Wednesday, November 2, 2011

PF 2011 December Topic Analysis

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Resolved: In the United States, current income disparities threaten democratic ideals.

The NFL December resolution for Public Forum Debate promises to be an interesting topic, It will force debaters to define a set of democratic ideals and then try to convince a judge that the widening gap between the rich and the poor in the United States is threatening those ideals.

A democracy is a form of government where all people are said to have an equal voice in the affairs which effect their lives.  These include all manner of economic, security, health and welfare, and energy policies just to name a few.  Ideally, an individual's opinions should carry as much weight as another's opinion, regardless of their personal economic standing and it seems obvious, this resolution advocates economic standing is threatening the democratic ideal of equality when it comes to shaping policy in the United States.

Many studies have been published which provide evidence for the claim the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer and fewer and fewer people are controlling more and more of the money. And, as the researcher will soon discover, there are also studies which tend to support the view the voice of America's poor is becoming weaker while more political attention is given to the wealthy.  The statistics and numbers will no doubt pour out of debate rooms and flood the halls of American schools this December as judges and debaters are forced to wade through rivers of numerical data.  But for this resolution, perhaps pathos will play a much bigger role in deciding rounds than ever before.

Wealth vs. Income
This debate topic will examine the distribution of income in the United States.  Understand that income is not the same as wealth and therefore, I am inclined to think the National Forensics League has been careless in the language of the resolution. Income is the amount of money an individual earns in their paycheck and in interest and dividends from their savings and investments.  The U.S. Federal Government levies a tax on income.  Wealth, on the other hand is a measure of an individual's total financial worth after subtracting debts.  Wealth is often tied up in long-term investments which do not necessarily generate income but easily could if needed simply, by selling the asset or converting the investment into cash.  So wealth is a measure of assets which have a market and are sellable, such as real-estate, stocks, bonds, financial instruments, savings plans, various properties, etc. Therefore, one may be wealthy but not necessarily have a large income. Conversely, and this is the weakness of the resolution language, a person with a large income may not necessarily be wealthy if most of the income is consumed on revolving debt and non-durable goods.  The unfortunate wording, in my opinion, forces us to find a definition which equates income and wealth or we must generally assume that people with higher incomes tend to have higher wealth in order to meet what I perceive is the intent of the resolution.

Distribution of Wealth and Income
Sociologists and economists study the distribution of wealth in the United States and around the world and as a result, we see that generally speaking, 1 percent of the population holds nearly half of the nation's wealth. Further we see that 80 percent of Americans hold less than 10 percent of the financial wealth.  This is the wealth disparity in America. A small minority controls most of the wealth, while the vast majority have very little.  In looking at the trends, however, one sees the disparity has been fairly consistent through the decades with only a slight upward trend in favor of the wealthiest.  A different story emerges when looking at income. Comparing the wealth of large wage owners versus lower income wage earners, one sees a sharper disparity. It may seem intuitive, but indications are, lower wage earners are becoming less wealthy which shows us that more and more, the low-income people are becoming less able to save or invest their incomes into wealth generating holdings. This could mean the ability for lower wage earners to build wealth is decreasing.

Statistical Traps
Beware of statistics wars when researching this resolution.  Very often one finds alarming statistics which speak of sharp changes in the disparity between the haves and the have-nots.  Don't be fooled by the numbers game.  If I take a figure for the year 2009 and compare it to the year 2008 one does well to remember I am citing only two data-points and no conclusions can be drawn from such an insignificant sample.  If I compare a 2010 figure to a 1950 figure, I am still comparing two data-points.  Proper studies will consist of multiple data points collected over decades. Only then will the true trends begin to emerge and the natural variation (statistical 'noise') which may occur year to year becomes less significant.  Looking at the figures over the long term will reveal the disparity between the wealthy and non-wealthy is relatively flat while the disparity between incomes is increasing.

The Link Between Wealth and Power
For the purpose of this discussion, let us define power as the quality which allows a person to exert influence over one's environment in order to accomplish desired goals.  Quite often in common parlance, we hear people speak of the "rich and powerful" and so we naturally believe there is a link between wealth, income and power.  It goes without saying, I think, that in the United States, money equals power.  Money buys expertise, influence, resources, and attention allowing those who have money to exert the necessary pressure to benefit the wealthy and make it easier for the wealthy to gain more wealth.  There are many theories which attempt to explain the stratification of wealth and power in most societies.  In the United States, for example, we are aware of three social classes, low, middle and upper, mainly divided by income and the political power exerted by these classes tends more and more to be concentrated in the upper class.

Democracy and Power
I find it interesting this debate resolution is introduced at a time of unprecedented growth of democracy as a form of government.  The democracy movement currently sweeping northern Africa and parts of the Middle-East are evidence of the growing acceptance of democracy and the ideals inherent in that form of government. Nevertheless, identifying the ideals that are fueling the current democracy movement may be impossible.  Quite often, democracies collapse into authoritarian forms of government very rapidly and in some cases there may be a correlation to the rise of a small power elite. One of the key principles of democracy is the idea of political freedom or self-determination devoid of oppression and coercion by special interests.  It is a government in which the governed enjoy an equal voice in deciding the policies which affect their lives and livelihoods.  But when a democratic society becomes stratified and power is concentrated with a wealthy elite, the government becomes an oligarchy and most oligarchies are or become tyrannical.

The issue this resolution brings to light, is will the current trend in income disparity lead to the collapse of democracy in the United States and if so, when will it happen?

The PRO Burden
PRO must establish the relationship between between power and income and prove that the disparity between the haves and have-nots threatens the ideals of democracy.  Connecting the dots between wealth, income and power should not prove too difficult as there are plenty of articles, papers and studies which discuss this topic.  Proving that disparities threaten democratic ideals is another matter and will depend mainly on the individual judges hearing the arguments.  I think it is important to identify which democratic principles are threatened by the income disparity.  For judges who tend to favor analytical or evidence-centered arguments, this may not be particularly simple.  The debater will need to rely on cogent analysis and historical examples.  For judges who are less driven by evidence, good pragmatic arguments may be persuasive since this is one of those topics in which it is very difficult to not let personal experience influence a judge's opinion.

The CON Burden
CON can utilize many tactics to win the debate.  First, CON can try to show that the present disparity is not really increasing significantly.  This will require a careful analysis of the statistical information and some knowledge of how trends are identified.  If CON is successful in arguing that the disparity is not growing appreciably, then it begs the question, if the disparity is dangerous, why has American democracy not collapsed already and in fact it has thrived since the industrial revolution?  CON may also argue that even though the disparity has increased, we are no where near the brink of collapse and still have time to correct the imbalance.  For me, though, the most compelling argument against the PRO is the fact that historically, people tend to backlash against growing elitism, especially in nations which have a long history of democratic stability. This means, that as income disparities increase, the voices of the disenfranchised tends to increase which may actually prove that democratic ideals become stronger under such conditions. One need only look to the Occupy Wall Street movement as an example of political backlash against elitism.

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