As students from Monash and Melbourne converged on the heart of Clayton campus for the inaugural ESSA Monash versus Melbourne Economics debate, the tension crackling in the air was palpable. For the Melbourne team, losing to the new kids on the block would be an irrevocable stain on their self-perception. For the Monash team, the desire to reign supreme on their turf was a powerful driving force. The topic ‘The Eurozone Project is a Failure’ provided ample scope for intellectual sparring.
From Melbourne on the affirmative, we had plucky first year Emad Zarghami, Honours Economics student Chris Weinberg, and Professor Jeff Borland (and his gym bag – more on that to come). From Monash on the negative, second year Commerce/Law students Jess Lew and James ‘I am never’ Wong teamed with Dr Simon Angus.
As the first speaker for the affirmative, Chris Weinberg declared that the Eurozone, comprised of the 17 states that shared the euro as their currency, was from the outset “a flawed economic project destined for failure.” Chris argued that the currency union, as distinct from the EU, was a failure socially, economically, and politically. To back up this assertion Chris highlighted statistics indicating widely fluctuating inflation, high unemployment (economic failure), the rise in the crime rate (social failure) and resurgence of hyper nationalist sentiment (political failure).
Opening the negative case, James Wong encouraged the audience to see the creation of the monetary union as part of “a much bigger picture”. Critically, he also reminded the audience that he was “a lot younger than Chris.” Young James urged the audience to see the creation of a monetary union not as an isolated act, but as part of an ongoing project that had commenced in 1951 with the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community. The negative team’s position was that the creation of the Eurozone is the next stage of a broader work-in-progress. James compared the Eurozone adopting a common currency to France adopting a common language – a challenging but ultimately beneficial process.
In the first outright statement of intervarsity rivalry that night, James asserted that all new institutions were created imperfect and had gaps that needed filling, controversially asserting, “in tertiary education, when Melbourne University was founded in 1853 there were gaps. Several decades later we filled those gaps with Monash University.” James likened Monash to the various accountability and stability reforms that had been undertaken to improve the Eurozone.
Bringing the affirmative team’s case back to the floor, first year Emad Zarghami wasted no time in rebutting Mr Wong – “James Wong, I too am younger than you.” Emad dismissed the reforms undertaken within the Eurozone as evidence of flawed design. These flaws had their origin in the macroeconomic trilemma. Emad explained the trilemma as follows: the Eurozone countries have eliminated all exchange-rate movements within their zone and capital is free to move among nations. The cost of making these choices has been to give up the possibility of national monetary policy within countries. The loss of control over monetary policy had exacerbated the impact of high sovereign debt for some countries. These countries had been forced to turn to other countries in the Eurozone for help. The stronger economies had bailed out the debtors, but imposed strict austerity conditions on all loans.
The second speaker for the negative, Dr Simon Angus challenged the position that strict austerity conditions imposed on some countries by others was a bad thing. He argued that austerity conditions forced on traditionally irresponsible debtor nations was conditioning these countries towards better fiscal discipline, better productivity and a more effective public sector. He continued that the shared fate of the Eurozone had incentivised the more responsible economies to bail out the weaker. In that context, the Eurozone had acted as a safety net – “this is not the Armageddon that you would have without the Eurozone.”
The closing speaker for the affirmative, Jeff Borland, took the rivalry to a whole new level. “In economics we have to look at sources,” stated Professor Borland as he lifted his now infamous gym bag full of hardcover books onto the table. He proceeded to exhibit the significant number of hardcover books that had been written about the history of University of Melbourne. “And what about Monash?” Professor Borland asked. “One book. And it’s in paperback.” This elicited a mixture of laughs and consternation from the audience. He then accused the negative team of attributing the benefits of the EU to the Eurozone (which was created much later) and attempting to win the debate by “trying to avoid the topic.”
Jess Lew, final speaker for the negative, also had some words to say about topic confusion. She made no bones about being bemused and infuriated about the gym bag stunt. In a classic example ‘talk-to-the-hand’ style rebuttal, she countered with, “Honey, honey … Which debate are you at?” She encouraged the audience to think about the Eurozone in terms of its potential. “We don’t want to look backwards. The Eurozone has provided support, structural reform and rescue funds. It can achieve so much more.”
With closing remarks over it was time for the adjudicators, Professor Nilss Olekalns from Melbourne University, Professor Jakob Madsen from Monash University, and Dr Matthew Butlin from the Economics Society of Australia to determine the winner. As the judges conferred, attendees were invited to watch and vote on the ESSA mini-debate: Should you choose your partner on the weighted average of your preferences?
Affirming, Chris Weinberg cited his personal dating history as being testament to the need for a rational approach for dating. He reflected on the need to look beyond initial attraction to things such as: “Does she find economics interesting? And more importantly does she think I am a good public speaker?”
In opposition to the motion, Dr Angus warned students that economics does not contain the complete picture. “If you rely on theoretical concepts you will wind up with a theoretical partner.” He also reflected on his own experience of married life which, he stated, is unambiguously “not about maximising your own utility, but sacrifice.”
By popular vote, the highly entertaining mini-debate was won by Dr Angus.
The judges shortly thereafter came back with their assessment: the Melbourne team was declared the winner. Presidents Dean Pagonis of Melbourne and Matthew Vethecan of Monash awarded the Trophy to the Melbourne Team. The debate was followed by eager and excited networking outside over hot food, dips and sushi.
It was clear from the overall mood that participants and spectators alike felt like they had participated in something uniquely informative, challenging and entertaining. Economics with the adrenaline rush of a sporting event: it’s what we aim for.