December PFD Topic Analysis

Our analysis of the December PFD topic, Income Inequality, is below the fold!

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

This is one of the most controversial debate topics in some time. The debate on mainstream TV and in cities everywhere will soon “occupy” PF debates. I was shocked when a brief[1] survey[2] of the internet landscape revealed this common initial reaction: “How will the Con survive?”

These questions and others will be answered thoroughly in this overview. Don’t buy into the initial hype: the Con *can* win many debates. While other websites charge between $20 and $30 for their briefs and heavily support the Pro, this essay is (as always) 100% free and 100% balanced.

Before I move on, I want to highlight the word “current” in the resolution, which modifies “current income inequality.” Many might wonder; how bad is it? According to the Professional Staff Congress at the City University of New York, “income inequality in the U.S. is greater than at any time since the eve of the Depression.”[3]

This analysis will begin by defining the terms “income disparity” and “democratic ideals.” It will then examine the best arguments for each side. We will conclude with our recommendation about which side is more strategic to defend.


Income inequality is commonly measured by the CIA and others using a tool called the Gini coefficient.[4]

To understand how the Gini coefficient works, consider two axes: one is the cumulative income share, and the other is the cumulative population score. If income were distributed equally, the coefficient would be 0. If income were concentrated all in one actor, the coefficient would be 1.[5] This is reflected as “measures (of) national economies on a scale from 0.00 to 0.50, with 0.50 being the most unequal.”[6] The CIA’s map[7] is posted below:

Graph of Gini coefficient levels globally










Fisher makes a number of observations about this chart, but the most notable is this:

The U.S., in purple with a Gini coefficient of 0.450, ranks near the extreme end of the inequality scale. Looking for the other countries marked in purple gives you a quick sense of countries with comparable income inequality, and it’s an unflattering list: Cameroon, Madagascar, Rwanda, Uganda, Ecuador.[8]


I think it helps to break this down into two parts. Start with “ideals.” Robert Rohrschneider breaks down both parts in his book Learning Democracy. In defining ideals, he notes:

Every institutional framework relies on preconceptions about those values which a society ought to emphasize (and)…a process by which a community may achieve those goals.[9]

 Then Rohrschneider defines how “income disparity” fits within these democratic ideals:

Representative democracies favor a market economy because market systems presumably maximize individual freedoms. In contrast, a socialist system emphasizes economic equality before political liberties and rejects an economic order than emphasizes private property relations.[10]

We’ve now reached a very important fact, one we noted when the topic first was announced[11]: some democratic ideals are threatened by income inequality while others are strengthened. Rohrnschneider describes the tension very well:

In short, diverse ideological systems cast key concepts differently, such as the meaning of democracy or the relationship between individual liberty and economic equality.[12]

Before we move on, note the importance of this shift: the debate is as much about what “democratic ideals” we strive for as it is about whether or not individual freedoms threaten them. The team who addresses the *most important democratic ideal* will win.

THE PRO: Current income disparities threaten democratic ideals

The case for the Pro is rather simple: income inequality threatens democratic ideals at both ends of the spectrum. It gives too much power to elites and too little to the working class.

1. Inequality causes Corruption, and Corruption threatens Representation

Note the way this is framed. It isn’t enough to say “corruption is anti-democratic.” It is important to note which democratic ideal corruption impedes.

United States politicians are elected to represent the interests of their constituents. However, many in America complain that politicians put corporate interests above the interests of citizens. A politician’s primary goal is to be re-elected, and corporations offer the donations that fund political campaigns.

Representative democracy is supposed to be blind. Economic strength shouldn’t confer extra political privileges and powers. Unfortunately, it does. Oxford University professor Nancy Bermeo concludes that it often results in the direct manipulation of political officers. [13]

The latest example is the Solyndra affair. Federal loans were recalculated to ensure that the financial burden of the company’s failure fell on the laps of citizens instead of connected political donors.[14] Solyndra is remarkable for being unremarkable. It doesn’t shock anyone to hear that corporate interests get extra privileges. However, according to the Pro, the frequency of the error doesn’t make it excusable.

Bottom line: Economic inequality enhances the political representation of the very wealthy, creating corruption that threatens representation, a critical democratic ideal.

2. Inequality dampens political participation, a cherished ideal

This is the flip side of the first argument. Enormous resources connote unusually strong political influence. In turn, a lack of economic means reduces the degree of political participation.

Rohrschneider states this point powerfully:

(The) potential for vast differences of economic resources leads to uneven opportunities in influencing the political process. Those who own capital, land, and machines are in a much better position to influence political affairs, and therefore ultimately have more individual freedoms, than those who have only their labour to sell under increasingly competitive market conditions. [15]

This also has potentially dangerous spillover effects. The NDRI conference reached this powerful conclusion:

High levels of poverty and inequality not only lower the quality of democracy, but may pave the way for the emergence of authoritarian populists and democratic backsliding. Therefore, addressing the social question, which warrants attention in its own right, is critical to the sustainability and quality of democracy.[16]

Rohrschneider also introduces a third, less frequently-cited democratic model to describe the deleterious effects of a lack of participation. In the Athenian plebiscitarian democratic model;

(P)roponents believe…that self-government and political liberty REQUIRE citizens to be extensively involved in deciding their affairs. [17]

Bottom line: Economic inequality degrades the political participation of those without resources, threatening the validity and credibility of democratic institutions and aspirations.  

THE CON: Current income disparities do not threaten democratic ideals

An important preface to this section: Defending the Con doesn’t have to involve disputing the existence of wealth inequality or arguing that it is good. While both of those positions are defensible, your role is limited to winning that income disparities don’t threaten democratic ideals. Certainly inequality threatens our economy and the lives of everyday people. However, is it a threat to those things which embody and represent our democracy?

1. Inequality, while undesirable, does not threaten democratic ideals.

Inequality is the result of market forces, not political design. An individual’s wealth is a reflection of their level of personal talent and sacrifice, not a political mandate. A government can’t possibly control the economic aspirations of its citizens, or ensure that each prospers.

While income inequality might threaten the level of political participation of the poor or inflate the influence of the rich, it doesn’t threaten underlying democratic ideals. Individuals without resources are still entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of their happiness. They are still entitled to every freedom outlined in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They are still entitled to vote and to lobby on behalf of their candidate.

 Yes, they are deprived of wealth. However, they are not denied a *single constitutional right.* Our democratic ideals are those things enshrined in our most sacred documents.  

Oxford professor Nancy Bermeo helps to explain this difficult juxtaposition:

(E)conomic inequality by itself will not be a cause of democracy’s collapse … (D)emocracy enjoys powerful appeal across regions, in many cases offering opportunities for radical change that are less risky than seizures of power. So, in spite of its deleterious effects, inequality does not pose an imminent risk for democracies.[18]

Bottom line: While undesirable, income inequality doesn’t directly impede any constitutionally-defined democratic ideal.

2. Inequality is a reflection of democratic ideals

Inequality in America simply reflects an incredible standard of living. This is an important distinction: America strives for the highest overall standard of living, not the greatest level of wealth equality.

Wealth inequality is a measure of stratification, or the distribution of goods.  While “1%” of American citizens do control much more than “1%” of the wealth, this doesn’t reflect a breakdown in the system: it demonstrates its success.

The “1%” are not usually products of chance, nor was their result a foregone conclusion. While some inherited large sums of money, many of America’s wealthiest citizens are also among the most ambitious, clever and hard-working. They invested in a free market system, where the government respected their right to control their own private property and financial destiny. Wealth is a sign of the freedom to successfully direct one’s economic self-destiny.

Bottom line: American wealth inequality is due to extreme riches, not overwhelming or widespread struggle. The existence of wealth simply reveals the effectiveness of free markets.


This is a hard topic to call for the flip.

The popular thinking states that debaters should lean towards the odds. Populism is newly in vogue. According to the Wall Street Journal, more than three-quarters of Americans believe that “the country’s economic structure is out of balance and “favors a very small proportion of the rich over the rest of the country.”[19] While many Americans are skeptical of the “Occupy” movement, it’s still twice as popular as Wall Street and much more popular than the U.S. Congress.[20] However, recent polls suggest that Americans patience with the Occupy movement is thinning, with more Americans opposing than supporting it (Addendum 2).

That being said, I believe the Con will have many advantages. First, these poll results reflect the way the question is worded. It is very reasonable to sympathize with those who struggle, and many hard-working people are struggling. However, answering the question as a governmental decision-maker is a more difficult task. This topic begs the question of the role of government. If Americans were posed with an alternate wording, such as “should the government attempt to eliminate income inequality through wealth redistribution?” (ranging from higher taxes to a more extreme socialist weath redistribution) their disdain would likely be just as high. After all, Obama is using the theme of wealth inequality to support ostensibly conservative goals, such as payroll tax cuts of roughly $1,000.

Second, free market principles are defensible. A recent NCPA Daily Policy Digest highlighted the work of Mark Zupan, the Dean of the School of Economics at Rochester. He argued that free markets “represent the most effective means for promoting integrity and other forms of cooperative behavior through their ability to foster repeated, mutually beneficial exchange as well as specialization.” (Addendum 1). He goes on to weigh the question in a comparative way, highlighting the difficulty of the choice. There have certainly been challenges associated with both centralized government and free market approaches. The question is one of weighing costs and benefits.

Third, while you should certainly think of your judge and respect your opinion, you should also think of your opponent and ways to take advantage of their preconceptions. Many of them haven’t been sufficiently considered the breadth of Con arguments. Also, it is very possible to express an opinion in a fact-based, reasonable way to someone who might have thought they disagreed with you. It is important to remind judges that they are invited to judge a competitive activity and must be neutral. The simple analogy is a referee: if they were a fan of one team, it would destroy the game. If a judge allows themselves to be a fan of one team, they make enemies of the other, which hurts our competitive ideals in debate.

This mirrors the legal tradition; if a judge unfairly favored the prosecution, innocents would face unfair persecution. If they unfairly favored the defense many guilty prisoners would escape. It is important for a judge to make their determination based on the facts that they are presented with. Without that basic precondition, the competitive nature of the activity becomes impossible. The coin flip should reflect a side preference, not a side bias. It is also very possible to appeal to common values. The Con should be careful not to dismiss the struggle many currently endure but should attempt to focus on the most effective means of remedying the issue. Our policies should reflect our democratic ideals. If a policy is effective it fulfills a shared ideal. Even if we can’t agree

This should be a great debate topic, and one that taps into the most live wire in American politics. The debates will surely heat up as the weather outside grows cold.


(Addendum 2: Lee, MJ. “Poll: Occupy opposition on the Rise,” Nov 17,

 [1] PFDebate online forum, December 2011:

[3] Professional Staff Congress (PSC), City University of New York. “PSC/CUNY Supports Occupy Wall Street.”

[4] Fisher, Max. “Map: U.S. Ranks Near Bottom on Income Inequality,” The Atlantic, September 19, 2011.

[6] Fisher, cited above in (2)

[7] CIA World Factbook, Accessed in 2011. Site accessed for graphic is Fisher, cited above in (2).

[8] Fisher, cited above in (2)

[9] Rohrschneider, Robert. Learning Democracy: Democratic and Economic Values in Unified Germany, p. 63, 1999. Also available online at:

[10] Rohrschneider, above in (9).

[11] Rubaie, Brian. Post on Debate Central Forums, Nov 3, 2011.

[12] Rohrschneider, above in (9).

[13] Bermeo, Nancy. “Poverty, Inequality, and Democracy: A Conference of the Network of Democracy Research Institutes (NDRI),” Batislava, Slovakia, April 26-28,

[14] Daly, Matthew. “Obama admin reworked Solyndra loan to favor donor,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, September 16,

[15] Rohrschneider, above in (9).

[16] Bermeo et al, above in (13).

[17] Rohrschneider, above in (9).

[18] Bermeo, above in (13).

[19] Wall Street Journal, “WSJ/NBC Poll: Most Americans Say U.S. Economy Favors ‘Small Portion of the Rich’” November 7, 2011.

[20] CBS News, “Poll: Occupiers fare better than Wall St.,” November 7, 2011.

About Lauren Sabino

Lauren Sabino is the Director of Youth Programs at the National Center for Policy Analysis. She currently administrates Debate Central, the largest free online debate resource.
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