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VBI 2022 PF Philly Topic Announced
The VBI Philadelphia (June 25 - July 8) Public Forum camp topic will be from the 2022 September/October topic area of environmental infrastructure.
Resolved: The United States Federal Government should substantially increase its investment in high-speed rail.
The VBI Los Angeles (July 31 - August 13) session will use the official 2022 September/October topic.
Director of Publishing of Lawrence Zhou lays out the case below for why he believes that the HSRs topic is superior to the REMs topic.
The massive YouTube channel RealLifeLore was recently forced to reupload a video about California’s high speed rails (HSRs) because of some (legitimate) criticisms (such as this one from Alan Fisher) about the quality of the original video. I don’t have a strong position on whether Fisher’s criticisms were all correct—what I do have a strong position on is the fact that the criticisms and subsequent reupload suggest that the HSR debate is more complicated than people sometimes think it is, and that suggests that there is legitimate debate to be had on both sides.
For years now, I have been extolling the benefits of HSRs in China and lamenting the sorry state of the US train system (these videos by Wendover Productions on China’s HSRs and why trains suck in the US are a great starting point for understanding the topic). When teaching debate in China, I’d actively pick an HSR over flying most of the time (although that’s partly because China is weird about military control over their airspace, resulting in frequent delays when flying)—the convenience and comfort of HSRs far superseded the quality of flying. Honestly, once I factored in having to get to and from the airport (often located on the outskirts of the city, whereas HSR stations were often centrally located), it was often faster to use an HSR instead of flying.
So, why is it the case that Asian countries like Japan and China and European countries like Spain have so many miles of HSR while the US has just (arguably) a single HSR line in the form of the Amtrak Acela Express line from Boston to DC?
The answers vary: The US lacks expertise in constructing HSRs, the political opposition from corporations and Republicans is strong, the budgetary and federal commitments would be massive, and the US is geographically distinct from other regions of the world that have more connected urban centers whereas the US is far more spread out. There are other concerns too like our strong property rights, our lasting car culture, and an existing rail system that is geared towards commercial freight traffic but not for passenger traffic. These concerns, along with concerns over its enormous upfront cost to build the infrastructure, concerns about their impacts to already disadvantaged families, and doubts about its long-term economic viability, will provide ample ground for the negative.
By comparison, the affirmative has access to many different impacts, from the economic benefits that direct access would provide to some of the sustainability and environmental benefits of investment in mass transit.
This sets the stage for an excellent debate, one that stretches as far back as Lyndon Johnson’s High-Speed Ground Transportation Act in the 1960s. Each side has core arguments: sustainability and economic interconnectedness for the affirmative; spending and displacement for the negative. Additionally, there are plenty of details about the plausibility and feasibility of HSRs in the US (such as whether it should be included in a future infrastructure bill, how large of a role should the federal government play, whether a national or series of regional corridors would make the most sense, and questions about whether future efforts to build HSRs can overcome the history of failures in the US). There are even a myriad of books dedicated solely to the question of HSRs (like this one about the history of HSRs) demonstrating that a wide swath of literature exists over this timely and fascinating topic. There are deep environmental, economic, and social debates to be had about HSR, and with California’s HSR currently in limbo, there is also a real example of this debate playing out as we speak.
While a lot of the debate over HSRs could get into some of the nitty-gritty details that may be somewhat unpleasant to debate, I think that’s ultimately far superior to the alternative of the rare earth minerals topic. A simple question for those in favor of the REM topic: What’s the negative ground?
When Ted Cruz, Joe Biden, John Kelly and Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio and Cindy Hyde-Smith, the Heritage Foundation, and virtually everyone else is in agreement that domestic REM production is key to climate progress, economic growth, national security, and reducing our reliance on China for REMs, then I really struggle to see what the negative ground is.
Sure, the negative can talk about the environmental harms of extracting, refining, and processing REMs, but those harms are largely non-unique (and arguably quite offensive to suggest that environmental harm in other countries like in China where it is out of sight is somehow better than it happening here in the US), solutions to REM pollution are emerging, relying on China is worse given that they can cut off clean energy development in the US, investment and research in cleaner and more efficient REM extraction and processing will likely emerge with increased US investment in domestic REM production (such as one method to mine it from industrial waste), and recycling will likely mitigate many of those harms. This is already becoming a focal point for policy with little opposition.
I simply challenge anyone to find a reasonable negative position that opposes increasing REMs domestically. When the best negative arguments focus on the fact that maybe America won’t be able to fully overtake China in the REM space (a defensive argument which can be overcome by focusing on the key role that federal investment and support could play), that suggests that negative ground is slim pickings.
While HSRs might sound decidedly less “sexy” than REMs, that doesn’t imply it’s the worse debate topic. Debate topics don’t just need interesting literature—they need balanced ground. If topics become a monologue, where one side retains a functional monopoly on the quality of academic and popular literature, then why not just do informative speaking to sing the praises of increasing domestic production of REMs? If you want to have a debate, it has to be relatively balanced.
Of course, I could still be proven wrong—if someone wants to show me some good articles for the negative on the REMs topic, I’d be delighted to read them—but my cursory reading of the relevant topic literature strongly implies that there is real debate on both sides over HSRs and very little debate about the value of increasing our domestic extraction and production of REMs.
If what we care about is a topic that is educational for novices, balanced for quality debate, and robust enough to withstand months of debate, then I think only HSRs is a plausible contender. I look forward to hearing the case to the contrary.