Lean times for Aussie economists

September 15, 1995

Economics is the classic case of the emperor without clothes. But what of the emperor's tailors - the practitioners of the dismal science? The economic rationalists of academe are the very ones who have provided the intellectual justification for the lean and mean Australian streamlined economy, which cannot give employment to everybody.

In the battle for hearts and minds some have even left their ivory towers and preached the faith to the broader community. Economics can boast its own media stars circulating their views on screen and in print. But there is a huge irony at play here. Those who cry for speedier micro-economic reform, more often than not, speak from the comfort of a tenured position. They are removed and insulated from the very marketplace they so wantonly praise.

Moreover they show a marked reluctance to compete as they wish all others to compete without the security of tenure.

Adam Smith, the patron saint of economists, once remarked that economists should be paid according to how many students attended their lectures. So, when academic economists speak on labour market deregulation, they should look to their own backyard and the two types of people in academe - the untouchables on tenure and the performance-driven on contract.

This dualism is nowhere more pronounced than in academic economics. Those who have argued that economic policy is far too important to be left to economists will find it poetic justice to learn there is now an excess supply of economists in Australia. The inexorable discipline of the market comes through in falling wages and poorer conditions unless you have tenure. This oversupply also dampens academic career prospects for the brightest students.

Recently one high-profile professor of economics at Melbourne University heartlessly suggested that unemployed economic graduates buy a one-way ticket to the booming economies of South-East Asia. He will not be leading by example. Things are now so bad that there is a competitive squabble for even one-year contract positions. With too many economists chasing too few academic jobs, credentialism has broken out amongst the profession.

Why have economists got the supply and demand analysis so wrong? On the demand side, economics is now very much the pauper in today's business schools. Accounting and marketing have banished this once-mighty discipline to irrelevancy - economics is a mere elective in many a business degree. Nor will the recent spate of MBA courses rescue economics from its plight. Business sees little point in studying the finery of high theory.

There has, however, been a huge influx of economists. Some, no doubt, are renegades from the private market and the public service. Others have come from abroad. Last year Australia "imported" 149 economists. In staffing their economic departments, universities felt it was their right to recruit and sponsor the very best of what the international market place had to offer. This practice was consistent with an internationalised higher education market in which inter-country transfers are commonplace.

Like biblical prophets, free market economists find their killjoy advice unwelcome in their homeland. Meanwhile locally-trained economists are bound to end up jobless. All the state-financed investment in training young Australian minds in economics is lost and visitors to these shores will be regaled by taxi drivers on the latest economic forecasts.

Alex Millmow is a fixed-term lecturer in economics at Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga, Australia.

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