An exercise in respect


January 26th


This time, the Philodemic Society turned their attention to the subject of economics for the second Merrick debate of the semester to discuss Resolved: The United States should adopt a Universal Basic Income. Although coined “the dismal science”, this debate was anything but. On the Affirmation was Chancellor Asha Thanki (SFS ‘17) of Missouri and opposite her was our Librarian Mr. Philip Ma (SFS ‘17) of New York.


Taking the floor first, Chancellor Thanki began by stating that most of the low-level, minimum wage jobs in America are rapidly being replaced by work that needs increasingly higher levels of skill and education. Moving to dispel any fears of this being an economics debate, she briefly outlined the framing. UBI was defined as cash-income given out to people on an individual, but limited basis. Aditionally, the discussion of implementation would have to focus on the present as there is little knowledge of what it looks like in the long term. Continuing on full force, Chancellor Thanki described the current detrimental nature of the US’ current network of patchwork welfare programs that leave people vulnerable to income and poverty gaps, and are so complex that affected groups are not even aware of which programs they qualify for. The question she posed to the floor was this: What is a more moral welfare system? For her, it is clear that UBI was the answer. Putting it in place, would not only give poor people more capital ownership in an often ruthlessly capitalist society that leaves the poor behind, but would also remove the stigma that surrounds welfare and its recipients. “We are all receiving something from our government,” she asserted and therefore there is no reason to not give people the chance to do more than just focus on basic survival. The Affirmation focuses on the fact that poor people should not be barred from the opportunity to do more with their skills and talents because of their circumstances if something can be done about it. As for cost, Chancellor Thanki made it clear that any implementation of UBI could not be based off the current system, and costs would have to account of for a system overhaul. Closing her keynote, our Chancellor concluded by warning the floor not to make “laziness” apart of their negation speeches; UBI, she asserted, wouldn’t make people lazy because those that make minimum wage still make every effort to look for work.


For Mr. Ma the “big issue” of the Negation was that UBI fails to account for regional differences in the United States, and would therefore result in unequal subsidization. It also leaves out the disabled or the elderly who are not able to work, and would not be able to sufficiently live off UBI’s cash-income system. He forcefully contended that women would suffer the most from the resulting unequal labor division in households, and that the current welfare system-although imperfect-has done much to reduce poverty amongst Americans. Mr. Ma cited the large transactions costs of UBI, and that at its most feasible UBI would require that key government programs-like PBS and the Army Corp of Engineers-to be taken away. Furthermore, citing the work of housewives as an example, he argued that “UBI does not tie social goods with proper levels of compensation”. Finally, in a counter to Chancellor Thanki’s point about the stigma around welfare, Mr. Ma claimed that done right the means test required by American welfare programs is not inherently demeaning-the people administering the test, and not the system, make it condescending implying that issue is a fixable problem.


Ms. Weissman kicked off the floor speeches on the Affirmation, and argued that the moral component of UBI was the most important because it lifted poorer people up so that they could work and would dispel the notion that they have to scrape by to provide for their families. Additionally, it would reduce government bureaucracy and allow people to “go out and choose jobs that they want”. Ms. Griffin pushed back against the idea that the paternalism inherent to the welfare system will be eliminated. She felt that UBI wouldn’t address the demonization of the poor, and was troubled by all the key government that would be eliminated. In true Philodemic style, Ms. Greene did not disappoint by mentioning a relevant episode of the West Wing and argued that UBI is the best form of welfare because “I think Americans know how to spend their money”. Mr. Marrow however took umbrage at this and stated that “I don’t trust people to spend their own money”. He compared UBI to cash, and the current welfare system to a gift card. In his view, the latter is better than the former because it is a targeted program that lives little room for personal abuses. Ms. Cooke reinforced Ms. Green’s earlier notion about trusting other Americans spending habits, and called Mr. Marrow’s gift card example “patronizing”.


Ms. Hu provided some credence to the ever-maligned Mr. Marrow’s argument by pointing out that studies have shown that when given a windfall of cash, people naturally want to engage in more leisure time. And although the seeming simplicity of UBI is a seductively powerful solution, it would be a mistake to try and solve a complicated problem like welfare with a simple solution. Ms. Fisher pushed back and argued that UBI is a regular income, not a windfall, and therefore people would treat it as they would a regular budget. She also noted that there is “nothing wrong with women wanting to spend less time in the work-force”, and UBI is much better than the current welfare system. Mr. Pullin picked up on Ms. Hu’s previous speech and stated that people can’t be given a lump sum of cash and expected to spend responsibly because they work because they have to, and not because they want to. Taking the floor, Vice President Reilly sought to move the floor away from arguments over whether to trust people or not, and pushed the debate toward the ethical reasons of “why” we should support UBI.


Using a personal anecdote, Ms. Finkenthal argued that UBI doesn’t provide equal opportunity, and cited the presence of food deserts in many impoverished areas. Incensed, she continued on by noting that UBI would give still give money to billionaires and “I don’t want billionaires to get this money”. Mr. Grocki claimed in his speech that the greatest benefit of UBI would that it would depoliticize welfare, allow for a better allocation of human capital, and give poor people the opportunity to achieve their dreams which would thereby enrich American society as a whole. Ms. Logan first dispelled the idea on the floor that billionaires receiving UBI benefits would not be taxed at their current level, and then expressed her concern for how children-a group highly by poverty in American-would fit into UBI’s system. Mr. Zeugel focused his speech on the middle class and argued that since they could best make use of the money, much of the stigma around welfare could be removed.


Mr. Austin Parentau (COL ‘19) began the non-member portion on the negation, and pushed back against Chancellor Thanki earlier claim in her keynote that people are presently being forced out their job because of technical advances the workforce. Mr. Sam Appel (COL ‘20) contended that some jobs are becoming obsolete, and we can see the proof in the everyday life of an average American. Addressing the earlier argument about gift cards, he argued that “people don’t get gift cards, but they need them”. After inadvertently calling out Mr. Marrow for his cell-phone use Mr. Matt Maury (COL ‘19) asked the floor how to best help the people who have the most need, like drug addicts. On the Affirmation, Ms. Grace Wu (COL ’20) restated Vice President Reilly’s earlier point that the debate shouldn’t be about trusting people, because we should trust people on principle. Mr. Andrew Schneider (COL ‘19) noted that the United States has the patchwork system for a reason. Closing out non-member speeches strong, Mr. Jack Morten (COL ‘20) energetically argued that people’s worth should not be tied to their occupation and that UBI also mean “universal basic respect”.


Re-starting non-member speaking time, Mr. Soltis expressed questionable admiration for Paul Ryan, and expressed his problem with the regional differences that UBI would not account for. On the Aff, Mr. Mullaney argued that UBI would not be incompatible with giving power back to localities, and that UBI could act as the bootstraps that people need to pull themselves up. Mr. Hinck voiced his doubt about the power of UBI to dispel stigmas around poverty because “government programs don’t change how we view poor people”. Injecting compassion into the debate, Ms. Freidmann articulated a need for a more accessible system, while President Ernst remained unconvinced that UBI was any better than the welfare system in place now.  Mr. McCarthy asked “why does the system have to be conditional”, and Mr. Perez-Reyes didn’t see the point in a system that gave money to wealthier people while taxing them like they never had it. He argued that the end result of UBI would ultimately be harmful class differentiation.


Sounding vaguely like someone’s father, Mr. Fletcher addressed Mr. Perez-Reyes argued that welfare and education were completely separate systems, and a universal system allows everyone to participate. Mr. Harden pointed out that the poverty problem is cultural, and that cannot be fixed by the simple implementation of another government program. Mr. Rinaudo argued that most people in the room had a for-sure safety net in their lives that poor people do not have. For him the question was “when we have an inequality, is it something that is wrong with the government or inherent within human nature”, and the answer was that the United States should “stand for something better”.


Reclaiming the floor for his closing keynote, Mr. Ma by arguing that people should be able to be integrated into a future that they can contribute to and reap benefits from. Only 1.5 % of welfare costs are administrative, and that the negation still believes in giving cash to the poor. He further contended that negation believes in cash to the poor, but also recognized the importance of work and the need for a more flexible need-based program. Finally, Mr. Ma charged the affirmation with treating the poor as a unit, while the negation sees that the state should treat people as just that-people.


Chancellor Thanki began by contending that UBI is all the more advantageous because it gives people more leisure time which would include more schooling and skills training. In her view, UBI was more than just welfare; it is a way of respecting the basic humanity of every American citizen. Addressing the floor’s struggle with trusting people with their money, Chancellor Thanki asked the floor “how do I know better than you that you don’t need more income”, suggesting that it would be condescending to assume that people not only don’t know how to manage their money, but that we also must inherently know what they do and do not need. Pushing back against Mr. Ma’s characterization of the Affirmation, she argued that poverty gap is what treats people as units, and that as far as taxation goes billionaires would be the ones funding the scheme. Concluding her speech, the Chancellor dismissed the juxtaposition of equality and fairness, and insisted that “equality is fairness”!


With 25 negating, 4 abstaining, and 17 affirming, this resolution was negated! The Merrick point distribution was as follows:


Mr. Ma-5 points

Mr. Mullaney-4 points

Chancellor Thanki-3 points

Mr. Rinaudo-2 points

Ms. Finkenthal and Mr. Perez-Reyes-1 point


Thanks to both Chancellor Thanki and Mr. Ma for a decidedly engaging, non-dreary debate!




Symone Wilson

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