Analyzing a great debate- Carbon Tax

This is gonna be a new recurring segment where I look at how argument resolution is often the deciding factor in “great” debates. If you have a debate you took part in you would like to see analyzed you can email a description of the round and the key pieces of evidence (5-10 total for both sides) to and I will try and break them down/offer advice. For now I will be focusing on rounds I have actually judged.



This past weekend at Gonzaga I judged quite a few awesome debates and I’d like to talk about one of them in this post.

This round featured Minnesota AL vs Harvard MS. The aff read carbon tax and the neg went for the economy disad.


Now, in and of itself that is pretty simple/a typical energy debate, so this debate wasn’t great because it involved some sort of new, tricky strategy- it was two teams clashing on the central issues related to the topic. Member?


There was a debate in the round about uniqueness to the economy and the impact of the disad vs another affirmative advantage, but for simplicity lets just analyze the link/link turn arguments and talk about what each side said and how that affects the decision of a judge.

The relevant evidence is here great-debate-carbon-tax


Lets start out by focusing on the best link/link turn for each team.


The neg’s link focused on “consumer spending” being key to the economy. The basic premise of this link is that a carbon tax will raise electricity prices, which takes disposable income away from consumers so they spend less on other economic goods, and that hurts GDP/the economy.

The aff’s main link turn focused on transitioning to a renewable energy economy. This is a little bigger/more diverse of an argument then the negs so its hard to limit it to just “1 link”, so lets just call it “the competitiveness turn”.

For clarification the aff read an economy impact in the 1AC so there was no real impact/impact defense debate that was a large factor- so really what a judge is assessing at the end of the round is which is stronger- the link or the link turn.


Now, lets bracket this specific discussion for a second and discuss some basic principles of this kind of debate

  1. Both arguments can be true- a lot of people approach link/link turn as if its one or the other, either/or. For example, EITHER winners win OR the plan spends political capital. In reality, it is much more likely that both will be true to some extent. Debaters who focus on black/white comparisons and try to win OVERWHELMINGLY without addressing the nuance to the debate are doing themselves a disservice: it is very unlikely the judge will come to such an absolute yes/no decision about things. It is more likely they will come to a middle ground conclusion. If that is the conclusion they are looking for, and all your impact calc/weighing was about the absolute yes/no framing than most of your arguments won’t be relevant/can’t guide their decision. When both teams give such absolutist framing judges are often forced to try and make their own determination how they see fit (ev quality etc). So its VERY important to give moderate, or some might say “humble” impact assessment that assumes you win some lose some. Think of the link as an arrow pointing in one direction


Now the aff link turn is worth 5 points


So the arrow is moving farther in that direction. BUT- the neg link is worth -8


So the arrow is moving less far in that direction. It doesnt have to be EITHER OR. It can be BOTH, and the neg can still win the NET direction of the link. That is the key concept here -you want to explain why when both arguments are taken as true, your argument is more impactful. This is a CRUCIAL distinction that separates the sort of top 5 speakers/semifinalist teams at most tournaments- they are making these resolution arguments for the judge and thus winning more close rounds/getting better points.


2. Impact calc- when both teams are arguing about the same impact (economy) what you are really doing is discussing the impact of various link arguments, not the terminal impact of the disad. You want to use the same terms (timeframe, probability, magnitude) to debate the impact of various links and compare them against each other. So maybe “winners win” is true, but only in the long run. In the short run, TPP is getting voted on next week and the plan spends capital. Or maybe in the short run the plan does mask neoliberalism, but in the long run a carbon tax collapses capitalism- which is more important and why? You definitely want to be arguing about these things, and ideally reading comparative evidence about which one is more important/impactful.


So lets look at these links again- consumer spending vs competitiveness.


First, we have to assess the relative likelihood (or probability) of these links. Lets start with consumer confidence. Now there are a lot of pieces of evidence in the debate (and in the doc) about this question, so lets simplify it again by just looking at one card from each side and how it can be spun



Even a moderate tax would spike electricity prices.

Mathur et al 15 [Aparna Mathur, Resident Scholar in Economic Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, Ph.D. in Economics, with Adele Morris, Fellow and Policy Director for Climate and Energy Economics at the Brookings Institution, Ph.D. in Economics from Princeton, Distributional Burden of a Carbon Tax: Evidence and implications for policy in Implementing a US Carbon Tax: Challenges and Debates, 2015]

Areas that currently use relatively more coal in their electricity sectors have relatively low electricity rates, so disproportionately raising electricity rates in those areas would serve to flatten the differences in electricity prices across the country. Palmer et al. (2012) find that a $25 per ton tax of CO 2  would raise national electricity prices by an average of 12 percent, but that the increase could be as little as 4 percent in southern California or as much as roughly 33 percent in Missouri, Kansas, and most of Appalachia. Rausch et al. (2011) also show the South Central regions would have the largest share (17 to 33 percent) of households that experience a net income loss of 1 percent or more. This is driven primarily by the large share of coal in the electricity mix in that area. They also find that wage rates fall the most in the Mountain states as well as the North and South Central states as the impact on industrial activity and hence labor demand in these regions is relatively large due to high energy and emissions intensities. Conversely, the Northeast and West regions with less carbon-intense economies experience relatively small reductions in wage rates.


Minimal negative economic impact

Jerry Taylor 15, President of the Niskanen Center, March 23rd, “The Conservative Case for a Carbon Tax,” Niskanen Center,, Date Accessed: 7-23-16


The tax-driven price increases that would follow from Morris’s plan, however, are no greater than the “noise” that consumers normally encounter in fuel markets. The standard deviation in oil prices from quarter-to-quarter is a bit more than 15 percent.63 Natural gas and electricity prices in the United States have historically been even more volatile.64 Consumers and the economy as a whole routinely adjust to price increases that are more significant than those put on the table by a carbon tax.

Morris, like many, believes that the net impact of trading a corporate income tax cut for a carbon tax will produce a slight boost in GDP, employment, and wages. Even if the macroeconomic gains from the tax swap are overstated, the net cost to the economy would likely be too small to detect.


Ok so these are the two cards each side read, now how do you “spin” or try and resolve/compare these cards effectively in terms of probability.


Lets start with the neg. You want to make up a comparison that assumes BOTH, not EITHER/OR. So you need to isolate/examine the warrants in each card. Take a second and list the arguments you think each card is saying.

Here is what I think

Neg card

-A tax of 25$ could raise prices from 12-33 percent, with some coal intensive regions getting hit much harder


Aff Card

-Electricity prices fluctuate regularly-as much as 15%

-a carbon tax would produce an increase in prices, but not an increase higher than this normal amount of fluctuation

Now if I was reading this card as the neg I would also note: its about a specific tax “Morris’s Plan”, and that this tax apparently includes a corporate income tax swap that is not specified in the plan


Ok so As the neg we have the basis for quite a few potential comparisons, you could make some or all of the following arguments

  1. The plan increases the tax to 43 dollars, our evidence says a 25$ tax could increase prices 33%- TWICE the level their evidence indicates, and the plan is twice as stringent of a tax. This means it is far more likely that prices will increase under the affirmative tax than the “morris” plan.
  2. The aff evidence assumes a minimal cost increase because of an income tax swap that is not mandated in the plan- therefore neg evidence is more on point. Also an income tax swap is for corporations- not consumers
  3. Consumer spending is on the brink- energy is a large fixed cost for many people-especially the lower down the income ladder you move. A 33% increase is massive when its sustained over time as it will be under a carbon tax. Their evidence speaks to short term volatility- like using more natural gas for heat in the winter- not a sustained price increase

You could also get into debating source qualifications if you wanted too. Now you don’t need 3 comparisons on every competing piece of evidence (although the more central the argument the more time you want to spend on it), but these are the kind of arguments you want to be making in your rebuttal:


Do not repeat earlier speeches “extend our links- first consumer spending, this link says <insert recap>, Second ag sector <insert recap” you want to DEVELOP your arguments and start resolving things for the judge via comparison.


Now, lets re-read this evidence from an affirmative perspective

Neg Card

-the price increase is an average, not across the board, and the states hit hardest aren’t economically significant

-in other areas (CA) the impact is even SMALLER than the aff defense card states

Aff Card

-prices are volatile- this should non unique the link

-the economy responds/adapts to price increases

-even if it hurts the economy, its not a significant amount of damage


So how would the aff start setting up comparisons?

  1. Link threshold- at what amount do energy prices have to increase to trigger the consumer spending impact? Consumer spending isn’t a threshold issue, its linear. That energy prices are volatile and frequently fluctuate should of triggered any threshold, and they don’t have evidence that establishes one so you should PRESUME affirmative that the link is empirically denied. Our evidence proves the rational- markets ADAPT to increased energy prices- people turn down their heat or AC, seek efficiency solutions etc to compensate
  2. The link isn’t homogenous- only certain regions are actually hard hit by the carbon tax, most are not. These regions- coal states- are not crucial to the economy for any reason the neg can explain. Their consumer spending link presumes an ACROSS THE BOARD decline of consumer spending, when in reality that link would only be triggered in a small number of states
  3. EVEN in these states the economic damage is minimal. Energy prices are only a small subset of consumer expenditure. While a 300 dollar yearly increase in energy prices will certainly hit some housholds hard, the loss of 300 dollars per family in consumer spending isn’t statistically significant in GDP- their own uniqueness says the economy gre at 2.9% in the 3rd quarter- their link wouldn’t shave half a point off that


And so on. Again, this list isn’t exhaustive (more comparisons could be made) or mandatory (you wouldn’t have to make any of these arguments), but its a start to get you thinking about the kind of arguments you need to be making in rebuttals.


Now, lets move on to the issue that was most important in the debate-timeframe. What we just discussed above where “probability” arguments about the link/link turn. In the actual round it came down to timeframe, BUT in a round where both sides are making comparisons-just like with impact calc- you need to pick which criteria you are winning AND explain why its the most important criteria if you want to win.


Instead of focusing on probability, the neg focused on the timeframe differential between the link and the link turn. In broadstrokes

-electricity prices would go up immediately

-offense like competitiveness takes a long time to kick in

-the economy is uniquely vulnerable now, so short term links matter the most


Now, did the neg evidence support this distinction or was it just made up? Well actually the neg had pretty good evidence to support this, much better than average. Key parts include their Williams evidence

Research suggests that tax increases (or cuts in government spending or transfers) during an economic slump tend to increase short-run unemployment and reduce the rate of economic growth. And recent research suggests that those effects are larger than previously thought. 24 This suggests some need for caution in the near term, particularly if the carbon tax revenue is used for deficit reduction (rather than funding increased government spending or cuts in other taxes, either of which would tend to stimulate the economy and thus offset the contractionary effect of the carbon tax itself ).”


And their Irwin Evidence

There is a decent argument that the United States economy is more susceptible to recession now than it has been for most of the last several decades, for two reasons.

First, growth has been around 2 percent a year, below the 3 to 4 percent that was commonplace in the second half of the 20th century. That means there is less of a growth cushion. It takes a smaller negative shock to pull the economy into contraction territory.

Second, the Fed may find itself with less room to reduce the damage of the next downturn. In modern recessions, the central bank has cut rates by an average of 5.5 percent, according to research by the Fed economist David Reifschneider. With rates below 0.5 percent and on track to rise very slowly, any small shock in the next few years could cause major economic damage, especially if the Fed’s less conventional monetary policy tools either go unused or don’t prove effective.”


The combination of those two was sufficient for me to decide that the neg link was in fact short term, and that short term links were the most important.
So what does this mean for the debate? Well I’m sure everyone has heard the “only die once” argument for timeframe on impacts, something similar applies here. Even if competitiveness link turn is necessary to save the economy in the long run , here are key parts of aff ev on this

“It would also result in significant cost savings on direct energy costs ($260 per year in 2050) and health costs ($1,500 per year in 2050).”

“These experiences help illustrate that carbon pricing can create long-term competitive advantage for low-carbon and energy-efficient businesses through cost reduction, production efficiency, and improved product quality.”

When all these effects are combined, the carbon tax decreases the true cost of energy to about 9% to 11% of GDP by 2025 and 5% to 7% of GDP by 2050. The resulting secure, clean, and affordable energy stimulates sustainable economic growth.”


It does look like all their turns are speaking to a longer time frame- earliest being about 2025.


So what should the aff do here? Well the neg has a pretty good arg, but not unbeatable

  1. The aff should contest that the link IS in fact short term or based on perception- What i mean is question the idea that the energy prices link would be short term enough for their “now key” uniqueness evidence to matter. does that evidence define “now” as this quarter? , this fiscal year? who knows- but make an argument about what it means and say the neg link doesn’t trigger it (or that some other uniqueness argument might, which was a part of the debate but something I am bracketing for now). The more the neg reads “link magnifiers” like “now key” the more important thumpers become. So a specific application of the “volatility” thumper here could be “winter increases fuel prices, its coming now, triggers short term links” -obvi explain more
  2. Try and find some counter evidence that answers/critiques the short term focus of the negative link. This issue shows how powerful meta level framing arguments are. The affirmative was very far ahead on their long term link turns, but the neg was very far ahead on their short term link. A pivot by the aff in rebuttals to “short term focus bad” is their easiest way to swing the debate. When people say “the aff gets inifnite prep” these are the kind of things they are referring to- they can map out their strategy and prepare argument resolution in advance. In this debate, had the neg evidence not been so high quality on timeframe being key the aff might have won despite not having their own counter framing, but having it always adds another layer to the debate you can win.

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