The plan inclusive counterplan giving education wonks so much trouble

As is obvious from my last week of blog posts, the debate over Oregon’s potential implementation of a Pay It Forward (PIF) scheme is on my mind. Notably, I can’t understand why the anti-PIF education wonks are having so many problems generating good arguments against it. Then it struck me: PIF is a plan inclusive counterplan.

In a traditional policy debate round (of the sort high schoolers do), the debate generally starts with the affirmative team putting forward a plan that they think should be implemented by the government. They give a list of positive impacts (offense) that explain why we should implement their plan. The negative team can respond a number of ways, but one is to provide a counterplan. One particularly devastating counterplan strategy is to provide a plan inclusive counterplan. A plan inclusive counterplan is a type of counterplan that takes the affirmative’s plan and changes it slightly. By including the affirmative team’s plan in their counterplan, the negative team essentially steals all of the affirmative team’s positive impacts (offense), making it very difficult for the affirmative team to win.

So here, you can imagine the education wonks as the affirmative team. They offer the following plan: let’s levy a tax against the general public to provide direct tuition subsidies for college students. They then give a list of positive impacts: it’s good for the economy, good for the society, and so on.

We can think of the PIF supporters as the negative team offering a plan inclusive counterplan. Their plan inclusive counterplan is this: let’s levy a tax against the general public to provide direct subsidies for college students except let’s exempt those that don’t attend college from the tax. This counterplan gets 100% of the initial plan’s offense. All of the economic benefits and social benefits and whatever else that come from tuition subsidies are still accessed by the counterplan. But this single change makes the tax more progressive and (I’d argue) more distributively fair. So it gets all of the initial plan’s offense plus a bit more offense.

If you were to run a plan inclusive counterplan like this in an actual debate round, you would be slammed with arguments about how abusive it is. The affirmative team would say that the counterplan steals all of the affirmative team’s offensive ground in the round while only changing one trivial detail of their plan. They would argue that allowing this kind of counterplan into organized debate destroys the activity and makes it basically impossible for affirmative teams to win. If the negative team can just take the affirmative team’s plan and then carve out one exception in it, then the negative team will almost always win. And so on.

The upshot of the abuse argument is that it is really difficult to do much after this counterplan has been introduced. It moots all of the affirmative team’s offense. But in real-life policy debates, you can’t argue that the opponents plan inclusive counterplan abusively limits your offensive grounds.

Instead, the education wonks are making what debaters would call non-unique arguments against the counterplan. Because the counterplan is basically the plan with one change, attacks on the counterplan end up being attacks on the plan too! They end up being non-unique (since they apply to both plan and counterplan) and therefore moot in the debate.

The only way to actually attack PIF (the counterplan) without also attacking the initial plan of generally taxing the public to provide higher education subsidies is to make arguments for why exempting non-attendees is bad. That’s it. All other arguments end up being non-unique. I’ve been trying to have a debate about the propriety of excluding non-attendees from the tax, but so far, it’s been obscured by loads of non-unique arguments being put forward by education wonks who don’t seem to understand the technical way in which PIF shields itself from almost all attacks.