be the end of Policy, once and for all. An event cannot survive in the long term, or even maybe the short term, if a smart young lady in a tiara can’t judge it or even appreciate it. Adapt or perish.

the LD post

The world of Public Forum is confronted this month by a particularly Lincoln-Douglas style resolution. The rez declares that civil disobedience in a democracy is a good “weapon in the fight for justice” or some such bombast. I rolled my eyes and realized there was major work ahead of us. Nobody around Massachusetts seemed to understand the November topic except for us, given that it was aimed at extemp-like squads. Civil disobedience, however, is the type of thing any PF team that’s an appendage of an LD team will have reams of background on.

So I trotted out the standard “Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau and oh I guess Rawls” social contract lecture, to give the kids background on approaches the LD types will have down pat. However, PF is not just theory debate. We need facts, and examples, and to prove feasibility to make our case here. Despite that, PF bans plans and counterplans. And the topic is limited to democracy, so we lose the Burma and Tiananmen Square examples. In democracies historically, civil disobedience and expansion of rights usually coincide. Nobody knows if the civil disobedience caused the expansion of rights, but nobody knows that it didn’t either. So that’s not very debatable; we don’t have evidence or even a way of getting evidence.

So harumpf. So aff writes itself, but what do you argue on con? You can argue that other means are better but oops, that’s a counter plan, and verboten by the gods of Public Forum. You can stick to LD style moral justification arguments on why citizens ought not break the social contract, but then if the other side comes up with one good concrete example, most honest judges are going to go for that first. You can start swinging around wildly and say the tyranny of the majority is a good thing, but good luck convincing an average mom of that.

The problem is Public Forum was designed in reaction to problems in other events.   The founders of the event took a list of things they didn’t like about LD and Policy, and built an event that doesn’t permit those exact things from happening.   Therefore, most of its rules forestall negative trends, instead of encouraging positive ones.   But these rules and restrictions prevent more than critical, off-topic arguments; they also hamstring legitimate avenues of on-topic discussion.   That’s not a good way to create a coherent event. PF shouldn’t be the way it is because of negative trends in LD or CX; it should be what it is because it’s good for PF.

We’ll muddle through somehow.   Maybe we’ll come up with a clever way of imagining negative policy consequences to civil disobedience. But at the basic level I think the event as a whole could use some fine tuning, with the security needed to allow the students leeway to debate the issues fully.

I don’t like the coinflip either.   But that’s another post.

Michael Bacon

 Michael Bacon died over the weekend, apparently of suicide.   I didn’t know him superbly well, but he always struck me as one of the good guys.   We talked a bit at the TOC last year; he was a sharp, insightful guy; one of the unsung heroes that skirts around the edges of the activity, and probably does the most to keep it going.

Debate is made the lesser for this loss.

Not Traveling

Thankfully I’m not traveling this weekend. I’m not going to either Glenbrooks or Villiger; I have more than my fill of overgrown national tournaments (the former) or quaint traditional tournaments that never seem to improve (the latter).

I’m also failing to show the one last gasp and fizzle of school spirit remaining in my alma mater, as I will not be attending The Game. One weekend in New Haven a semester is enough for anyone, and the event I run there is displays far more quality and competitiveness than two football teams that haven’t mattered much or even tried that much since the Roosevelt administration. The first one.

Instead, I’m going to Little Lex, a fun little debate scrimmage, and this year I’m even bringing a team. I tend to enjoy tabbing debate tournaments more than speech tournaments these days. They’re all pretty much the same, and they’re all pretty easy; the system has settled more than speech tournaments. Part of it is that the software is more established, I think. Part of it is that debaters don’t mess around with their activity nearly as much as speechies do; the debate world settled on the basics of how we run tournaments about two decades ago, modulo some window dressing which always seems to be aimed at dealing with judges: strikes, mutual preference, and so on.

Speech tournaments have far more confusion, because of the wide array of events that keeps trying to grow, and I also think a somewhat different ethic. We run every MFL speech tournament like it’s nationals; the stakes are who wins, who gets up on stage, and the first priority is a fair even result. MFL debates, however, are sometimes run for what they are; chances to practice, debate and go home a better and more educated competitor. I think it’s important to have both; the speech kids raised a huge hue and cry when we experimented with running 4 prelims and no finals, because of all sorts of competitive reasons. The debaters have been doing this for years, and don’t blink, because at the end of the day they don’t dance around the stage hooting when they win Little Lex. They’re there to hopefully improve, and thus do better at Big Lex, Columbia, Emory and the Harvard Crapshoot, where TOC bids are at stake.

That doesn’t make Little Lex less worthy a tournament; it enhances it, in my opinion. A tournament should be about improving the activity and the experience first, and competitional aspects take a back seat. Now, some tournaments simply cannot be run that way, because no one will be pleased if we award TOC bids at Yale, for instance, in a haphazard way in order to fit in naptime.   But it’s a continuum, and I’m glad that debaters at least have a better sense of where things fall on it.

Of course, my preference for Little Lex also has something to do with sleeping in my own bed, having a 10 minute drive to the school, and being able to go out to dinner with actual adult friends who know nothing of forensics tonight. Life matters.

A mixed advantage

So this public forum topic, which is the first one we’ve really sunk our teeth into, is ideally suited to an extemp squad turned public forum team. It’s a good topic for us, because we’re likely one of the few squads that’s capable of understanding it. We’ve gone over macroeconomics numerous times, discussed deficits, inflationary spending, full employment, and the works.

So we’re poised to recognize what the topic is about. It asks if the US should prioritize eliminating the deficit or further domestic spending. Basically the first order consequence is arguing whether running a deficit is good for an economy. That seems tilted, but you’d be surprised; the consensus is by no means there. If you run a deficit, you expand employment, reduce wealth gaps, and spur more jobs and growth by stimulating demand. This is the playbook of John Maynard Keynes, who inspired the New Deal. The New Deal didn’t end the Depression, but then World War 2 took his ideas much further, and that sure worked economically, for all it’s other vast ills.

However, you also encourage inflation, unstable investment climates, and other negative consequences when you gun for full employment. Run deficits too long, and soon the government is borrowing all the money; there won’t be any left for mortgages and loans for new business. Because of these things, our economy is no longer run with full employment as the goal. Surprised?

And that startling little tidbit reveals that this topic encourages a fascinating debate on the nature of economic society. If you run deficits and aim for full employment, you strengthen the lower reaches of society, encourage equality, and the like. But you also disfavor investment, which if done too much, mean that allocation decisions are being made ineffectively. Make inflation the sole obsession of fiscal policy (as has been done since 1980, not coincidentally the same year that American real wages ceased to grow) and you encourage investment, but also wealth gaps and stagnant growth at the bottom. Wall Street becomes more dynamic, but Main Street suffers for it.

But we’re running deficits now you say? Ah, but those deficits are going into defense and Iraq, not domestic spending; whatever the merits of defense and foreign spending, it has lessened impact on the domestic economy; infrastructure, schools, R&D spending, and the like all create far more domestic economic benefits since, well, they’re here.

It’s the tension between the political left and the right in a nutshell, a vast sweeping statement about how a simple economic policy can affect society and equality and everything else. Liberals, roughly speaking, operate on the principle of compassion and concern for those at the bottom; recognizing that many people are there despite hard work and effort, simply due to luck. Human dignity demands that the lowest standard of living be a good one.

Right wingers think without the fear of the low standard of living, people won’t strive to improve, pushing themselves, society and human knowledge forward. Without that spur, we’re less well off; even the lowest rungs of society do benefit from social advances, and we need that energy to achieve those social advances.

So that’s the debate. Too bad that 95% of the debaters don’t realize it. If you start talking about specific economic programs that you like on negative, you’ve already missed the point: those can be funded by taxes just as much as by deficit spending, and therefore it’s non-resolutional and non-unique. If you talk about government waste and other bugaboos on aff, you’ve also missed the point. The point is how we finance our spending, and what kind of society that makes us. Prime debate stuff there. I wonder if the topic writers had any idea.