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January/February 2023 LD Topic Roundtable
January/February 2023 LD Topic Roundtable
Victory Briefs presents a topic roundtable, where we solicit coaches and members of the debate community to provide input on which topic they believe should be selected to debate for the upcoming topic slot.
This second entry covers the three potential topics for the 2023 January/February topic slot.
Voting is now open! To vote: log in to your NSDA account, click the “Topic Voting” red bar on the left, and click the blue “Vote” button in the “2023 January/February LD Ballot” row.
Voting closes on 11/30/2022. Your vote matters, the last LD topic vote was quite close! According to the NSDA for November/December 2022, “A total of 690 coaches and 1,657 students voted for the resolution. The winning resolution received 37% of the coach vote and 36% of the student vote.”
The potential topics for the 2023 January/February topic slot are as follows:
Resolved: Justice requires open borders for human migration.
Resolved: The United States federal government’s plenary power over Indigenous Nations ought to be substantially limited.
Resolved: The European Union has an obligation to accept climate refugees.
We have invited 4 coaches to provide their reasoning for which topic ought to be selected.
Amadea Datel – Open Borders
I’ll begin by saying that all three Jan/Feb topics are unideal. Both climate refugees and plenary powers lack neg ground and open borders is worded too broadly, but the latter still emerges as a clear favorite.
I am most familiar with the climate refugees topic because it was chosen for one of the camps I taught at this summer. The largest problem was the clear aff bias – no one in the literature advocates against the EU admitting climate refugees, barring far-right news outlets that are not reputable sources. The best aff argument is the most straightforward: climate disasters are causing a humanitarian crisis that will lead to millions of deaths if people can’t emigrate from their home countries. Since debaters are drawn to big stick impacts, most camp rounds instead included advantages about EU legitimacy or collapse, which made the topic harder than it should’ve been for the aff. The neg ground included a populism DA (arguing that climate migrants would lead to a rise in populism) that suffered from uniqueness problems given that populism has been increasing for several years in Europe and most EU countries already admit refugees (even if not climate refugees). Debaters also read the Covid DA and Terror DA which relied on the problematic and inaccurate tropes that climate refugees spread diseases or are terrorists. The counterplan ground was also lacking – the neg couldn’t access any counterplans that solved warming because all DA links relied on climate refugees entering the EU, so the perm shielded the link.
The plenary powers topic requires more background to understand. The term “plenary powers” refers to “complete power over a particular area with no limitations.” In the context of Indigenous Nations, this means that Congress has the same power and authority over tribes as states have over their citizens, which includes limiting or modifying the tribes’ power or even terminating tribal status altogether. Although this topic could produce interesting 1ACs about indigenous sovereignty, the neg ground amounts to “indigenous rights bad” which is a non-starter. Even if Congress should have some involvement in indigenous affairs, the resolution specifies that the aff must only limit plenary powers, so the aff could agree that the US still owes duties to tribes without also agreeing that Congress has the right to infringe on tribal decisions.
The final topic concerns open borders. In general, I prefer resolutions that are phrased as normative statements (like “States should open their borders for human migration”) to clarify the division of ground, but the salient topic area, solid negative ground, and the two other unworkable options make this topic my favorite. The term “open borders” implies that people can travel between countries without presenting legal documentation, which would drastically increase immigration. Polls have demonstrated that one-quarter of the world’s population wishes to migrate and 165 million would like to come to the US (for context, only 35 million immigrants currently live in America). The implications are massive: the aff can make arguments about solving humanitarian crises, reducing government costs, and creating cultural diversity, while the neg has access to brain drain or econ arguments, along with a slew of advantage counterplans that reform immigration without opening borders completely. In many ways, the topic seems like a better version of the climate refugees one – it is centered around a concept with more literature and forces the aff to defend a controversial proposal – so I encourage students and coaches to vote for it.
Eva Lamberson — Open Borders
Let me first say, I at least don’t think any of the possible JanFeb topics have nearly as many problems as the current topic does, so that’s a… bonus. Although I think many of the topics have some good qualities (and a fair number of drawbacks,) my preference is for open borders.
I first want to note that I think this is a successful topic in the endeavor to write an LD resolution that focuses primarily on a robust moral question with a lot of far reaching philosophical literature and interpretations — and that’s the largest reason why I prefer it. We have seen some iffy at best ‘philosophical’ resolutions in the past few years, but I don’t think this is one of them. The moral relevance of borders and the ethical limits of immigration are major parts of the literature in many philosophical traditions.
This means that regardless of the way you want to debate, there will likely be a wealth of literature for you to use. Joseph Carens, for instance, wrote an article outlining the case for open borders and expanded immigration from three distinct philosophical positions — Nozickian far-right libertarianism, Rawlsian liberalism, and utilitarianism. Any quick search on the case for open borders will give you pages on pages of well reasoned academic literature on the subject. Although a lot of the major philosophical positions lean affirmative, there is negative literature as well. Communitarians, for instance, object to open borders on the basis of self-determination. This view is taken by, among others, Michael Walzer in his book Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality. This view is also discussed in the aforementioned Carens paper.
Additionally, although the obvious focus of this topic is philosophical, I believe empirical questions and implications have their place in this topic, as long as your conception of justice includes such considerations.
Now, I’ll turn to the other two topics briefly to compare and discuss my preference for open borders.
First, climate refugees — I actually like this topic too, and I think it’s pretty likely to be the one chosen. My preference for open borders is largely personal, since I think the open borders topic largely excludes the empirical economic and political arguments that will be more common on climate refugees topic, which are honestly just arguments I personally am less interested in hearing. That being said, if you want a more specific topic that balances philosophical inquiry and empirical arguments, this may be the topic for you. Much of the philosophical literature carries over, and there is additionally a number of papers written on the question of climate refugees specifically. There are obviously a number of articles written on the material effects of this resolution as well. I think the question of the open borders vs. climate refugees topics is largely personal — would you prefer a philosophical topic with some empirical implications or an empirical topic with philosophical implications?
Plenary power is by far my least favorite topic. Although it is probably high time for a topic that centers around indigenous issues and that can center indigenous scholarship, I unfortunately don’t think this is the one. TL;DR, it’s really aff biased, especially for LARPers and trad debaters. There’s article after article after article (and so on) about how the U.S. government having plenary power over native land and sovereignty is bad, to say the least. I suppose negatives could just say eliminate plenary power over native land, but I’m writing this with traditional debaters in mind too. Plus, who wants to deal with T-substantial?
Again, I think this is a pretty solid topic set, at least compared to NovDec, especially either immigration topic. Most importantly, regardless of what I or anyone else has to say, I hope that you all do some basic research and thinking before you vote so our topic selection is well informed!
Jacob Nails – Open Borders
None of the three slated topics for January-February 2023 stand out to me as exceptional. I believe both immigration resolutions would make for reasonable topics, and I give the marginal edge to Open Borders. Plenary powers would be the worst of the three resolutions.
“Resolved: The European Union has an obligation to accept climate refugees.”
This topic is the most straightforward of the three. It reads like a Public Forum resolution in centering on a timely political controversy. Immigration is an excellent topic area that provokes a range of significant ethical and practical questions, and the Climate Refugees topic provides a relatively clear and empirical context in which to debate immigration. It does, however, ask for debate at the margins over whether “climate refugees” constitute a well-defined category of refugees, rather than over the core controversy of immigration itself. Another significant downside is the topic’s focus on climate change, which is already a main theme of the ongoing November-December topic.
“Resolved: Justice requires open borders for human migration.”
This topic is my recommended choice. While the Climate Refugees topic isn’t exactly a minimalist change in immigration policy, it’s not the most substantial either. Open Borders, by contrast, is a maximalist revision in immigration law if ever there was one. Arguably, no country currently has a policy of true open borders. By virtue of representing a much more radical departure from the status quo, I think Open Borders does a much better job at cutting to the heart of the immigration debate, over what it means to constitute a political community, what authority a state possesses to define the boundaries of that community, and so forth. While I wouldn’t say the Climate Refugees topic has a shortage of literature, the literature base is far shallower than on the topic of borders, over which oceans of ink have been spilled.
The phrase “Justice requires…” makes this topic less amenable to being read as a straightforward statement of policy than its counterpart. This wording does add some vagueness, and I sharply criticized the current Chinese Environmentalism topic for presenting an empirical debate devoid of the context needed to evaluate it, but in this case I would consider the inexactness more of a plus than a minus. It better represents the crux of the discourse over the concept of open borders, which is more often presented as a political ideal than a specific blueprint for policy change.
“Resolved: The United States federal government’s plenary power over Indigenous Nations ought to be substantially limited.”
While plenary powers over Indigenous Nations is a novel topic area, and I suspect that a high-quality version of this resolution could exist, I am very pessimistic that the topic as worded would produce productive debates.
Hillary Hoffman summarizes some of the historical applications of Congress’s plenary powers:
“Congress has used plenary power to override Supreme Court decisions, abrogate treaties negotiated by the executive branch, terminate federal recognition of previously recognized tribes, divest tribes of vast landholdings in violation of treaty agreements, and involuntarily incorporate numerous indigenous nation-states, such as the Kingdom of Hawaii, into the United States.”
If that list sounds largely negative to you, then it’s doing its job of representing the state of literature on this topic. Law reviews contain more than a few articles on Congress’s plenary power over tribes but they bias by and large toward criticisms of it. Of course, on its own a skewed literature base isn’t the end of the world, and strong topics can be crafted with this fact in mind.
But the other limitation of this topic is that it gives extremely expansive leeway to the affirmative in crafting their advocacy. The topic is worded much like a Policy Debate resolution in merely requiring that the affirmative show a “substantial limit,” which could take any number of forms considering the broad scope and application of the doctrine (“plenary powers” literally means “absolute powers”), but unlike resolutions of policy it is worded in the passive voice, making the exact agent and process at least somewhat unclear.
Again, broad affirmative leeway on its own is not a death knell to a topic. The September-October 2021 topic (“Resolved: The member nations of the World Trade Organization ought to reduce intellectual property protections for medicines”) also allowed the affirmative free rein to choose from a variety of mechanisms for merely “reducing” IP rights. But the negative started with a strong general premise that IP rights are useful for innovation and a guarantee that any action the affirmative took in the direction of reduction would have at least some effect on that innovative incentive.
The Plenary Power topic represents the uniquely dangerous confluence of unreliable negative ground and flexible affirmative choice, making it too easy for the affirmative to find some change from underneath the broad umbrella of total control to which the negative’s main objections don’t apply. Even the seeming conflict between rectifying social injustices and preserving rule of law that undergirds many topics of this sort does not provide the negative stable ground here, as many of the criticisms of plenary powers stem from its tenuous constitutional foundations. And with the affirmative picking the exact terrain on which that debate occurs, they’ll generally come out with the high ground.
 Apap, Joanna and Capucine du Perron de Revel. “The concept of 'climate refugee': Towards a possible definition.” European Parliamentary Research Service. October 2021. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2021/698753/EPRS_BRI(2021)698753_EN.pdf
 Victory Briefs. “November/December 2022 LD Topic Roundtable.” 23 September 2022. https://www.vbriefly.com//2022/09/23/november-december-2022-ld-topic-roundtable/
 Hoffman, Hillary M. “Congressional Plenary Power and Indigenous Environmental Stewardship: The Limits of Environmental Federalism.” Oregon Law Review: Vol. 97, No. 2 (2019). https://scholarsbank.uoregon.edu/xmlui/handle/1794/24696
Lawrence Zhou — Open Borders
Well, it appears that the near-unanimous consensus of the writers in the previous roundtable did little to sway the community vote in favor of the China topic. While the most apocalyptic predictions of the topic producing unmanageable debates seemed to have passed, a brief survey of the wiki has not left me feeling like the China topic was a preferable option to conscription. Let’s hope this topic roundtable fares better.
Unfortunately, the slate of topics available for January/February seems noticeably worse than the topics available for November/December. In fact, I might go so far as to argue that even the China topic would have won my vote above any of the three potential listings here.
With great reluctance, I favor the open borders topic. I think it has at least some semblance of a reasonable balance between affirmative and negative ground and accesses an interesting literature base.
I think the EU topic isn’t terrible, but I think it makes for an uninteresting debate. While I think some might be intuitively drawn to the topic because of its simple wording, I think the topic avoids the interesting debate that exists in the literature in favor of an abstract philosophical debate that forces the negative to make some very implausible arguments.
As Marshall Bierson once argued, this topic requires the negative to argue that not only is there no responsibility to save a drowning child in a pond generally, but no responsibility to save a drowning child even when you’re the one who pushed them into the pond. Given the EU’s contribution to global climate change, it seems patently absurd to argue that the EU has precisely zero moral obligation to accept some non-zero number of climate refugees.
The more interesting questions seem more about how to accept climate refugees, e.g., delineating precisely what obligations does the EU have to help refugees, asking what policies should be in place to mitigate the backlash people might have to a large influx of climate refugees, or defining what a climate refugee is in the first place. None of these are particularly relevant to the topic as worded.
That leaves the negative with arguments that are mostly about the (racist) backlash that will occur as a result of an influx of climate refugees. Such arguments are important to discuss, but I personally don’t really want several months of judging some variation of the backlash DA.
The plenary powers topic has the advantage of at least sounding interesting. Plenary powers—that Congress has expansive, virtually unlimited authority to regulate tribes—is a somewhat obscure legal idea that most debaters and coaches are likely unfamiliar with. If chosen, at least the topic would force debaters to engage with the history of Supreme Court cases like Herrera v. Wyoming or United States v. Kagama.
Beyond that, however, I suspect this topic is simply too small and affirmative-biased to sustain four months of debate. Not only is there good reason to suspect that such a doctrine lacks any Constitutional basis to begin with, but I can’t think of any particularly strong reason why plenary power over Indigenous Nations ought to exist anyways. It seems like the negative would be forced to resort to precedent or spillover arguments that seem tenuous at best.
By contrast, the open borders topic seems far more balanced in terms of ground while not being too small. While I personally think having completely open borders is wildly implausible, I think there is a reasonable debate to be had. Both libertarians like Bryan Caplan and critical theorists criticize borders as cementing unjustified exclusion. Meanwhile, those critical of open borders argue that borders ensure a right to association, prevent conflict, or are necessary to advance leftist goals.
The literature surrounding the debate over open borders spans many different genres and is as deep as it is wide. There would be no shortage of blogs, academic articles, and books to draw from on this fascinating ethical debate that has huge relevance (as the climate refugees topic makes clear). While the affirmative would be confined to a single advocacy, there would be no shortage of different framing devices the affirmative could draw from, thus ensuring reasonable argument innovation over the course of the topic and guaranteeing the negative a reasonable backstop against a tidal wave of small and unpredictable affirmatives. Of course, the topic suffers from the usual slate of issues, e.g., the lack of a clear actor, but I think those are surmountable barriers.
While none of these topics stands out to me as particularly interesting, I think open borders should win because it has a clear, limited, and relatively balanced division of affirmative and negative ground. The climate refugees and plenary powers topics fail that test in at least one major way.