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The Munk Debates: Should We Tax the Rich More?

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Since it began in 2008, the Munk Debates series has firmly established itself as one of the premier debating events in Canada. The latest debate, held this Thursday night in Toronto, took on the highly topical motion: be it resolved, tax the rich more. The debate was an intense and engaging exercise in the ideological and policy arguments of the resolution, but the lack of diversity in opinion seemed to be the glaring flaw of the night.

Speaking in favour of the motion were economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and former Greek premier George Papandreou. Speaking against the resolution where economist Arthur Laffer and former US House speaker Newt Gingrich.

The debate largely broke down the resolution into two strands of argument: the philosophy and the policy. This enabled the debate to go beyond the simple politics and numbers of taxing the rich, and delve into broader issues surrounding fairness, morality, the just society, prosperity, and social empowerment.

At this point, most would assume that a debate on political theory and economics spelled nothing more than instant boredom, but the debaters surprisingly managed to keep the crowd entertained. The language of the debate remained incredibly accessible and humour was often used to either hammer home a point or release the tension.

Krugman, for example kicked off the debate with gales of laughter by making reference to the comedy of errors that is Toronto's current mayoral politics.

While the debate was on taxing the rich, the issue of social empowerment became a recurring theme, with all four debaters arguing for the transfer of greater political power to the poor and middle class.

Krugman and Papandreou argued that raising taxes on the rich would help the state to provide valuable services to the disadvantaged, hence giving them greater opportunities for advancement. Gingrich and Laffer on the other hand proposed that lowering taxes for the rich would spur economic growth, giving the poor jobs that would help them climb the social ladder.

But as the debaters engaged in this narrative, one could not help but notice the inherent contradiction before them: here were four rich, white, older prominent men -- the elites of their society -- talking about the needs of the poor and the middle class.

That is not to say that their characteristics discounted in any way what they have to say, but it felt very much like the one percent talking about what the ninety-nine percent needed.

This lack of diversity in the speakers was the general trend of the evening. The organizers of the debate decided to shun the conventional audience question period for two pre-recorded statements from former U.S. Treasury secretary Larry Summers and Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani. Both were undoubtedly distinguished contributors, but they could not exactly claim to be authoritatively speaking for the average person.

This lack of speaking diversity seems to be a bit of a trend among the Munk Debates. Their last ten debates have seen only two female speakers. Eleven debates on, this gaping discrepancy seems like more than just a coincidence.

The debate also seemed to focus primarily on the United States. Of the nearly ninety minute debate, only the last few minutes saw the discussion move beyond North America and into a discussion on Chinese economic policy.

This was perhaps a consequence of having three out of four debaters from south of the border. The skewed panel also left Papandreou with very little to say, finding himself stuck between his fellow panellists as they volleyed with the specifics of American tax history and politics. As a result, Papandreou remained largely obscure in the debate, coming off as rather repetitive and general in his arguments.

Post debate audience polls showed a resounding victory in favour of the motion. But despite the all star line-up and the thoroughly entertaining debate, the one dimensional nature of the panel meant that the debate was not all that it could have been.

Co-authored with Adnan Subzwari

Adnan Subzwari is a M.A. student at McMaster University. Adnan holds a B.A. from the University of Toronto in Political Science and History.