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Friday, January 25, 2019

Factsheet #1 - Taxation

This week we have the first of our factsheets, giving you useful information about common debate topics. It is a guest post on the topic of taxation, written by Tea Chatila, an A-Level Economics student at Godolphin and Latymer. 

Taxation is an important part of the economy, our society, and indeed many debate topics. It can be tricky to understand, so here is a guide as to how tax works, and some potential benefits and costs you could mention in a debate.  

Tax is collected on a regular basis by the government from individuals and firms in order to pay for public services (for example the National Health Service, the police and public libraries).

Tax is also occasionally used as a way to discourage people from buying certain things (for example, cigarettes are unhealthy, so there is a high tax on them, but because they are addictive many people still buy them). 

There are two main types of taxation: direct and indirect.

Direct taxation is tax that we give directly to the government, for example income tax (usually taken away automatically from salaries). Indirect taxation is the opposite: for example, we pay VAT (Value Added Tax) each time we purchase a good or service, and the producer of this good or service transfers this money to the government (i.e. the producer acts as an intermediate step).   

Indirect taxation is the opposite: for example, we pay VAT (Value Added Tax) each time we purchase a good or service, and the producer of this good or service transfers this money to the government (i.e. the producer acts as an intermediate step).   

Here are some important taxes which may come up in a debate:

   1. Income tax

Income tax is deducted from any kind of income and depends on how much you earn. If you earn very little, you pay zero income tax, but after a certain point (around £11,000 per year) the more income you have, the higher percentage of your income you give as tax.  

  2. Corporate tax

Corporate tax is a percentage of profits made by a company, deducted from those profits. It is the same rate regardless of how big or small a business is. Because it is levied as a percentage, companies with higher profits give more money to the government.  

  3. Property tax

Property tax is a percentage of the value of a property, and depends on its location. So those with larger or more expensive properties pay more. Council tax, used to fund local government, is an example of property tax.

4. Value Added Tax (VAT) 

This is 20% in the UK. So, when you buy something (unless it is a product to which VAT does not apply), you also pay the seller an additional 20% of its original value. However, the seller does not get to keep this, but passes it on to the government.  

Progressive taxation vs. flat taxation

Progressive taxation

Income tax in the UK is progressive; that means the more income you earn, the higher percentage of tax you pay. 

This is because there is a strong argument that it would be unfair to make people with a low income pay the same tax as those with higher income, as the standard of living of poorer people would decrease further, whereas those with a higher income would still be able to afford a comfortable lifestyle. It is also considered a duty for those who can to contribute as much to society as possible.      
However, it could also be argued that the richer should not have to pay much more tax, as wealthier people benefit equally (or even less) from the services paid for by taxation. For example, higher-income people currently give more money (indirectly) to the NHS. However, lower-income people tend to use it more, as the wealthier may use private healthcare which is considered of a higher quality, and may use healthcare in general less, as they can afford to buy healthier food (this is just one example).  
Both arguments are of course valid. 

Flat taxation

A flat tax is just one constant percentage tax rate that applies to everyone. This is used in a few countries, for example Estonia.
The main argument against this is that poorer people would be affected by the tax more. Let’s say the tax on something is 60p per product. 60p is a larger percentage of a poorer person’s wealth, as they have less money to spend. This means that poorer people are at a disadvantage as the government is taking more from them (in comparison to what they have already). 

An argument for flat tax, however, is that it would actually make things fairer. If a flat tax were to be applied to income, it would be a much simpler and easier process, which is a good thing in itself. Also, some people hire expert tax advisers, who can find ways to spend less in tax. This evidently only applies to wealthier people, leaving the rest (i.e. the majority) of the population paying relatively higher tax in comparison. This would not be applicable if there was a simple process everyone could understand.  

Follow the link here for more arguments on progressive vs flat taxes.  

Monday, January 21, 2019

How to debate #5 - preparing under pressure

Silence falls on the room (unusually for debating). Everyone looks up, at one person, who for that moment has absolute power. She reads out a sentence, very, very slowly. She reads it out again. We hear nothing but the scratching of pens. She gives a signal. Everyone runs out of the room.

That’s how it is at short preparation or ‘short prep’ debates, where debaters are given 15 minutes to prepare a motion they have not heard until that moment. It’s a pretty scary prospect, having to speak in front of a room full of people, half of whom will be disagreeing with every word you say, about something you knew nothing about until 15 minutes ago. Even more so when your phone and / or tablet has been surgically removed from you (as is the rule in all debating competitions), and you have nothing to rely on but your naked brains and those of your debating partner. 

Every minute - every second - counts in that prep time. So, how to make the best use of those precious quarter of an hour?

Get to the room as fast as you can (this could easily use up two minutes, depending on how big the building you are competing in is and how good your sense of direction is).

Make sure you have:
  • Paper
  • Several pens or pencils
  • Highlighters
  • Index cards
  • A bottle of water

Now you’re in the room, alone with each other. What to do first?

You should both keep quiet for five minutes. 

Why? Surely we should be discussing, sharing our ideas? Well, yes, but you have to have some ideas to share first. It’s quite possible you will never have thought about the motion topic in your life. Even if the topic is one on which you have both deep knowledge and passionate convictions, you need some time to gather your thoughts. And if you gather your thoughts separately, you’ll have twice as many thoughts by the end of the prep time. So, for five minutes silence should fall again, as you scratch away with your pens.

What are you writing about?

You need to be asking yourself questions; big questions. 

There are seven big questions which apply to every debate motion, which you should always ask.

1. What is the debate about?

2. What do we have to prove?

3. What do they have to prove?

4. What will be changed if the motion is passed?

5. Who are the actors?

6. Who are the stakeholders?

7. What is the mechanism?

Write or type these questions out on a piece of card and bring them to every debate.

(NB these questions only work with what we call ‘policy debates’, that is ones where the motion begins ‘This house would …’ We’ll cover how to prepare for ‘principle debates’, where the motion begins ‘This house believes …’ in a later post.)

How might you answer these questions in practice? 

Let’s take an example; preparing the motion ‘This house would tax meat’, with you proposing. It’s a nice big, broad motion (only four words long) with lots of scope for interpretation.

1. What is the debate about?
This question is asking you to cut through all the practicalities and focus on the essential point of principle. Here, the debate is about whether the state has the right to intervene in the market for the benefit of society as a whole. It’s about which is more important; the individual or the collective.

2. What do we have to prove?
You are proposing a change to the status quo. First you have to prove there is a problem with the status quo; then you have to prove that your proposed change will solve the problem. There will always be both costs and benefits associated with any change, and you have to prove that the benefits of your proposed change will outweigh the benefits. So, you have to prove that: consumption of meat has bad consequences; taxing it is an effective way to lessen those consequences; the benefits of taxing meat will be greater than the costs. 

3. What do they have to prove?
As they’re defending the status quo, they have to prove either that the status quo works and does not need changing, or that it does need changing but that your way of changing it will either not work or that its costs will be greater than its benefits. (They may also choose to propose a better way of dealing with the problem presented by the motion.) So, they have to prove either that the consumption of meat is not a bad thing (or is even a good thing), or that it is a bad thing but that taxing meat is not the way to deal with it, either because it will not work, or because the costs will be greater than the benefits.

4. What will be changed if the motion is passed?
Most debate motions say, ‘The world will be a better place if we take this action.’ So, what will the world look like if your proposed action happens? It’s worth considering both short and long (and sometimes medium) term effects. In the short term, everyone will eat less meat, and the government would have more money. In the long term, climate change will be greatly slowed down now that thousands of acres of land are filled with health giving plants rather than farting cows, and everyone will be slimmer and healthier thanks to their vegetable rich diet; those few who persist in eating meat will be treated for the diseases brought on by their diet in shining new hospitals paid for by the tax on their addiction.

5. Who are the actors?
This means who is going to make the change happen. Here, it is the government, as they are the ones who are going to be setting and collecting the tax.

6. Who are the stakeholders?
This means who is effected by the change. Here, it is the government collecting (and spending) the tax; meat farmers and retailers who are likely to see their income fall; consumers who will see the price of meat rise.

7. What is the mechanism?
This means how will you make the change happen. Here, you get into the nitty gritty. How much tax? 5% of the price? 10%? 25%? Will you add it to the price in shops, or to the price retailers pay to farmers? Which is most likely to achieve the benefits you seek while minimising the costs? Having a high tax rate would be more likely to put people off buying meat; having a low tax rate would make it easier to get popular support for the measure, and would make black market evasion of the tax less likely.

You need to have answers to these questions jotted down in the first two minutes. Yes, two minutes. You have to think fast as a debater. 

Next, you need to take up another sheet of paper and start brainstorming arguments for both sides (still without talking to your debating partner). Do this for three minutes. In this three minutes, you need to switch off the part of your brain that keeps telling you that what you’re doing isn’t very good. Don’t worry whether the arguments are good or not; just get them down, as many of them as possible. Quantity is more important than quality at this stage. Selection comes later. 

The five minutes are up. You look up from your notepads. Your eyes meet. What do you do now?

First, you share your answers to the big questions, and make sure you agree on the answers. If you’re speaking first for the proposition, agree how you’re going to define the motion (see our earlier post here on how to do that). With the big answers clear in your minds, you can proceed to the arguments. Go through the ones for your side of the motion first. Choose the six most persuasive. Then rank them by persuasiveness. The first speaker gets the top three in order of persuasiveness, the second speaker gets the next three in order of persuasiveness. Note, no more than three arguments each. Time to reach for the index cards now. Take one for each of your three arguments. On it, write a headline, which should be no more than a word or at most a phrase, and short points on how you’re going to expand on it. With the motion we’ve picked, one of your cards might look like this:

  • Excessive consumption of meat = major cause of heart disease and diabetes
  • Taxing it discourages consumption, nudges consumers towards healthier choices by making them cheaper
  • Heavy taxation on tobacco = massive reduction in smoking = major health benefits; taxing meat = same.

The smallness of index cards has two advantages: 

1. It makes them easier to handle while you are speaking, ensuring you spend more time making eye contact and less time fumbling with your notes.

2. It ensures your notes are concise and focused. 

Boiling your speech down to three index cards will also help you to signpost it better; see our earlier post here on how to signpost.

I’ll just take a moment here to remind you that you should NEVER, NEVER, NEVER write out a debate speech in full. That isn’t debating; it’s essay writing. You can be good at writing essays and good at debating, and you can learn a lot about how to write essays from doing debating, but they are NOT THE SAME THING. I hope I made that clear.

This sorting out of your own arguments should take another five minutes. Now it’s time to consider the other side’s possible arguments and how to rebut them. Do this by taking turns, one person stating the arguments, the other one rebutting them. As well as working out what you will say in rebuttal, this will both get you into the mind set of the other side (which is vital), while also sharpening up your rebuttal responses. It’s a bit like footballers passing a ball around to warm up just before kick off.

Your final task is to find the point of clash. See our earlier post here on the point of clash. This should be the thing you keep in mind all the way through the debate, your guiding star. You need to keep coming back to it, and keep showing the judge that you are on the winning side of it, particularly if you are speaking last. Very often, it will be the answer to the first question: what is the debate about? Here, the point of clash is the right of the state to intervene to protect the health of the community against the individual’s right to make their own choices. You have to show that the damage that meat eating causes to health and the climate outweighs the loss of freedom entailed by a tax on meat. Say the point of clash to each other a few times, as a kind of mantra, to make sure it is at the front of your mind.

By now, your brain should be singing, and you should be ready to talk for England (literally, if you are representing England in the Worlds Debating Competition). If you’re feeling nervous, embrace it. As every actor, performer and sportsperson knows, that adrenalin rush will sharpen up your performance and make you more focused. Gather up your notes, take a swig of water, and head for the debating chamber. Into battle …

Thursday, January 10, 2019

How debating works #1 - British Parliamentary

The British Parliament is traditionally known as the ‘Mother of Parliaments’. This is because the parliamentary practices of the British House of Commons provide the original (if not necessarily the best) way of doing democratic debate in the modern age, and as such it is appropriate that they should lend both a name and a model to one of the most popular of debating formats.

So, how does British Parliamentary debating (popularly known as ‘BP’) work?

The main features are:

1. There are four debaters on each side, competing in teams of two (so four teams in total).

2. Speakers alternate between proposition and opposition.

3. Speeches are five minutes each, with the first and last minutes protected. In the middle three minutes, anyone on the opposite side may make points of information. (Click here for our earlier post on points of information).

4. Unlike some debating formats, there are no speeches from the floor.

Special characteristics of BP are:

1. The speakers are given specific names to reflect the origins of the format in the British Parliament:

First proposition = Prime Minister
First opposition = Leader of the Opposition
Second proposition = Deputy Prime Minister
Second opposition = Deputy Leader of the Opposition
Third proposition = Member of the Government
Third opposition = Member of the Opposition
Fourth Proposition = Government Whip 
Fourth Opposition = Opposition Whip

 A note on the names:

The Prime Minister is the leader of the largest party in Parliament and also the leader of the government.

The Opposition is the second largest party in Parliament. The full title of the Leader of the Opposition is ‘The Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition’. This title beautifully expresses the way in which debate is the lifeblood of a civilised nation. Holding the government of the day to account by presenting an alternative point of view in debate is, paradoxically but truly, an act of loyalty to the nation (embodied, in a constitutional monarchy, in the person of the monarch); it ensures that better decisions are made because all options are considered and voiced.

The Whip is the person in a political party whose job it is to get members to turn up to vote, and to vote in the way the party wants them to. They are the disciplinarians of Parliament, so it is appropriate for them to finish up the debate in an orderly way.

If you are a politics nerd, using these names allows you to pretend that you are actually in the House of Commons, debating something that might actually become law and change the course of history. Quite a lot of people now in the House of Commons started out debating at school and / or university nursing just these fantasies, which we are now privileged to see coming true for them.

2. Debaters compete in four teams of two, consisting of: Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister; Leader of the Opposition and Deputy Leader of the Opposition; Member of the Government and Government Whip; Member of the Opposition and Opposition Whip. This means that you will be debating on the same side as people you are competing against. You should not obviously undermine them, but equally you need to look better than them.

3. Each speaker has very specific responsibilities, depending on their title / position in the debate. A large part of the judges’ verdict will be based on how well you fulfil these responsibilities.

4. Titles of motions are not announced until just before the debate. Teams are given only fifteen minutes to prepare, forbidden to talk to anyone but each other, and are allowed no access to any kind of electronic device. This requires a real depth of general knowledge (particularly about political issues), the ability to think fast under pressure, and a high level of rapport, trust and mutual understanding with your debating partner.

5. Unlike in some other formats, points are not awarded for speaking style. So, while your speeches obviously need to be audible and not too painful to listen to, content and structure are much more significant.

6. Judges award each of the speakers ‘speaker points’. They add them up to award points to each team. They then put the teams in rank order (first, second, third and fourth) based on how many points they have, and announce this rank order. 

7. In most BP competitions, there are several debates over the course of a day (usually four, to allow each team to have one go at each position). Teams are ranked at the end of the day first by team points, which are awarded as follows: four for first place, three for second place, two for third place, one for fourth place. If they tie on team points, position is decided by speaker points. The team that comes top of this ranking wins the competition. 

BP can be scary, demanding and exhausting (not least in the all day format; by the end of the day your head will be spinning and your vocal cords will be aching). However, it can also be exhilarating, fascinating and very rewarding. Its dynamic and spontaneous character makes it particularly unpredictable and exciting, and it will keep you on your toes from beginning to end. It is excellent preparation not just for being a Member of Parliament, but for any job where you have to think on your feet and respond to unexpected situations (which is most jobs).

There is a great deal more to say about BP: how to analyse motions; how to prepare under pressure; how to work as a team; how to fulfil each role successfully; how to outshine the other team on your side without openly undermining them; how best to use rebuttal and points of information in the BP format; how to impress the judges. We will go into all these topics in future posts. For now, though, you know the basics of how British Parliamentary works.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Why debate #2 - because it will make you more confident.

Do you remember the first time you had to speak in public? Or the second? Or the third?

How did you feel?

Were your legs shaking? Did your face (and / or other parts of your body) go red? Was your stomach like a hamster who’s just drunk a triple espresso running on her wheel? Did you think everyone was laughing at you?

Everyone feels like that. Even people who seem utterly confident fear failure and humiliation, whether they’re doing Show and Tell in Year One, or presenting on a topic in class, or doing a reading in Assembly, or making their first speech in the House of Commons, or giving their inaugural address as the newly elected President of the United States. I have no evidence for this, but I bet Martin Luther King went to the bathroom more often than usual just before he gave his ‘I have a dream’ speech.

It never goes away. 

So what should you do about it? Hide under the duvet? Or in the cupboard? Draw the curtains? Never go out?

That won’t work.

Even if you don’t become an MP, or President of the United States, or lead a mass movement against racism, you will have to speak in public, whatever line of work or way of life you end up in. You may well have to do it in your private life too. So you might as well get good at it.

It never goes away, that adrenalin overload, that ‘fight or flight’ feeling. But it does get easier to manage. Here’s how to manage it.

Let’s think about athletes (like we did in our first ‘Why debate?’ post). They tend to be fitter than other people. How do they get fit? 

Did you ever hear someone say, ‘I can’t go for a run. I’m not fit enough.’? That’s an easy argument to demolish. Going for a run is how you get fit. Olympic gold medal winners weren’t born fit; they got fit. And they got fit by running, or jumping, or throwing, again and again and again. Public speaking (which is to debating what running, jumping and throwing are to athletics) is no different. You get better at it by doing it. And the more you do it the more confident you will be, not least because you will have done it in the past and therefore know you can do it in the future. Athletes talk about ‘muscle memory’, the way in which, if you repeat a certain action often enough, it becomes automatic, almost a part of you. Your mind can develop muscle memory too. Speak in public often enough, and it will end up seeming as normal as speaking in private. Like anything else, the more you do it, the easier it gets. Debating will have you doing it a lot.

And there’s more. 

Public speaking isn’t the only thing that debating will give you confidence with. It will also give you confidence with private speaking. I mean the sort of private speaking where someone wants you to do something, or think something, or even be something which you know in your heart of hearts is wrong - wrong for you, or maybe just wrong full stop. If you’re not used to seeing the flaws in the other person’s ideas, or defending your own way of thinking, than it can be hard to stand up for yourself. You can end up either giving in, or losing your temper and storming off, maybe losing a friend in the process. If you’re a debater, though, you will be able to question what you’ve been told, and then put your side of the story calmly, confidently and assertively. 

Debaters are the sort of people who can say what needs to be said without fear or anxiety, but also without having to bully or shout, both in public and in private. People respect them for it.

As one of my students said once: ‘Since I’ve been a debater my parents tell me I’ve become much more argumentative. That is so not true.’

Debating will make you more confident, both in public and in private.