Trickling down

Among the zombie ideas refuted in my book, Zombie Economics, “trickle down” economics is the one that dare not speak its name. Even those who believe, or are paid to say, that favored treatment for the rich will benefit the poor mostly avoid the term “trickle down”, preferring bromides like “a rising tide lift all boats”.

But that didn’t deter Ian Young, Vice-Chancellor of ANU and head of the Group of 8 Universities (basically, those established first, which have, as elsewhere in the world, gained a permanent high-status position as a result). As I predicted not long ago, he wants to raise fees and reduce the number of students at elite universities, including ANU, allowing them to offer a more personalised education.

Young’s argument is that students excluded from the Go8 will “trickle down” to lower-status universities, giving them a chance to both increase numbers and raise standards. But this suggestion doesn’t stand up to the most cursory examination. Both logic and historical evidence suggests that all or most universities will follow the lead of the Go8. In both the UK and Australia, whenever universities have been given option to increase fees or hold them steady, nearly all have gone for the maximum increase.

Think about this from the position of a university in the tiers immediately below the Go8 in the prestige hierarchy, the 1970-vintage unis like Griffith and Macquarie, and the Universities of Technology. Both groups can fill all the places they have, and both, like all Australian universities are straining at the seams in terms of both physical space and overloaded staff. They could not possibly take in more students with their current finances. It makes perfect sense for them to do the same as the Go8, raise fees a lot, and pass on some of the benefits in the form of smaller classes.

There’s a cumulative effect here. Suppose the Go8 institutions reduce their student intakes by 30 per cent. A few of those will give up on uni altogether, deterred by higher fees, but most will try a second-tier uni, displacing other students who would otherwise have been accepted. On top of that, there will be less places in those uni, say another 30 per cent. So, something like 60 per cent of the students formerly admitted to these unis will be excluded.

At the bottom of the status scale, the hard-pressed regional universities and former CAEs probably won’t be able to raise their fees as much as the Go8. But they will still be in a position to raise fees and entry standards at the same time, and, if they choose, to reduce their numbers as well. This isn’t so much trickle down as a cascade effect.

Of course, if you believe the increasingly silly Business Council of Australia, this is all to the good. Its head, Catherine Livingstone (BA, Macquarie) thinks we need less university students. Her members clearly don’t agree, judging by their hiring patterns. The unemployment rate for university graduates is estimated at 3.3 per cent, about half that for non-graduates. Wages and participation rates are also higher.

Macroeconomics made easy?

In my book, Zombie Economics, I started the account of macroeconomics with the observation

Macroeconomics began with Keynes. Before Keynes wrote The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, economic theory consisted almost entirely of what is now called microeconomics. The difference between the two is commonly put by saying that microeconomics is concerned with individual markets and macroeconomics with the economy as a whole, but that formulation implicitly assumes a view of the world that is at least partly Keynesian.

Long before Keynes, neoclassical economists had both a theory of how prices are determined in individual markets so as to match supply and demand (“partial equilibrium theory”) and a theory of how all the prices in the economy are jointly determined to produce a “general equilibrium” in which there are no unsold goods or unemployed workers.

I went on to observe how the pre-Keynesian approach had been revived by the “New Classical” school, and how the apparent convergence with “New Keynesian” economics had been shown to be illusory after the failure of Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium models to deal with the 2008 financial crisis and the subsquent, still continuing, depression.

With all of this, though, I still never thought of academic macro, in either saltwater or freshwater form, as being a simple reversion to the pre-Keynesian notion of general equilibrium, with no concern about aggregate demand or unemployment, even in the short run. It turns out that, at least for a large segment of the profession, this is quite wrong. I’ve just received a book entitled Big ideas in Macroeconomics: A nontechnical view by Kartik Athreya, an economist at the Richmond Federal Reserve who made a splash a few years back with a piece entitled Economics is Hard. Don’t Let Bloggers Tell You Otherwise, which, unsurprisingly, did not endear him to bloggers. As a critic of mainstream macro, I’m briefly mentioned, and I just got a review copy.

The new book is an attempt to simplify things, and indeed it has proved enlightening to me and also to Herb Gintis who contributes a blurb on the back, commending it as an accessible and accurate description of the dominant way of thinking about macroeconomics.

The easiest way to see why the book is so striking is to list some topics that do not appear in the index (and are not discussed, or only mentioned in passing, in the text). These include: unemployment, inflation, recession, depression, business cycle, Phillips curve, NAIRU, Taylor Rule, money, monetary policy and fiscal policy.

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Zombies reach Australia

The Australian edition of Zombie Economics, updated and with an additional chapter on Economic Rationalism, is about to go on sale. I’ll be appearing at a launch event at Gleebooks in Sydney on Wednesday (9 May) talking with Jessica Irvine of the SMH.

The launch coincides with the US publication of a paperback edition, with a new chapter on Austerity. The Italian translation also came out recently, and there are versions coming in French, Greek, Portuguese, Korean and Simplified Chinese. Collect them all!

Zombies in Oz

I’ve just finished revising Zombie Economics for an Australian edition, to be published by Black Inc in May, with an all-new chapter on economic rationalism, the Australia form of Zombie econ. Keep a lookout!