A Reflection on PKD Nationals

Being a week out of the tournament, a little reflection is always a good thing. In terms of results, we exceeded any expectations we had going in. Kevin and I made it to finals, and received the distinction of Superior in prelims, meaning we were in the top 10% of seeding. Bayley and Raffi were award an Excellent distinction, meaning they were in the top 30% of seeding.

The tournament as an event was in itself was a unique experience. As a budding team, St. Olaf Debate has been trying to find exactly where we fit in terms of the larger forensics community. So, in typical forensics fashion, here’s three points of analysis on what we experienced at PKD, juxtaposed against last year’s NPDA nationals experience, and what it means for the team.

Tournament Logistics

Basically anyone who was at PKD will tell you the tournament this year was, shall we say, questionably run. Rounds of different styles of debate were run back to back with no transition time in between. Which just on face seems like a bad idea. At the end of each day, the tournament was somewhere shy of two hours behind schedule. We didn’t find out who made quarterfinals until nearly 1:00AM on Saturday. Compared to NPDA, PKD loses pretty handily on  this front.


At NPDA Nationals last year, you could feel the elitism is the air. I understand that saying seems unnessarily exclusionary and hypocritical, but I digress. Most of the people at the tournament regularly traveled the national circuit, smaller schools were all but nonexistant, and in general we just never really felt welcome. PKD was pretty much the polar opposite. We actually knew several coaches there from Minnesota schools who were willing to be our surrogate coaches when we needed things, people at tab and registration seemed excited to have St. Olaf back at the tournament (apparently back in the school’s forensics heyday in the 90’s, St. Olaf regularly attended the tournament), and in some sort of intangible way everyone just seemed friendlier. We genuinely enjoyed our time there and referred to the week as “Spring Break, Part I”.

Debate Style

Really, this is the big one, and PKD wins by miles. We had to really work for every single  round because the  competition was tough, but we never felt like we lost the round because we got excluded due to stylistic concerns. At NPDA, the culture definitely centered around speaking as fast as you possibly can with no concern for clearness of delivery while making every impact as large in magnitude as possible (if you’re not talking about human extinction due to genocide, thermonuclear war, or global warming, then you’re doing it wrong there). It’s basically just circuit Policy debate without the cards.

PKD felt like everything we want Parli to be. First, we were allowed internet access during prep time. The purpose, however, ended up being more for fact-checking and clarifying, rather than some sort of evidence arms race or having to learn an entirely new idea on the spot. Second, all the resolutions were specific enough to make prep time meaningful while allowing both teams to be flexible in what they specifically ran. Even better, the distinction between facts cases, policy cases, and value cases were always very clear and ended up being debated well. Third, using theory was permissible. Most judges didn’t love the idea of arbitrary procedurals, but they understood the necessary role it played in debate. We had multiple judges vote on good, reasonable topicality. Best of all, the debate was just grounded in reality. People used link stories and impacts that you could actually say straight-faced outside of a round with a delivery style appropriate for a real public speaking event. If we had to make a comparison, each round felt like an outround at state. We have no reservations about making this St. Olaf’s regular national tournament.

In 2014, St. Olaf is PKD-bound.

True to our credo, we engaged the world through substantive debate, strengthened friendships, and yes, won some awesome trophies.

True to our credo, we engaged the world through substantive debate, strengthened friendships, and yes, won some awesome trophies.


PKD Finals, The prison-industrial complex is the American Apartheid

In much the same way that we were on the right side of the resolution in quarterfinals, we were definitely on the wrong side of one. A little background, the resolution more than anything was talking about the mandatory minimum laws put forth by the Reagan administration. Crack cocaine, which is more easily accessible to people of low socioeconomic status and in particular African-American communities, for some random (or not so random reason has a mandatory minimum prison sentence if on your possession waaaaaaay higher than regular cocaine. Most people speculate that’s because regular cocaine is very popular among white CEOs. Regardless of the intent of the law, it’s definitely had clearly disparate racial outcomes, with African-Americans being incarcerated far more than white people.

So being on Opp while debating against the top team from Morehouse College, a historically black institution, was not exactly the best way to start.

The first speaker went up and rattled off at least 20 statistics (the entire Morehouse team of probably ten kids and a coach prepped together), citing all of the things I mentioned in the background and the resultant implications, namely huge economic setbacks as well as disenfranchisement due to being unable to vote as a felon.

On our first speech we started off with two observations of the resolution. First, they had to prove that a prison-industrial complex even exists, with clear evidence of prison owners having a direct influence on lawmaking. Secondly, referencing the original usage of the word in South Africa, we said that any discrimination had to be intentional and explicit. We then made two off-case positions on how they fulfilled neither of those.

After that we went on-case. We didn’t really have a whole lot to say, other than that they didn’t prove a direct causal link between any of the laws and the result incarcerations. We also said that the reason why so many African-Americans were in prison was due to historical and socioeconomic factors. Specifically, we referenced how the GI Bill after WW2 excluded African-Americans from affordable housing, meaning blacks were not able to access the largest source of wealth a person ever owns, setting back generations of inherited wealth. We also said that black communities were less likely to have parents and leader figures that had gone to college, meaning there are fewer support networks for high school students which translates to African-American students being less likely to go to college or even pursue scholarships that they’re qualified for. However, this second part came across as “Blacks don’t value education,” and we got a lot of dirty looks and even “for shamed”. For the record, this is definitely a thing and not racist conjecture.

They came back and said that proving something explicit would be impossible, but the intent is clearly demonstrated in the crack versus cocaine laws, of course lobbying happens as prisons are a 1.3 billion dollar industry, the GI Bill isn’t important since we had integrated units in WW2, and we were just being offensive by saying the thing about college. They also extended across a lot of their statistics, because there wasn’t really a whole lot we could say in that regard.

Other than basically just reclarifying our positions and hammering the idea that they’re not demonstrating any causality between the laws, we also added that if prison owners really had influence with congressmen, they wouldn’t exert that influence along racial lines and would just jack up sentences on everyone to get as many people in prison as possible.

In the end, we ended up losing the round. We’re not really sure why or by how much as they didn’t announce the judging decision specifically in the awards ceremony or give us ballots from the final round. In all honesty, I as an individual believe we won the round on the flow. In the final speeches, they mostly just recited their statistics and said that they had clearly demonstrated the racist intent of the law and its negatives consequences. They said that in the face of all their statistics, the judges had to vote for them. They also flat out called Kevin and I personally ignorant and prejudiced, which struck me as a low blow, but I understand the value of ethos as a debater. In our final speech, we highlighted the three burdens they had to meet independently: to demonstrate a prison-industrial complex exists, that the law was explicit and intentional in its racism, and that there is a direct causal link between the laws and the outcome statistics they cite. I could see how they won the intentional point, but I think they essentially dropped the other two. The never had an answer to why prison owners would prefer to see racial discrimination rather than sentences jacked up on everyone, suggesting the absence of a prison-industrial complex. They also never had any sort of response to the actual content of our GI Bill argument, which framed all of their arguments as correlation rather than causation. However, we never had a good response as to why crack should have such an obscenely higher minimum sentence when compared to regular cocaine, and I could see how in the right context that could be interpreted as a demonstration of intention, a prison-industrial complex, and direct causation, though I don’t personally find the argument to be persuasive.

The reason we probably lost was in the rebuttals. We tried too hard to win everything on the flow rather than just isolating the burdens they never really addressed, and I think the most important issues were muddied by minutia and not conveyed clearly enough in the speech. Our opponents were absolutely fantastic speakers and really brought home the terrible things that happen in the status quo as evidence of deliberate and systemic discrimination while strongly appealing to the judges’ emotions. Debate is a communication event, and they were without a doubt the better communicators in the round.

Nevertheless, Kevin and I went out swinging. We had many people come up afterwards to tell us that the round was one of the best they had ever watched. It was certainly one of the best we’ve ever participated in. Kevin and I were ecstatic to have made it as far as we got, and we were so happy to make the nation’s debate community know (and maybe fear) St. Olaf College.

PKD Semifinals, The USFG should take greater responsibility in the health of its citizens

I’m currently in a health care economics class and Kevin currently works as a MN Senate intern where they’re currently discussing how to structure the state health care exchange required by the Affordable Care Act, so this was basically our bread and butter. We ran a plan saying that the USFG should mandate that all of the state health care insurance exchanges scheduled to go up in 2014 should offer no more than 20 plans, and that the 20 plans would be chosen by a state-commissioned review board. We said that would actually increase competition since 20 plans is a small enough number that uninsured people actually look at and assess the plans rather than using cognitive shortcuts.

Basically the entire debate came down to a link battle. They said that limiting the market to 20 plans would destroy competition which accordingly destroys the world, people die of diseases due to the new absence of health care, etc. So Kevin and I just kept repeating enthusiastically, “Capitalism is predicated on perfect information.” Which apparently ended up working out just fine, because we won on a 3-0 decision. The judges did say that we probably could’ve have been more specific because we got out of a DA links only offering details about the Affordable Care Act that we omitted in our first speech. Nevertheless, we were heading on to finals.

PKD Quarterfinals, The Arab Spring has failed

Kevin and I made quarterfinals! We found out that Bayley and Raffi just missed the cutoff, and the team they faced in the sixth prelim ended up making it to quarters, so they were really right on the fence.

Kevin and I ended up getting Gov, which is unequivocally the better side. You can debate semantics about what the Arab Spring’s goal was and maybe suggest that saying it has already failed is too strong of a claim, but just gut reaction most people are going to say the resolution is true.

We defined the resolution as a facts case and borrowed a page from the State quarterfinal with Carleton and made some straight-up mean necessary but insufficient burdens for Opp. Specifically, we said the Arab Spring was defined as pro-democratic uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. Democracy is defined by Freedom House in four primary dimensions: civil liberties, transparency, rule of law, and political participation. Accordingly, Opp had to demonstrate that the majority of the countries involved in the Arab Spring saw marked gains in all four dimensions of democracy, which, one, just didn’t happen, and two, is pretty much impossible to prove in eight minutes. We went on to list all 20 of the countries in the region that experienced some sort of public protest, no matter how minor, and stated that only Tunisia saw any sort of improvement, but not even in all four dimensions.

They ran some T that I personally never quite understood, saying that the point of the Arab Spring was to be peaceful, and so we can’t reference any sort of conflicts that resulted in violence. They then ran one off-case position saying that that the Arab Spring lead to democracy at least being in the public consciousness.

Kevin said that we had essentially the same interpretation as their T-shell, you can just look to see if the countries saw any gains before the military crackdowns, and just talking about democracy has no terminal impact. We won on a 2-1 decision, with the dissenting judge voting on T.

PKD Rounds 5 and 6

The resolutions respectively were “The United States Federal Government should significantly increase its engagement with Cuba,” and “This House should more vigorously address the issue of unsustainable population growth.”

We’re willing to admit we’re a little behind in terms of the blog, it’s been a crazy couple of days, so we’ll give you the Spark Notes version of these rounds. Round 5 for both teams was just debating the merits of the Cuban embargo, and Round 6 ranged from contraceptive measures all the way to China’s one-child policy. And about twenty jokes before and after the round on how we should’ve ran natural selection.

PKD Round 4, This House cherishes the Reagan legacy

Bayley and Raffi, Gov

Bayley jumped at the idea of getting to be “the good little Republican” that she is. However, the round ended up having very little to do with Ronald Reagan. They interpreted the resolution to mean, “The United States federal government cherishes Reagan’s legacy of developing nuclear power.” Accordingly, they offered the plan of having the United States investing in thorium reactor nuclear power plants (which are super cool and you should definitely check them out).

Opp was not pleased with that interpretation and spent their entire 8 minute constructive running topicality. The judge in the round said beforehand that he was okay with speed, so Bayley went in guns ablazin’ and just outright spread them on the theory, reverse voting issues and everything. So the round depends exclusively on T.

Alex and Kevin, Gov

We decided to approach it as a value case, but our value was American prosperity with a criterion of net benefits; not exactly innovative. We said the resolution referred to Ronald Reagan’s legacy on immigration and talked about how the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act passed under the Reagan administration lead to increased cultural appreciation, long-term economic growth, a fairer jobs market, and increased bipartisanship.

Our opponents said that our definition was limiting, but never actually offered a topicality shell. They then talked about other aspects of Reagan’s administration like Reaganomics, Iran-Contra, and Star Wars.  We provided answers to all of their stuff, saying it was either insignificant or, in the case of Reaganomics, actually a good thing. However, they never denied that any of those wonderful things with immigration happened, so we got to flow through a bunch of fun impacts.

PKD Round 3, This House believes, when in conflict, free markets should be valued above protectionism

Bayley and Raffi, Opp

This round took an interesting tack. Gov took the more traditional approach to the resolution, saying the only thing it asked the debaters to do was compare and contrast the two ideas, with Opp not being allowed to claim “do both”. Bayley and Raffi offered a counter-definition, saying that “in conflict” meant in times of actual strife, whether it be economic crisis, war, etc. The two interpretations aren’t as different as one might expect. The examples they cite are really the only times when we’re forced into an actual “choose one” type of decision. They said the competitors were pretty upset (Raffi said, “If we had those arguments ran against us, we would have been pissed”), but the judge has a CEDA background and didn’t take offense to the idea or anything. They were somewhat unsure of the overall result.

Alex and Kevin, Opp

Being a liberal economics major, I just lost it when we got the resolution. I was made to debate this resolution. Our opponents’ case was based around the basic virtues of capitalism, citing things like increased choice and economic growth. We responded by saying that no protectionism allows for hyper poverty, negative externalities like pollution, and economic collapse in 2008. We also added that Gov never provided any examples where there’s any actual conflict with the ideas, and accordingly you never see any of there impacts in times where we can’t have both. Strangely, Opp defined the value as capitalism compared to our value of justice as equality of opportunity. We said their value has no inherent worth, which apparently they agreed with as they adopted our value in the final speech.