Author: Kevin McCaffrey, Assistant Debate Coach
As many high school policy debaters begin to explore the 2023-2024 Economic Inequality topic, the MSU debate team has just completed a season during which we researched some related ideas. I’m hoping sharing some of my experiences and thoughts might help students learn and prepare, and am writing a couple short posts in which I unpack a few ways some arguments and concepts I’ve encountered might pop up in next year’s high school topic.
This second post focuses on criticisms of taxation as a mechanism for redistribution. I’m not sure MSU’s experiences from our past season are likely to be representative of the critiques most likely to be read in high school in the coming season, and the responses we prepared may not be wholly relevant. While there was literature available connecting taxing AI to Basic Income, we chose to focus instead on criticisms of BI as a trojan horse for right-wing austerity politics, and advocated for basic services, including community health care, as an alternative which mitigated those criticisms of BI. While that mini-debate is relevant to next year’s high school topic, the comparative literature base underlying it is likely to be something many summer camps research even more deeply than we did. The most popular links on our topic focused on AI and rights/personhood/humanism, and rarely engaged on questions of taxation or redistribution. Furthermore, a central element of our Aff was an argument that local communities would have authority to set the terms of services provided, which may not comport with definitions of “basic income”. And our Aff was explicitly anti-capitalist (and arguably Marxist), so we rarely debated the Cap K when reading the Aff that taxed AI.
However, given that “fiscal redistribution” likely centers taxation, I thought it might be useful to discuss some of the critical links about taxation that we encountered – even if those are only a subset of evidence critical of redistribution more broadly. I was initially concerned that we’d encounter articles critical of taxation in part because of its necessary interrelationship with the criminal justice system, such as “Mechanisms of the Racial Tax State” (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0896920516670463) or “Taxes, taxpayers, and settler colonialism: Toward a critical fiscal sociology of tax as white property” (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/lasr.12587), but we rarely debated such arguments. One example I can recall was a portion of a book review of Jackie Wang’s Carceral Capitalism (“Jackie Wang: Ghosts of the Civil Dead,” https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3695-jackie-wang-ghosts-of-the-civil-dead) read by a team from UMass-Amherst, that argued that pro-cyclical municipal tax revenues would collapse during downturns, while the costs of privatized service provision would be fixed by contract, resulting in an ever-increasing proportion of revenues being redirected toward repaying private debts while the quantity of services provided continually declined, and the criminal justice implications of an ever-increasing tax burden would fall disproportionately on the most marginalized communities as municipal governments expanded fees and fines in an attempt to generate counter-cyclical revenue.
Defending against links that turn the case such as this one often depend upon being able to command nuances that distinguish your advocacy from the historical failures that most Neg evidence will use as examples, and the details of our advocacy featured in our responses, in ways that don’t necessarily map to the high school topic areas, but may have contextual parallels. We argued that a federal, rather than municipal, locus for tax collection, and service provision through community-controlled centers, rather than privatized third-parties, helped to mitigate the instability and privatization concerns, and insulate the plan from playing a part in the dynamics of municipal exploitation, making it easier to argue that if the Alternative was able to resolve already existing efforts by municipalities to nickel-and-dime marginalized communities, then the plan didn’t prevent that function within the context of a permutation, especially given arguments made in the 1AC that the absence of the plan would also result in expansion of austerity politics that both sides’ evidence agreed were the proximate driving force of those dynamics. Perhaps exploring how discussions of counter-cyclicality and privatized intermediaries could be incorporated into the Affs you’re considering reading could help think through how you might distance your advocacy from these concerns in similar ways. Similarly, considering the question of which communities would bear the burdens of your proposed revenue generation scheme is of obvious importance in being prepared to respond – ideally at a greater level of granularity than simply saying it has progressive effects – but will need to be specific to your advocacy. Although I don’t think we read this evidence in this particular debate, when preparing, we made sure to have evidence that spoke to the demographics of AI-reliant business owners in case we needed it.
Our offense against this link largely focused on why taxation is a powerful tool to combat systemic privilege and inequality, and perhaps more importantly, on why rejecting all potential uses of that tool might be a cure worse than the disease. One of the often underutilized aspects of permutation debates against critiques is the idea that when a Neg team criticizes the plan for being an example of a broader, problematic method, other instances or applications of that method beyond the scope of the plan can also become offense against the Alt, even if they aren’t what the plan specifically is defending. Such a dynamic seems particularly suited to taxes links, especially if combined with an argument that circulating anti-tax discourses, no matter how nuanced their perspective, is more likely to be exploited by reactionary right-wing forces than any left-wing nuances are likely to be emphasized in response. I’ve attached a document that includes both UMass-Amherst’s taxes link card and our most relevant carded responses, in case either is useful to you.
I’ve also included a separate article in that document that might have some utility in answering, and at least serves as a basis for discussing, another link argument that we occasionally debated, that domestic redistribution is dependent upon colonial exploitation of or expropriation from marginalized communities in other countries, whether by the US government, or by the corporations from which taxes are being extracted. We most often answered this link argument analytically, by contextualizing details from 1AC cards that explained why these dynamics would be worsened without the Aff. A similar link argument was specific to the process of AI development and the evidence we sometimes read to answer that version was specific to AI and not likely useful to you. But coincidentally, an article by Elise Klein and E. Fouksman, “Reparations as a Rightful Share: From Universalism to Redress in Distributive Justice,” advocates for a variant of BI that includes transfers to communities in other countries, that could potentially be used in an Aff centered on reasons development assistance is neocolonial, with this version of BI as an alternative that could better redress the historical legacy and ongoing harm of European colonization. It also has a section discussing how a BI could include land rematriation as redress for settler colonialism in the US. I’m not sure how easy it would be to defend the former against “in the US” definitions, or the latter against more limiting definitions of “basic income”, nor how the latter would answer farther-left Alternatives, including those that include rematriating all rather than some of the land but are framed in a way that’s mutually exclusive – but the article’s included, and various sections about how BI could be reinterpreted or reframed could be helpful for answering other link arguments, even if you’re not reading either of the particular things Klein and Fouksman are advocating.
So whether you’re interested in critiquing taxes, or answering such critiques, I hope MSU’s recent experiences may be helpful, even if to a limited degree.