Sunday, January 11, 2015

LD Jan/Feb 2015 - Just Governments & Living Wages - Affirmative Position

Resolved: Just governments ought to require that employers pay a living wage

AFF Position

I feel there are several principle ways in which to affirm this debate. For example, we can erect a comparative advantage framework under which we look at the harms in the status quo, i.e. working people are living in poverty, a solvency mechanism, i.e governments take necessary steps to require employers to provide a living wage thus solving the harm of impoverished workers, and finally we look to the advantages which result from solvency, i.e. perhaps people are healthier, crime decreases, whatever. Indeed, I would expect to hear a lot of debates take this track.  But bear in mind, the resolution is not necessarily asking us to debate whether or not paying a living wage creates advantages or disadvantages.  The real debate, is about what is the role of government in this issue?  A just government ought to do something...that is the real debate.  For this reason, a properly framed comparative advantage debate needs to clearly link the advantages to government legitimacy or justification or duty.

For me, if I were judging this debate (and I am sure I will be), I want to hear why the government ought to be involved in this living wage dispute.  You may be able to make an outstanding case for the benefits of living wage.  You may be able to overwhelmingly convince me that living wages are nothing but good for mankind.  But I will still be expecting you to tell me, why the government ought to require, dare I say, force employers to pay it? Thus, I think a fair amount of time should be given to examine the duties of governments.  Many things are good and beneficial to mankind, but should governments mandate them?  Consider hospitals, immunizations, nutritious food, higher education, etc. Ought just governments require them? Even if the negative can show under the current incarnations of various economic systems there are obvious disadvantages for paying living wages, does that mean governments ought not mandate them? Perhaps, but as every experienced debater learns, in a cross-examination there are very few absolutes unless they favor your position.

Rerum Novarum

Consider the following proclamation made in 1891.

Leo XIII (1891):
Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.

For Pope Leo, the negotiation of wages between employers and laborers was to be mostly a private matter between individuals.  However, facing the realities of an impoverished 19th century working class, struggling with low wages and often, harsh working conditions, Pope Leo advocated that governments had a duty to uphold precepts of social justice; an ideal that was espoused by many social contract theorists throughout the centuries though its roots are found in ancient philosophies.  At the core of social justice is the concept of distributive justice which concerns the distribution of goods within a society and certainly in this debate, one may consider the impact of wage disparity in rich capitalist countries such as the U.S. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The justifications for government support of distributive justice can involve a wide-range of values rooted in both deontological and consequential moral theory, egalitarianism, human rights and dignity, and simple justice or giving each his due under principles of just deserts. A just government will uphold these values and a government which does not ensure living wages for workers is not performing its duty. This is the Aff position in a nut-shell, but first let's look at the practical benefits of a living wage.

Characteristics of Living Wage

To put some definition into what constitutes a living wage.  For this we can compare definitions from two different countries. First the U.S.:

Bergen, et al 2012:
Living wage ordinances (or statutes) require wages to be paid based upon some definition of need rather than skill. These types of ordinances have generally been applied to private sector employers who receive payment of public funds to pay their employees, as well as to the employees of the political entity itself. The concept is to create a threshold or minimum wage level that keeps the employee out of poverty. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that most living wage ordinances cover less than one percent of the local workforce. Indeed, even supporters of living wages understand the campaigns to be a mere but necessary "first step" in poverty alleviation. Pollin and Luce argue in their influential book that "among other things, successful living wage campaigns create political momentum that can be used to build support for more ambitious measures to eliminate low-wage poverty in the United States.[page 109]

A definition from the UK:

Fullfact 2012:
The Living Wage is defined in the document as:
“a wage that achieves an adequate level of warmth and shelter, a healthy palatable diet, social integration and avoidance of chronic stress for earners and their dependents”. The London Living Wage is set according to two calculation methods – ‘Basic Living Costs’ and ‘Income Distribution’. The ‘Basic Living Costs’ approach makes estimates of living costs for various different types of household (those with and without children, for instance), according to costs of ‘housing’, ‘council tax’, ‘transport’, ‘childcare’ and all other costs (a ‘regular shopping basket’). All of these factors go into calculating a ‘low cost but acceptable’ standard of living for the average family, and thus works out what hourly rate needs to be paid to finance these.

The Research

There are relatively few studies relating conclusions on the economic impacts of living wage laws on local economies.  Some notable statistical analysis was performed by David Neumark citing some potentially positive outcomes in which poverty levels were lowered for affected workers despite some moderate job loss (Neumark 2002). More recent studies from the same researcher in 2005, supported the previous study. Associate Professor Stephanie Luce reported in 2010 (and revised in 2011),

Luce 2010:
While there were many voices predicting what living wage ordinances would do, there are far fewer studies of actual outcomes. Many of the claims about living wage ordinances rely on minimum wage studies, but that work is not always applicable to living wage ordinances. There are about a dozen reports that have utilized surveys of employers and workers, interviews with city administrators, and evaluations of city contract bidding to assess the impact of living wage ordinances after they have been passed (a full list is available in the appendix). The studies are remarkably consistent in their findings, which contradict most of the “cry wolf” claims. First, these studies find little evidence of job loss or harm to the local economy. Studies by Neidt et. al (1999), Brenner (2005), Brenner and Luce (2005), Reich (2005), and Howes (2002) all find no evidence of employment loss due to living wage ordinances. Williams and Sanders (1998) do a one-year assessment of the LA living wage ordinance and find “no significant positive or negative effect on the city's fiscal health or the local economy from the living wage ordinance.” 

Most U.S. based studies focus on the impact of local governments mandating that firms working under contract with the government, pay living wages.  The effects of these ordinances are studied and extrapolated to the wider economy. A 2014 analysis of data from a Sonoma, California ordinance. In that study, the overall cost impact to the county was claimed to be less that 0.03% of the county budget with biggest increase coming from high wages to In-Home Supportive Service (IHSS) workers.

Wicks-Lim 2014:
Higher pay for IHSS workers could improve IHSS services and enable more low-income frail elderly and disabled adults to remain living at home. This would reduce government spending on nursing care facilities and give the State a financial incentive to re-negotiate its IHSS cost-sharing arrangement, even after accounting for an increase in the demand for the improved IHSS services. Such a re-negotiation could reduce the fiscal impact of IHSS raises on the County to as low as $5.7 million, equal to 0.4 percent of the total budget (1.5 percent of the General Fund), or $35 annually per Sonoma County household.

My advice to you, is to always prefer a-posteriori evidence.  This is what is commonly known as empirical and so is based upon actual observation or measurement. In other words, this is not a-posteriori; "if a living wage is enacted, the results will be..." Note the speculative language, "if" and future tense, "will be".  The following is a-posteriori; "A living wage was enacted and the results were..." Note the evidence is now based on results observed or measured after-the-fact. If properly measured, a-posteriori evidence should be preferred.

The Global Affirmative

Remember this resolution does not specify a nation, particular government or type of government. So it is acceptable to invoke pathos from locales where income disparity is extreme, there are few if any paths for upward mobility and laborers are often exploited by employers.  The so-called "sweatshops" often associated with the apparel industry, while often praised by economists for paying higher than the local minimum wage, nevertheless pay far below what is deemed a living wage, even by local standards and often force laborers to work in substandard conditions for long hours and forcefully prevent labor unions from organizing. But if wages increased what would be the impact on the consumer price of goods?

Miller 2003:
Economists Robert Pollin, James Heintz, and Justine Burns recently looked more closely at this question (Pollin et al. 2001). They examined the impact that a 100 percent increase in the pay for apparel workers in Mexico and in the United States would have on costs relative to the retail price those garments sell for in the United States. Their preliminary findings are that doubling the pay of nonsupervisory workers would add just 50 cents to the production costs of a men's casual shirt sold for $32 in the United States, or just 1.6 percent of the retail price. And even if the wage increase were passed on to consumers, which seems likely because retailers in the U.S. garment industry enjoy substantial market power, Pollin et al. argue that the increase in price is well within the amount that recent surveys suggest U.S. consumers are willing to pay to purchase goods produced under "good" working conditions as opposed to sweatshop conditions. (See Elliot and Freeman [20001 for a detailed discussion of survey results.) More generally, using a sample of forty five countries over the period 1992 97, Pollin et al. found no statistically significant relationship between real wages and employment growth in the apparel industry. Their results suggest that the mainstream economists' claim that improving the quality of jobs in the world export factories (by boosting wages) will reduce the number of jobs is not evident in the data (Pollin et al. 2001). [page 10 of source document]

The Philosophy of Living Wages

Because so much cost-benefit evidence is conflicting, I believe the most meaningful debates will be primarily philosophical with real-world evidence serving to legitimize the conceptual ideas. Generally speaking I think most debaters and judges will understand the duties of government as conceived by the various manifestations of the social contract.  The basic idea that individuals in the state of nature have chosen to limit their rights and absolute freedoms and submit to the authority of rulers or a government whose duty is to protect their remaining rights. For example, according to John Locke (Second Treatise of Government) government is "obliged" to protect everyone's life, liberty and estates. Thus, natural liberties (unrestrained freedom) is replaced by "civil liberties" (freedoms granted by the state). This leads to what I believe is firm foundation for the Affirmative position in this debate.

Heyman 1991:
To understand the classical notion of absolute rights, it is essential to recognize that "absolute" had a different meaning than it does in modern usage. In classical terminology, an absolute right was one that was inherent in the individual as such, and not derived from his relations as a member of society. To say that a right was absolute, however, did not mean that it could never be restricted. Instead, absolute rights were subject to regulation for the public good, especially to protect the rights of others. In other words, although absolute rights had their origin in nature, they were defined in terms of civil rather than natural liberty.[page 533]

And so the Affirmative position is a just society, that is, a just government ensures the security of one's civil liberties regulated as needed for the "common good".

Velasquez et al 1992:
What exactly is "the common good", and why has it come to have such a critical place in current discussions of problems in our society? The common good is a notion that originated over two thousand years ago in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. More recently, the contemporary ethicist, John Rawls, defined the common good as "certain general conditions that are...equally to everyone's advantage". The Catholic religious tradition, which has a long history of struggling to define and promote the common good, defines it as "the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment." The common good, then, consists primarily of having the social systems, institutions, and environments on which we all depend work in a manner that benefits all people. Examples of particular common goods or parts of the common good include an accessible and affordable public health care system, and effective system of public safety and security, peace among the nations of the world, a just legal and political system, and unpolluted natural environment, and a flourishing economic system. Because such systems, institutions, and environments have such a powerful impact on the well-being of members of a society, it is no surprise that virtually every social problem in one way or another is linked to how well these systems and institutions are functioning.

Bear in mind, this is only one such approach to defending the Aff position. One which defends the notion that in a just and orderly society, absolute property rights, and in fact all natural rights are limited to serving the common good.  This is why governments are justified to seize freedoms, properties and even life under certain conditions which serve the public interest.

The Affirmative Values

I am always asked, what value should I choose for my case and I refer you to my Lincoln-Douglas entries on Values in LD.  Still, I believe since we are asked to define "just" actions, it is reasonable to consider those values which most directly link to "justification" as the proper interpretation of the term "just" and consider the concepts of morality or determination of right and wrong behavior. While morality is often criticized as subjective, such comments ignore more objective theories of moral realism. I will leave it to you to explore that line of argumentation. Since governments must look to the well-being of their citizens it is logical to consider any of the major values esteemed by societies, rather than individual values.  There is societal welfare or societal well being which can be upheld by balancing individual liberties or protecting civil liberties and even by securing natural rights (as constrained by common good). Inherent in the concept of common good, is the idea of just deserts which naturally links to Aristotle's concept of justice. However, it may be a problem running just deserts under a Rawlsian framework.  Finally I see merit in certain individual values such as human dignity and possibly autonomy, but I think the latter may be slightly more difficult.

Here is the Neg position


Bartik, Timothy J. 2002. "Thinking about Local Living Wage Requirements." Upjohn Institute Working Paper No. 02-76. Kalamazoo, MI: W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.


Fullfacct 2012; How widespread is the London living wage?; April 26, 2012; accessed 12/18/2014.

Heyman, S.; (1991); THE FIRST DUTY OF GOVERNMENT: PROTECTION, LIBERTY AND THE FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT; Duke Law Journal, Vol 41:507; 1991; accessed 12/18/2014

Luce, S; 2010. The Cry Wolf Project; Policy brief; accessed 12/18/2014.

Miller, J.; Why Economists Are Wrong About Sweatshops and the Antisweatshop Movement; Challenge vol 46, no 1, Jan-Feb 2003; pp 93-122; accessed 12/17/2014.
(available online as a .doc file download)

Neumark, D; (2002): How Living Wage Laws Affect Low-Wage Workers and Low-Income Families; Public Policy Institute of California; 2002; accessed 12/18/2014.

Pope Leo VIII (1891); Rerum Novarum, Rights and Duties of Captial and Labor; Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on capital and labor; Libreria Editrice Vaticana; accessed 12/18/2014.

Velasquez,M., Andre, C, Shanks, T, Meyer, SJ, Meyer, M; The Common Good; Issues in Ethics V5, N1 (Spring 1992); accessed 12/17/2014.

Wicks-Lim, J. 2014; An Assessment of the Fiscal Impact of the Proposed Sonoma County Living Wage Ordinance; Political Economy Research Institute; accessed 12/18/2014.


  1. If I were to construct a Plan for this resolution, with the inherency being poverty, what should the plan text be?

    1. First of all in NSDA (formerly National Forensics League) debate there is no need for a plan or plan text. Otherwise, I would suggest any plan specifying USFG action is over-limiting since the resolution does not place such a restriction on the Aff world. There is no reason to believe that if the USFG enacted a policy requiring a "living wage" (which would have to be somehow tied to local or state standards of living) that worker abuse in Asian sweatshops would decrease, as an obvious example. In fact there is strong support for the contention that conditions in countries which do not enact similar plans may worsen due to the impacts of globalization. But that's me thinking out loud without doing research on policy implications and having no practical LD-on-the-TOC-type experience even though I coach and have written some research papers on policy debate. I suggest, if you need to craft a good plan text designed to satisfy the topically requirements of the circuit you debate in, you should consult other sources. For example, perhaps you can ask the same question on the Cross-X 'Other forms of debate' forum and receive some helpful advice.

  2. My question is, is it possible to affirm the resolution without winning on empirical studies and evidence? Meaning, can the affirmative win by saying the government has an obligation to mandate a living wage because they have an obligation to try to alleviate poverty which is the intent behind a living wage even if the negative provides better studies and economic evidence that shows the consequences are actually bad?

    1. Yes you can and I have seen it done in debates I have judged. I have seen purely philosophical cases which do not claim any empirics as you suggest. Nevertheless, know your judge (pay attention to her preferences, especially her views of philosophy versus more pragmatic analyses) and be prepared to at least refute the Neg empirical claims which are almost certain to be part of their case.

  3. I may be taking this wrong way, but reading the heyman quote I was wondering if it would appropriately used to back up an argument against an economic freedom neg case. To say something like, no freedoms or rights are absolute so this one, in this case may be limited for the common good of all people (considering there is evidence that a living wage can be beneficial to businesses as well.) Is this a bad argument to make?

    1. In my opinion, it can be a very good argument to make. Just be sure to provide something that shows living wage benefits the common good.


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