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The joy of debating economics … Seriously!


Chris Weinberg

By

May 20th, 2013


Fresh off a victory for the University of Melbourne, Chris reflects on the fun and challenge of debating economics.


In an affirmation of the natural order of things, on Thursday night out at Monash University, the University of Melbourne team (composed of myself, 1st-year student Emad, and the incomparable Prof. Jeff Borland) took out a closely fought debate to determine whether the Eurozone has been a success or a failure. Across both teams there was much spirited debate over economic theory, the optimal design for policymaking interlaced with a great deal of jibing back and forth between two of the country’s most elite universities.

Whilst the nature of the case and the current litany of crises befalling Europe would suggest that Melbourne would have been well suited to an emphatic victory, there was no doubt that Monash took it up to us over the course of the three speakers. Particularly at second speaker, with Professor Simon Angus of Monash demonstrating why he is one of Monash’s most valued lecturers, expertly crafting a spirited defence of the Eurozone and its capacity to achieve good for the people of Europe. However to counter was one of Melbourne’s finest lecturers, Professor Jeff Borland, who proceeded to question Monash’s credibility as a team debating economics due to their lack of history recorded in books as opposed to the myriad historical texts about Melbourne and its economics department.

Through the course of the debate, I was struck by how engaging debates over economic policy and theory can be and can take such unexpected paths. On both sides there were differences in assumptions about what the topic meant, how failure should be defined and how much tolerance should be given to policymakers; reflecting that when it comes to a discussion of economics, we really can be debating “on one hand or the other hand.”

To develop one’s own understandings and perceptions of the world is ultimately reflective of the open nature of economics as a discipline and the way in which it is accessible to all. It’s something that’s been reflected throughout the long history of economics as a social science. Just take a look at the seemingly timeless debates between those from the Keynesian schools and those from the Austrian and supply-side schools of thought. And while some of these debates are hampered by spurious assumptions or selective use of data, the fact that they have lasted for years suggests that there is merit in both schools of thought.

As the teams from Melbourne and Monash discovered on Thursday night, any economic concept can be discovered and debated to conclude that it has advantages and limitations; ultimately it is about the tradeoff between these two metaphorical ‘hands’ and how much emphasis and weight we place on each.

It may sound corny, in fact it certainly is, but the real winner on Thursday night’s debate was economics ….

Actually, it was Melbourne but still economics as a discipline looked great at night’s end!

You can follow me on Twitter @CRJWeinberg.

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

  • Yannis Goutzamanis

    All your talk of metaphorical hands reminds me of President Harry Truman’s famous quote: “Give me a one-handed economist! All my economists say, On the one hand on the other.”

    Needless to say Harry was unsuccessful in his quest for the one-handed economist. This reflects what Saul Eslake said during his lecture: that good economists are aware of the limitations in their models and assumptions.

    • http://www.twitter.com/CRJWeinberg Chris Weinberg

      That’s where I got the idea from! And you’re right, there’s never going to be a one-handed economist; the best ones are those who are prepared to embrace the limitations of their analysis and be candid about them. From there you can actually make informed decisions.

      I think this goes to one of Treasury’s problems of late – not being able to properly express their level of confidence in their forecasts, either due to political constraints or the media and their desire for snapshot expressions of what is to eventuate going forward.

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