Billy McMahon. Illustration: Les Tanner.
In Bob Menzies' cabinet, a sprightly Billy McMahon, long before he became treasurer, would irritate his colleagues by incessantly announcing he was the high authority on economics by the fact he held a bachelor of economics degree from the University of Sydney.
It so riled some that Paul Hasluck, then Territories Minister, during a cabinet meeting penned the lines into a poem suitably entitled Bachelor of Economics. It had a double edge since McMahon had not yet married.
I find philosophy a bore
Will this vain search for meaning ever cease,
A mind crammed full of rubbish is worth more,
Than emptiness of undiscovered piece.
When Solon speculates he only sits,
Observes and thinks and thinks again,
But we economists have sharper wits,
And, speculating, buy and sell for gain,
I have no time for all those moody mystics,
Who think ideas are better than statistics.
Hasluck had an immense animus for McMahon over his breaches of cabinet solidarity and his vaulting ambition.
Undaunted, McMahon later went on to become treasurer and was one of the few to have the credentials for the job.
He claimed: ''I had always felt I was cut out for the life. I was born in a financial and economic mould. I trained myself for it … I know it backwards … I speak the lingo''.
That he did, but sometimes he would recite figures in Parliament that left his staff scurrying to amend for Hansard. No treasurer since had the qualification in running the economy; Wayne Swan has an arts degree and Paul Keating earned a degree in hard knocks from the University of Sussex Street, home to the the NSW branch of the ALP.
There was a time when at university doing the bachelor of economics was all the rage. Monash University in Melbourne had, in 1968, some 1400 students in their degree program. By 1966 the number of undergraduates admitted to the first year of the economics degree reached 500 and held at that level, making it the largest annual intake of undergraduates of any economics faculty in Australia.
So popular was the degree that there was keen competition for places. No such fortune today as students, diversify into business, accounting and management degrees. Today Monash only has 30 or so new students enrolling in the BEc, much more preferring a joint degree in economics/law.
The degree has been left behind in the undignified scramble for degrees in all aspects of business and law. Economic departments have been swallowed up by gargantuan business schools and some departments face oblivion. Today the executive deans in charge of business schools and commerce faculties are no longer headed by economists but gung-ho business types who sometimes do not see the merits of economics education.
Some are positively vengeful, preferring academics with business-related doctorates, and no doubt experience to pure scholarly research.
Take the University of Western Sydney where the executive dean has announced the end of economics degrees as soon as the last students complete their studies.
While part of UWS's problems is that it is facing stiff competition from the other Sydney universities, the closure of the economics school and one that actually encouraged a bit of pluralism in its approach of the subject is a blow to Australian economics. Some 20 economists are likely to lose their jobs.
The ironic thing is good economists still seem to be in demand. It's time the academic economics profession began to advertise their wares. A start might be to list the great and the good who hold an economics degree and the lofty career heights it got them. I recall the ANU economics department did this a decade or so ago given they have a pantheon of illustrious graduates. You can see them in the ground floor of the Arndt building where the economics department is based.
Alex Millmow is a senior lecturer in economics at the University of Ballarat.