A classic debate strategy

Every competitive debater goes through a period where they learn about how to craft policy proposals. Specifically, the importance of providing the right amount of specifics to the plans that they propose. It is common to specify the agent, enforcement, time frame and funding. Funding specification is often clumsily abbreviated to “f-spec.” It is a theoretical argument that identifies valid policy proposals. Any proposal that doesn’t specify funding is automatically invalid. In short, without funding specification you loose the debate.

This is usually an early lesson in anybody’s debate career. Students learn simple responses that they recite whenever pressed for funding specification. There are normal means already in place that provide a funding mechanism. Congress has a budget allocation process that will attend to the detail regarding money. Arguments about funding distract from the debate about the policy itself. And so on.

Funding specification revival.

It is interesting seeing a concept that is so roundly dismissed in debate rounds be the focal point of a contemporary policy debate. Namely, President Trump’s proposed wall for the southern border of the United States. Donald Trump has promised that the $15-$25 billion infrastructure/security project will be paid by Mexico. Many questioned how he could be sure that Mexico would agree. The current president, and former president have categorically rejected any money being used for the project. Trump’s most recent response is that taxpayer dollars will be the initial source of funding, but that Mexico will reimburse the U.S.

If the outcomes in competitive debate rounds are any indication, these objections to funding specification will have little impact on the decision of whether or not to build the wall. In order for this argument to work, the debater raising the objection typically needs to explain why the specification is essential to anticipating drawbacks to the plan. In other words, why does the funding source create a unique disadvantage?

As of right now, the most common objection seems to be that reimbursement sounds inconsistent with Trump’s repeated promise the Mexico will pay. Any debater worth their salt can easily conflate “payment” with “reimbursement,” and Trump has proven several times over that he is willing and able to play fast and loose with the meaning of words. If this were a competitive debate round, the best advice for an opposition looking to construct a winning f-spec argument would be to briefly go through the most likely sources of funding and preview the corresponding disadvantages.

What are the likely options for funding the wall?

MoneyThe proposal that taxing money-transfers will pay for the wall? That proposal won’t raise enough money. It will also just force people to use other methods to send money south of the border, like credit unions or black markets. Furthermore, taxing money transfers would worsen poverty in Mexico. The idea of a 20% tax on goods entering the U.S.? Mexico could retaliate with their own set of tariffs on U.S. goods, effectively starting a trade war. The tax would also inevitably raise the cost of many common items in U.S. Charging more for border crossings and and visas? Those also wouldn’t raise enough money. They would hurt business and the economy because of longer lines due to longer processing requirements. Plus, Mexico could simply offset the cost by charging higher fees for the 26 million Americans that visit every year.

The trick is to identify the most likely funding sources and crafting legitimate responses to each. Then it is up to the other side to either choose which funding source, and therefore which disadvantages they are going to commit to. They may choose “none-of-the-above,” and say that funding will be decided at a later time. In that case, the prepared response should be that it is unreasonable to vote for a plan that has no funding specification. Additionally, all of the reasonable, and unrefuted disadvantages that the opposition argued matter. It may be that the eventual funding source has disadvantages that are just as bad, or worse.

Competitive debaters don’t favor funding specification as a strategy, but it is an issue that comes up in real life. In this case, it is a central point of contention for the border war proposal. It may be that this issue will be bigger in the actual policy decision than it typically is in debate rounds. It is more likely that people will care more about the effects of the wall itself than the source of funding. Expect the future of this debate to focus on immigration, employment, and economy numbers.