Thoughts on the Proposed Resolutions for 2015-2016

The National Federation of High Schools has released descriptive paragraphs of the proposed resolutions for the 2015-2016 season in order “to promote extensive discussion by coaches and students over the next six weeks.” Below the fold, I offer my initial thoughts about the slate of potential topics. Keep in mind that it is still early in the process and these opinions are subject to evolution and change based on further research and discussion. If you have an opinion about one or more of the proposed topics, share it in the comments. 

Problem Area I: Income Inequality

Resolved: The United States federal government should increase progressive taxation, the federal minimum wage or regulation of predatory lending to substantially decrease income inequality in the United States.

A central philosophical question among economists pertains to the role of government in promoting economic equality. While this is a timeless issue, it has recently returned to the forefront of our political discourse through the Occupy movements that began in 2011 and more recently as a central focus of President Obama’s State of the Union Address in 2014. This proposal looks at specific means by which the federal government can address this issue. Possible affirmative cases include the regulation of predatory lending, increases in the federal minimum wage, and a range of tax-related policies, including but not limited to the following: Earned Income Tax Credit, higher income taxes for wealthy Americans, negative income tax, Social Security taxes, capital gains taxes. Possible negative arguments include a defense of the free market system, impacts on job creation, economic competitiveness and business confidence.

This is my favorite of the potential resolutions. It challenges debaters to discuss income inequality, one of the foremost contemporary political and economic issues in America. In response to the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing recession, the 2009-2010 social services topic asked students to debate policies to address poverty. This proposed topic goes a step further and asks students to debate policies that seek to remedy economic inequality by more fundamentally changing the distribution of wealth in the United States. This resolution provides the affirmative with a strong defense of federal action, a solid set of advantages, and a limited but powerful selection of plans that could meaningfully address the harms. For the negative, the topic provides strong ground not centered on process counterplans or politics disadvantages. Some debates will be between the economic left and the economic right; other debates will involve competing proposals from the left. While the status quo might be moving marginally in the same direction as the affirmative, even that is debatable — and for the most part, both sides will have plenty of unique ground. In my opinion, this is a great topic.

Problem Area II: Criminal Justice

Resolved: The United States federal government should significantly reform its non-military criminal procedure in the areas of grand juries, plea bargaining, admissibility of evidence and/or sentencing.

The federal criminal justice system is anchored by federal criminal procedure. Criminal procedure governs the conduct of criminal trials; it is designed to protect society from criminal perpetrators but also to ensure the constitutional rights of suspects and defendants. While criminal procedure includes numerous elements, the four areas highlighted by the resolution are grand juries, plea bargaining, admissibility of evidence and sentencing. Possible affirmative cases include increased access to attorneys during grand jury proceedings, changes in prosecutorial guidelines for plea bargaining, limiting the admissibility of certain types of evidence (such as evidence gathered by drone surveillance) and increased judge discretion in sentencing. Negatives arguments in favor of existing criminal procedures could include efficiency, protection of victims’ rights, public safety and facilitating effective law enforcement.

This topic is an interesting choice because high school hasn’t had a legal topic since 2005-2006 (Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially decrease its authority either to detain without charge or to search without probable cause.). Even then, many debates centered on terrorism and international affairs rather than domestic legal rights. The inclusion of the term “non-military” won’t eliminate national security-related cases in this proposed topic, but it will probably exclude many of the cases that were popular in 2005-2006. However, this is a very large topic and there doesn’t seem to be a core generic negative position that addresses all areas; sentencing alone seems like a huge area with many distinct advantages and plan mechanisms. While this topic might result in some interesting debates, I’m not yet convinced that it is limited enough from a research and preparation perspective.

Problem Area III: Immigration

Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its legal protection of economic migrants in the United States.

Defenders of immigration reform argue that America is a nation of immigrants and that a progressive immigration policy will strengthen the economy and ensure fundamental fairness. Opponents believe that immigrants take jobs from Americans and threaten public safety. The resolution uses the term “economic migrants” in order to create a distinction from “refugees.” Economic migrants move from one country to another in order to improve the future prospects for themselves and their families, but they are able to return to their country of origin. Refugees are forced to move to save their lives or their freedom. Examples of possible affirmative cases include the following: Providing a path to citizenship for economic migrants already living in the United States, reversing restrictive state laws such as those in Arizona and Georgia, treating economic refugees from Haiti the same as those from Cuba, passing the DREAM Act, providing health care for immigrant families, more generous provision of work permits for immigrants with special skills in medicine or engineering, providing legal representation for detainees, providing food stamps for impoverished immigrant families, managing the current influx of children crossing the border, among others. Negative positions could focus on the economic and employment harms of increased immigration, increased risk of a terrorist attack, federalism positions and the political implications of immigration reform.

While the college circuit debated immigration reform (sort of) a few years ago, there hasn’t been a high school immigration topic since 1994-1995. This one is interesting because it focuses only on “legal protection of economic migrants.” Is “legal protection” a term of art with a clear definition? What about “economic migrants?” The list of proposed cases in this summary paragraph includes most of the big stick immigration policy ideas: path to citizenship, high-skilled visas, the DREAM Act, etc. If those cases are indeed topical, this resolution could provide an exciting year of debates. However, uniqueness might be an issue for both sides; while reform has stalled for now in Congress, many commentators anticipate some immigration legislation working its way to the President’s desk after the midterms. Combined with a lack of “intrinsic” negative ground — “immigration bad” and “protection of immigrants bad” are tough positions to defend — this might make things too difficult for the negative. However, it would be hard to complain about an outcome that results in high school students debating about immigration policy for the next school year.

Problem Area IV: Surveillance

Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially curtail its domestic surveillance.

The controversy between national security objectives and privacy became a hot one for debate since it was disclosed in June of 2013 by former defense contractor Edward Snowden (supported by journalist and former debater Glenn Greenwald) that the NSA is engaging in extensive surveillance inside the United States in order to fight crime and reduce the threat of terrorism. The magnitude of the disclosure shocked many people, including elected representatives, who were unaware of the extent of the surveillance. Many civil rights advocates view the surveillance as an assault on liberty while law enforcement and national security officials see the programs as essential weapons in the war on terror, the fight against nuclear weapons proliferation and the general protection of U.S. national security. Possible affirmative cases include establishing general probable cause and reasonable suspicion requirements, banning the collection of metadata, restricting the collection of email or chat content, limiting the amount of time that information can be stored for, elimination of Section 215 of the Patriot Act and FISA Court reforms as they apply to the domestic arena. Advantages will focus on privacy, totalitarianism, commerce and racism. Negative positions can focus on terrorism, nuclear proliferation, crime and kritiks of reform-based approaches.

This is a very timely topic. It is also very elegant — at only eleven words, I believe it would be the shortest high school resolution since 1979-1980 (Resolved: That the United States should significantly change its foreign trade policies; the 1978-1979 resolution was even shorter — Resolved: What should be the energy policy of the United States.). Because this resolution is so short, defining the phrase “curtail its domestic surveillance” will be extremely important. I don’t yet have a strong sense of whether this mechanism is broad or limited. Substantively, this resolution gets at many of the same issues that were debated on the “search without probable cause” part of the 2005-2006 topic, but much has changed in the ensuing decade. It is also unclear whether the status quo is moving in the same direction as the affirmative; if that is indeed the case, it will be tough for the negative to win unique links to their topic disadvantages. That said, there is some generic negative ground (the terrorism, crime, etc. DAs). I’m still up in the air about this topic.

Problem Area V: Indian Country

Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially decrease its authority within Indian Country.

More than five million American Indians and Alaskan Natives reside within the United States – a number constituting 2% of the American population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011). American Indians and Alaskan Natives live in every state in our union, with 5 U.S. states containing federally recognized tribal reservations or corporations within their boundaries. The links between American Indians and Alaskan Natives and the history of our nation are deeply entwined and the subject of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of pages, of research. This topic will allow affirmative teams to explore the potential benefits of removing federal authority over one or more aspects of life in Indian Country. Possible affirmatives could explore these benefits in one or more areas, including commerce, criminal justice, education, environmental regulation, land use, health and welfare and also the concept of giving Natives total sovereignty. Affirmatives would also be able to explore transitioning from federal to state control, allowing for an exploration of issues like federalism and other state-specific arguments. Negative arguments include disadvantages based on modeling, funding, federalism, rights, sovereignty, movements, funding; critical arguments will include discussions of the image of Native Americans in our society, the concept of federal control, specific language arguments and environmentalism often using literature from native writers. “Indian Country” is a proper legal term used in nearly every legal writing about Native Americans, and a phrase commonly used by tribal councils themselves.

As far as I can tell, there has never been a high school Native Americans topic. This one tasks the affirmative with defending a substantial decrease in federal authority over Indian Country, the opposite wording of the 2001-2002 college topic (Resolved: That the United States Federal Government should substantially increase federal control throughout Indian Country in one or more of the following areas: child welfare, criminal justice, employment, environmental protection, gaming, resource management, taxation.). While I can envision some powerful “big stick” cases, it seems more likely that affirmatives will choose to make minor modifications to federal policies and bank on the negative being unable to win a meaningful disadvantage. The “don’t recognize federal authority in the first place” critique seems therefore likely to be a big part of the topic, for better or (I think) worse. While I could be persuaded that there is more quality ground here, I’m concerned that most debates would feature generic critiques and bad international modeling/federalism positions. Am I wrong?

Agree? Disagree? Share your thoughts in the comments.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Proposed Resolutions for 2015-2016

  1. Nick Bubb

    I reviewed the paper for the Native Americans topic before it was final. The paper was pitching a topic that was a modified version of the college topic. My feeling was that especially with regards to child welfare and environmental protection – there were a number of ripe cases in the “increase” direction. I would be interested in hearing why the wording committee adopted a “decrease control” direction. My gut reaction is that a decrease direction isn’t something that topic authors (at least on child welfare and environmental protection issues) would advocate for.

  2. Duane Hyland

    As I made the presentation to the Committee it became obvious that nobody was going to approve a resolution with increase in it, so this was the compromise. The subject is still valuable, however.

  3. Steven Appelget

    The criminal justice topic looks to have a huge solvency deficit by being federal government only. Most criminal prosecutions are on the state level.

    I generally dislike legal topics because I’ve been practicing law for a long time and the debaters say so many things that are just plain wrong. It makes judging very difficult for me.

    On the other hand, back on the last legal topic, both teams agreed I should judge the round “as a judge in a courtroom,” so I did. Which meant interrupting speeches to ask questions and telling “counsel” to move along when they got long-winded and tedious. It was an interesting experience. I don’t know if it made the round better, but it made the round different.

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