Democracy and Inequality -- Topic Dialogue

November 24 2011 by Stefan Bauschard

Tags: democineq,

We are providing this dialogue between Jason Sykes and Julian Gagnon on the December Public Forum topic. [evidence release, evidence update]

(Julian) So the debate coaches voted for "Resolved: In the United States, current income disparities threaten democratic ideals." Guess 472 schools plan on being pro in every debate.  Let the class war begin!

(Jason) While I suspect you're probably right, let's not forget all the debate participants who are presumably represented here. My guess is that the coaches themselves are about 1% of the community. Surely the voice of students, closer to 99% of the community, were represented as well? This resolution offers an opportunity for teams on the con to pay their respects to trickle-down economics and the beneficence of the super wealthy. 

Unlike some resolutions, this topic clearly references the status quo in identifying "current income disparities." As you well know, the facts are clear. The top 1% (generally with annual household incomes larger than around $550,000) hold an enormous share of the wealth, and their piece of the pie is growing. 

One of the key phrase of this resolution for many teams will be "threaten democratic ideals." Because these words also refer to an existing state of affairs, teams on the con should require the pro to demonstrate the uniqueness of their proposition. Pro teams would be well served by identifying systemic factors related to income disparity that underlie "other" mitigating threats to democratic ideals. As examples, population dispersal, reaction to diseases and natural disasters, and levels of education potentially threaten democratic ideals, and they can also be consequences of income disparity.

(Julian) I could be wrong but I am fairly certain that only coaches have an official vote on the monthly public forum topic.  Certainly some coaches get input from their students but other authoritarians, like myself, do not believe in representative democracy, and give the 99% NOTHING! 

There are a number of ways to calculate income disparities but according to many the problem is getting worse.  On that point I agree, most of the literature seems to point in that direction.  According to Jilani, income inequality in the U.S. is now on par with Uganda, and worse than Pakistan (Apparently, the gap between rich and poor in the U.S. is worse than in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen.

As for the "facts being clear," I cannot say I agree with you here.  In a Slate Magazine series on wealth inequality, Timothy Noah stated: "Income inequality in the United States has not worsened steadily since 1915."  Numerous think-tanks and economists have rebutted many of the statistics.  As Rector and Hederman from the Heritage Foundation point out: "These figures are flawed by the exclusion of taxes and social safety net spending and by the fact that the ‘fifths’ do not contain equal numbers of people." Everything is debatable right?

The con has ground to dispute "current income disparities," and conceding this to the pro is a mistake.  A smart con team would put up a diversion here to make the pro explain the math, which should be a time consuming processing, while focusing their time and energy is the second, third and fourth speeches on the rest of the debate.  You are 100% correct that the other important phrase in the resolution is "threaten democratic ideals."  However, while establishing alternate causes for the decline in democratic ideals is a strategy, I am not sure if it is the most offensive strategy.    

I think the con must attempt to argue that income equality promotes democracy.  Crazy huh?!  Maybe the place to start is the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United V. Federal Election Commission.  Just to refresh everyone's memory, the Supreme Court essentially ruled that since corporations are "people" they are deserving of free speech and thus no restrictions can be made on contributions on their political message.  (For more information on Citizens United, check out the link.  I think almost any con team could get the pro to agree that free speech is important to democratic ideals.  So the con should be able to argue that income inequality leads to more voices in the democratic process, and that corporations are much like representatives in our democracy, speaking for the people.   

(Jason) I’m glad we’ve started to get to some of the heart of this issue. I agree that much of the debate on this topic will center on what constitutes democratic ideals, the relationship between those ideals and income inequality, and a consideration of other factors affecting and affected by income inequality.

Many teams will wisely investigate the many meanings of “democratic ideals.” While income inequality may be detrimental to some of those ideals, some teams may be hard-pressed to prove that is directly the case because of income’s relationship to democratic ideals. It may also be the case that democratic ideals are preserved and achieved through other mechanisms that income inequality may or may not affect. For example, constitutional protections may ensure votes are distributed in a certain way, but personal financial wealth may change whether a person is able to articulate a political voice, hire a competent attorney, or simply participate in politics. While I agree that “alternate causality” arguments might not be particularly offensive, they a) could still be persuasive to many judges and b) they demonstrate a different relationship between income and democracy.

I’m so glad you raised the question of free speech. My mom used to say, “There’s no such thing as free.” One of the central questions for this topic will be to what degree income inequality translates into advocacy and ultimately political change. While I may have a similar voice to someone earning ten times my salary, it may be the case they that person is better able to affect change by using finances to better affect social and political change. One question raised recently by popular commentator Stephen Colbert is how the political action committee (PAC) system changes the game with respect to political contributions. Because Super-PACs do not have to account for the donations and can make contributions to PACs, it seems virtually impossible to limit anonymous funds from finding their way into prominent political campaigns.  (For more criticisms of super-PACs, read here)

Another possibility to consider is that income inequality fosters democratic ideals. In an environment where “special interests” often dominate political discussions, it is sometimes the case that some causes are elevated precisely because of a stark inequality exists. It may be the case that the very wealthy choose to champion the needs of those on the opposite end of the political spectrum.

(Julian)  George Soros, corporate free speech and super-PAC should be one of the central questions of the debate.  I like your point about the unlimited contributions that super-PACs could make.  I think you are also correct that although I have a voice, the person who makes ten times more can drown mine out.  Advertisements and campaigns are not free.  Rick Perry and Mitt Romney have to pay for gas too.    How many debates have the GOP already held?  They have a Lincoln-Douglas debate schedule in November.  We are already experiencing the effects of these super-PACs on our presidential election race.  At some point we have to worry about whose interests these politicians will represent.  If congress people and presidents want to win re-election, they have to keep the people giving them money happy.  Although campaign donors do not tell politicians how to vote, wink-wink, the politicians know which constituents to appease. 

This is from historian Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States: “Beard applied this general idea to the Constitution, by studying the economic backgrounds and political ideas of the fifty-five men who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to draw up the Constitution.  He found that a majority of them were lawyers by profession, that most of them were men of wealth, in land, slaves, manufacturing, or shipping, that half of them had money loaned out at interest, and that forty of the fifty-five held government bonds…”  (P. 90)  

Our country was founded by rich white men who were tired of paying taxes to England right?  This is one of the reasons I feel most teams will opt for the pro, given the choice.  It might be difficult for the con to win that corporate free speech and super-PACs are better for democracy than limiting financial influence in politics and narrowing the rich-poor gap.  The historical formation of the U.S. and our current economic crisis are two great examples of income disparities undermining our democratic ideals.

But we are clearly missing something if we do not mention Occupy Wall Street.  Occupy Wall Street demonstrates both the validity and urgency of the pro’s argument.  It proves the pro’s points are true because it reveals the failure of our democratic government to represent the interests of the 99%.   As a result, we get bank bailouts, subsidies for corporations, massive military spending, privatization of governmental responsibilities, a lack of accountability when the government is supposed to regulate, the list could go on for pages.  Although this topic is limited to United States, the recent movements throughout the Middle East and Europe confirm the hypothesis.  In response to their wasteful spending, governments imposed austerity measures that cut the deficit, welfare programs, and taxes, which led to unemployment, debt, even mortgage defaults throughout the world for most, with a select few corporations and individuals profiting.  While the particulars of Egyptian, Greek, or Egyptian protests are different from Occupy Oakland or Louisville, the economic and democratic exclusion is universal, global. 

I just read there was a city wide strike in Oakland.  The people tried using their voice, but most politicians usually tune into the dollar.  Since no one will listen, they have taken to the streets to show their physical bodies and make their presence felt.  They are occupying the public spaces that we all commonly own and gaining influence by collectively bargaining.  Occupy movements are showing those whose make the profit who has the power.  School does not work without teachers or students.  And if we cannot pay the teachers and/or students cannot afford the tuition or loans, how can these businesses survive?  The number, persistence, and locations of these democratic movements which often stem from income disparities illustrate their urgency.  (Check out the Verso publishing company’s blog for more articles on Occupy)

The pro does not even have to defend redistribution, although theoretically, it would be a potential solution.  They only have to prove that income disparities undermine democracy, not that income should be evened or that democracy should be promoted.  This should make it easier on the pro.  If they can control those two central issues, that there is an income disparity and that it undermines democracy, then they have proven their case.                 

(Jason) You make excellent points about the role of the wealthy in governing, the impacts of income disparity domestically and abroad, as well as the importance of what is transpiring with the Occupy movement. It will be very interesting to watch this topic play out as protestors reach the both the cold of winter and agreed deadlines to relocate. I think the nature of plutocratic rule will play a vital role in discussions around this topic.

I would like to make one point about an earlier comment and few final thoughts on the con. You mentioned earlier that offering alternate causes that may threaten democratic ideals might not provide an offensive strategy for the con. While that’s certainly true, I should also point out that this resolution relies to a large degree on a truth statement. If other threats to democratic ideals are significant, it at least allows the con to concede some threat to democratic ideals while defending a different framework for deciding the debate.

Some of this “framework” relies upon how teams consider the phrase “democratic ideals.” Many teams on the pro will argue that this constitutes equal representation, while many on the con will defend democratic ideals supported by a capitalist economic system. This theory of “democratic capitalism” argues that democracy requires industrial capitalism and a focus on individual fiscal responsibility. Political voice may be seen as more significant from a team who views democracy as equal representation. Political voice from the perspective of democratic capitalism is tied to the market and associated closely with economic privilege. Because income disparity is inherent to a capitalist economy, it is thereby a contributor to democratic ideals. A simple Google search reveals a number of articles on the subject of capitalism and democracy.

A major part of this line of argument is that funding of causes and campaigns is a matter of free speech and political advocacy. Corporations, as you stated, are treated like individuals when it comes to speech. They have as much right as you and I to lobby for the best conditions for their survival. Many argue that income disparity is necessary to political activism. Free markets are a closely associated with the choices we make at polling stations and even in social situations. We make political decisions when supporting companies who in turn support candidates that foster greater movement in the market. Companies must be successful in order to afford upward mobility to the 99%. In an era where an astounding number of corporations have moved abroad seeking more favorable political, economic, and regulatory conditions, every effort must be made to provide the conditions necessary to keep Americans employed.

The simple fact is there is no perfect system. A recent gag story on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show revealed that even within the Occupy encampment in New York socioeconomic disparities have been evident, with one end of the park holding drum circles and louder demonstrations while the other held college students, a bicycle-generated espresso machine, and the library. In a world where individuals believe income disparities to be very low, there will always be stratifications based on any number of factors which could lead to discrimination and social exclusion.

When communism was attempted on a large scale it failed in large part because disparities became evident. Just like in Orwell’s Animal Farm, the greedy take more than their fair share, and the system falls apart from the top. Communism didn’t work, and it certainly is difficult to associate it with democratic ideals even where it has created economic growth. Today’s governments attempting to thrive on income equality are often ruled with an iron fist and are in some cases fraught with repression, corruption, and intolerance. While disparities may exist in the US, at least we live in a country where different economic, political, and social interests can be represented through political voice. Those at an economic disadvantage maintain their right to elect representatives to act on their behalf.

More Americans voted in the last Presidential election than ever before. Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party movements demonstrate the strength of political activism in this country. If income disparity is high now, it doesn’t appear to seriously affect current political activity. In fact, it seems like only the opposite could be true. If the pro wins that income disparity is high, they still lose because democratic ideals are being displayed on city streets throughout the nation. Equal representation is already guaranteed by the Constitution. Everyone will get one vote whether income disparity is high or low. The question is whether individuals are allowed to also use their wealth to create political change. Only income disparity allows that option. In a world without income disparity, we might have a few individuals think about an issue concerning the underrepresented, but there’s nothing they could do about it. In a market economy, the wealthy can contribute to awareness and change on issues that might otherwise be ignored. In California, voters approved a ban on gay marriage. Without substantial resources, the “equal representation” evident in the outcome of the vote would be final. Instead, those opposed to the ban can mount a legal and media campaign to bring significant effort to bear on the institutions that would otherwise act in a discriminatory way. Even Marx would agree that material well-being trumps other factors of difference. In countries where gender discrimination exists, wealthy women are still treated much better than women who are not wealthy. If everyone made the same income, there would literally never be an incentive to act on behalf of others.

One final note of caution I would make to teams preparing to debate on the con: remember that you debate in front of people. Most of the population, especially in these times, has someone close who has experienced dire economic hardship often through no fault of their own. Take care when making assumptions about those at an economic disadvantage.

 (Julian) You ended on two important points.  I will start with the second, and then move onto the question of democratic capitalism, corporate free speech, and end with whether protests against inequality are a demonstration of the democratic ideal, or proof of the threat to democratic ideals. 

One reason this topic is so important is the prevailing view, not just among conservative politicians like Herman Cain, but more importantly among our students, that the Occupy movement is just a bunch of lazy unemployed people who don’t know what they are protesting.  Who can blame students for taking this view, it proliferates throughout the media.  In an interview with Naomi Klein, award winning journalist Amy Goodman had one of the funniest critiques of media coverage at Occupy protests.  Essentially, when asked by a protester how you can get the mainstream media to talk to you, Amy replied: “Go buy a little red clown nose. Go up to a reporter and go, 'Beep beep, beep beep,' and they’ll interview you.” (For transcripts and video of this interview, and more, go to:  Mainstream media, often owned by corporations connected to Wall Street, has an incentive to portray the Occupy movement as disjointed, unintelligent, lazy, and criminal students.  They do not want to reveal the intelligent, well thought out argument, since they construct the straw person. 

So the fact that many middle and high school students repeat the standard media talking points should come as no surprise.  However, it is our jobs as educators and debate critics to point out students’ unknowing reproduction of these illogical misrepresentations.  Earlier this year, when we were debating public versus private investment in space, I asked some of the students a question similar to the one posed to Ron Paul during one of the GOP debates for presidential nomination: “If there is a 30 year old who develops a life threatening illness, but does not have insurance, should the government pay for the medical treatment?”  I did not conduct a statistical survey of the results, but most seemed to think that the government should not pay for treatment.  The irony being, I was a 30 year old man without health insurance.  So if I developed an unforeseen illness, my students would let me die!  When I pointed this out, a few of my students came around to the government paying side, but many continued to say that it was my fault for not buying insurance. 

Finally, blame the individual and individual fiscal responsibility were common arguments in response to the mortgage crisis.  Instead of holding banking institutions responsible and accountable for approving loans to unqualified home owners, many people blamed the average Joe for taking out the mortgage.  Maybe they are both to blame, but this exact issue is one of the themes on the Occupy movement.  Banks were bailed out after the housing crisis instead of the individuals.  No regulations or requirements to lend money or end employment freezes were placed on the hundreds of billions of dollars given to banks in the bailout.  Even after the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act the FBI brought zero referrals to the Justice Department for white collar crimes committed. People throughout the world are tired of not just economic inequality, but also the political system that co-produces that inequality.  Few ever blame the banking institutions or Treasury Department, let alone call for accountability and justice.   

Which leads me to con’s most offensive argument: that capitalism and corporate free speech promote our democratic ideals.  You accurately portrayed the form of democratic capitalism in comments above and it is explained in the NFL’s “Public Forum Topic Analysis: December 2011.” When economic systems open up and consumers have the ability to make choices, the political system also tends to open. Milton Friedman, for example, argued that economic freedom leads to political freedom, as citizens feel secure in making economic decisions without government involvement.”  Jason pointed out that democratic capitalism is both tied to the market, and a producer of political inequality. 

The con will argue that capitalism promotes democracy, that corporate free speech is representative of the workers interests, and that the Wall Street protests exemplify a thriving democracy, not the decline of it.  Maybe the pro should begin their response with this question you pose about the “framework” and interpretation of democratic ideals.  You suggest some pro teams will defend “equal representation” as the meaning of democratic ideals, maybe similar to the November topic’s argument about one person one vote.  It is worth pointing out that either the pro or could define democratic ideals as representative democracy.  Again, we see the intersections with November’s topic. 

I like your definition of democracy as equal representation, but worry that it does not deal with the question of income disparities well enough.  Since the con may define democratic ideals in terms of capitalism, the pro must find a definition that combats these capitalist ideals.  I suggest a permutation of your equal representation with a Marxist twist: equal representation with equal control over the means of production and wealth. 

If I were the pro team, I would focus the debate on what democratic capitalism looks like and how capitalism cultivates democracy.  The way democratic capitalism will be described comes close to absolutely de-politicizing democracy and risks turning voting into exercising consumer choices. We should be concerned when our ideal democracy is the choice between Coke and Pepsi.  In the world of the con, the freedom to consume is a prerequisite to political freedom.  Your ability to choose between Gucci and Prada guarantees that the government never takes away your right to vote or own land.  A public institution like the government should never tell a private company how to build a space ship.  Yet, etymologically speaking, democracy is the demos, or the people, with the kratos, the power.  Democratic capitalism deprives democracy of the demos.  It removes the people from the framework of democracy and downplays politics’ impact on economics.  One of the points I tried to make clear in the paragraphs above about Occupy Wall Street is that they take a political form as well as economic.  Throughout the world people are not solely focused on income disparities.  People are also protesting Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Saleh.  We should not let the political decisions that enabled income inequality, or the decision makers, off the hook by over-determining economic issues.  Then we would be like rioters in London: abstract violence against the economy without concrete political demands. My inner Slavoj Zizek wants to say “the revolution must strike twice: not just at the economic content of capitalist exclusion, but also the political form of democracy.” 

The Marxist idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat could help the pro combat democratic capitalism’s de-politicization.  Control over the means of production is the real essence of democracy in a capitalist economy.  The people with the most money have the most influence.  Super PACs contribute unheard of amounts of money to political campaigns.  Corporations spend billions on lobbies in Washington D.C.  So instead of bailouts for home owners and an expanded social safety net, we get bailouts for banks and defense companies and cuts to welfare, social security, Medicaid and Medicare, education, and so on.  In our current economy, the rich are getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer.  Depending on the statistics you use, anywhere from 80-99% of the wealth is controlled by 20-1% of the population.  Income disparities in the U.S. exist, and by many accounts are growing worse.  The U.S. ranks as one of the worst countries in the world in terms of the gap between rich and poor.  The numbers are fairly clear that a minority of elite individuals controls the means of production and the wealth associated with it.  The con team may even concede that income inequality is a structural feature of capitalism.  Unfortunately, equal representation alone will not do anything to change who exercises dictatorship over these means of production and corporate influence in politics.  More federal election laws placing restrictions on campaign contributions will not have a major impact on income disparities.  Remember, the revolution must strike twice: this time not at the political form of representative democracy, but also at the con team’s framework of capitalism.             

Finally, I want to end by addressing the question of whether income inequality fosters democracy by generating resistance and protests like the Occupy movement.  This is why I referenced George Soros before, as an example of a rich person using their money to foster democratic debate and protest on issues like income inequality. Still, there are a few responses that immediately come to mind.  First and foremost, in our democratic ideals, is protest the option of first or last resort?  Ideally, people should not have to protest because their interests, either directly or indirectly through a representative, are included in political decisions.  This argument reminds me of conservatives who say things like: “our troops are fighting for your right to protest against the war.  Your protest would not be possible in Iraq or North Korea.”  Next, although I have mentioned this numerous times before, it applies yet again.  The protests throughout the world are against both income inequality and the lack of representative democracy.  They demonstrate that our democracy is failing, not thriving.  Yes the revolution in Egypt resulted in democracy, but this begs the question of what caused it.  It was the collapse of democracy that called the protest into being.  The exceptional nature of protest in America and revolution around the world shows that in most circumstances, inequality does not lead to mass political uprisings.  In fact, protest, like communism and capitalism, is not a historical inevitability, but rather the product of contingent choices.     

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