Let's have a little debate

Matt Towery
Posted: Apr 28, 2006 12:04 AM

The decision to inject humor into the world of opinion with my lighthearted column last week proved that plenty of people would rather fight than laugh.

But that's OK. For now, let's try a new tact.

As a high school student in the 1970s, I had the pleasure of winning what was then called the National Bicentennial Debate Championship. For the years -- too many years, in fact -- that the nation celebrated America's 200th birthday, the debate championship was held in historic Williamsburg, Virginia.

Those years of debating were fun, and also, they thrust me into the first stages of a career as an attorney and then an elected official.

Readers of this column know that once I took on the job of interpreting public opinion, I stopped arguing for only my own opinions, and instead began working hard to fairly and accurately interpret and contextualize the opinions of you, the public.

In so doing, I've learned a lot, including the fact that there is no shortage of bright minds out there, or of strong opinions.

So let's have a debate, you and I. Here's your chance to wind up and let me have it -- to show me up.

Here are the rules:

1. You must oppose the statement I'll write in the first segment of my topic offering. Let's call this opening segment of the column the PROPOSITION.

2. You must then provide arguments, supported by factual evidence, that refute each of the POINTS that follow my proposed PLAN to solve the problem set forth in the proposition.

3. All this should aim to demonstrate why my plan is a bad one. If you like, feel free to conclude with "counterplan," as the hefty jargon of debate would phrase it.

Responses must not exceed 450 words.

Entries must be e-mailed no later than 4 p.m. EDT, Wednesday, May 3. Send to mtowery@insideradvantage.com.

The winning response will appear in this column two weeks from now.

The winner also will receive a signed copy of one of my books. That and 25 cents might or might not gain you admission to the public library. But hey, it's a nice gesture for someone who's a former debate champion, but who's just been waxed by your forensic prowess (more debate jargon).

Here's the first debate topic:

PROPOSITION: Oil companies should have their practices and prices regulated by government, just as most utilities are regulated.

POINT ONE: Prices and profits are rising.

Source: Bloomberg News Service, April 24: "As the price of crude oil has climbed, hitting a record $73.35 a barrel…the combined profits (of five of the biggest oil companies) topped $111 billion."

POINT TWO: The huge climb in oil prices is directly impacting Americans. Seventy percent of adults responding to a survey said, "The recent increase in gas prices is causing them financial hardship."

Source: The Washington Post/ABC News survey, conducted April 6-9.

While capitalism and business profits are essential to our nation's economy and well-being, there are certain instances when government scrutiny is necessary to decide when excessive price hikes equal excessive corporate profits.

If the profit margin for oil companies is in line with their costs, plus a reasonable mark-up for profit, then cooler heads within these companies might allow prices to remain level.

But just as many states allow utility commissions to regulate industries that have few competitors, and that consume natural resources to provide a common service, so would a soundly constructed version of this same regulatory approach work at the federal level for regulation of the oil industry, which has too few competitors.

POINT THREE: Democrats are seizing public sentiment and might make the dismantling of oil corporations a popular idea, creating a slippery slope of government interference with free markets.

Source: KGO-TV, San Francisco, April 26: "Democrats…went a step further today suggesting that (oil) companies are like monopolies that need to be broken up."

As the number of oil companies selling retail gasoline has dwindled in recent years, it seems more reasonable to regulate their prices and practices, rather than allow anti-corporate sentiment to perhaps destroy not only oil companies, but eventually, other, more competitive industries, as well.

PLAN: Create a national petroleum regulatory commission.

Commission members would be appointed by the president and would require Senate confirmation. The commission would be responsible for determining reasonable retail price "ceilings" and would have the power to approve measures necessary to promote the development and use of alternative energy sources to fossil fuels.

While this would appear to be creating another level of government bureaucracy, which goes against conservative or libertarian principles, it would likely prevent an otherwise "off-with-their-heads" approach to the oil companies as prices keep climbing in the years to come.

The commission regulatory model would also allow experts to decide whether profits are out of control, or if, perhaps, increased retail prices don't translate into excessive corporate profits because the oil companies are having to shell out more money for research and development, for damaged refineries, or for other production and distribution costs that aren't always taken into account by critics.

And if prices truly are out of control and unjustified, then appropriate and immediate measures could be taken to curb them.

And there it is. Remember to follow the rules and the basic format set forth above. Use logic and give facts to back your argument.

And remember: Half the fun of debating can be arguing on behalf of something you don't necessarily believe in.

I look forward to someone beating me in this debate! Just remember, you only have 450 words in which to do it.

Good luck.