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November 2015

College Students Need Macroeconomics Principles

Should we ditch macroeconomics or perhaps reduce it to two weeks?  In a recent blog post, Noah Smith argues that most of the material in a Principles of Macroeconomics class isn’t really necessary.  After teaching macro principles to more than 1,000 students per year since 2003, it is easy for me to find the blind spots in Noah’s view.  More than anything, it is pretty clear that Noah doesn’t spend much time with college students. 

Let me start with what Noah gets right: students should learn the Solow model for long-run growth, and the AD-AS model for business cycle analysis.  He also includes “the standard Milton Friedman, New Keynesian, AD-AS, accelerationist Phillips Curve theory of monetary policy.”

Now we come to Noah’s first howler: he believes that this material should take “about two weeks.”  Two?  What students is he teaching?  I teach at the University of Virginia, a really great university with super students.  But this takes six weeks, not two. When my students show up for macro principles, very few even know that interest rates are market prices.  I do teach the Solow model but most Macro principles instructors believe it is just too hard for the intro level. 

More than that, Noah leaves out a host of other macro topics that students need to learn at the intro level, whether they continue in economics or not.  This list includes:

1. Key macroeconomic variables.  These need to be defined, explained, and put in their proper historical perspective.  These include real GDP growth, unemployment, inflation, and interest rates.  And not just for the United States.

First off, the way we measure these variables actually matters.  Consider that unemployment rates do not include underemployed or out-of-labor force workers.  Or that GDP only includes market goods.  Both of these are relevant for policy and have been discussed in the media recently.  And historical perspective is really key here – it can be one of the best gifts you can give your students. What is a big number or a small number?  When unemployment is 7%, is that high or low?  How about in the U.S. versus Spain?  Or when real GDP grows by 4%, is that high or low?  How about the U.S. versus Mainland China?  Most college students won’t know this without a macro principles course.

2. The loanable funds market. You can’t understand financial collapse/contagion without a good understanding of the loanable funds market.  A big part of this discussion is also forming an intuitive understanding of interest rates, which is not natural for most students.  In my principles course (and textbook) I even cover mortgage-backed securities, securitization and moral hazard now so that the students understand the Great Recession.

3. Fiscal and monetary policy. In many universities, this is the one place where real economic policy is taught - Intermediate Macroeconomics typically focuses on theoretical models.  I view these policy discussions as voter education curriculum.  Students need to know what deficits mean and something about historical perspective here too.  They also need to know where government revenue comes from and how it is spent.  Hint: it’s not all spent on foreign aid and welfare!  And what about the Fed? This is the course where students learn about Fed policy and both actual and perceived effects on the economy. 

If time permits, it is great to also throw in international trade and finance, like the balance of payments (many misconceptions arise from a misunderstanding of how capital inflows are related to merchandise trade). 

Basically, to cover all of this takes about a semester.  It is foolish to think that two weeks is enough.

By the way, my favorite macro textbook covers all of these topics clearly in a great one-semester format.

GDP Third Quarter 2015

The latest GDP release from the BEA estimates that U.S.real GDP grew at 1.5% in the third quarter of 2015.  This is just a mediocre growth rate but revisions to second quarter data have now increased the final growth estimate to a robust 3.9 percent.


Recall that inventory is part of investment expenditures in GDP.  In the second quarter, private inventories fell by 1.44%.  This drop was the biggest negative of the major pieces of GDP.  In total, investment fell by about 1% in the third quarter.  The table below shows how the four major pieces of GDP each contributed to third quarter growth.



Consumer Prices Completely Flat Year-over-Year

Consumer prices dropped overall in September, according to the latest BLS estimate of the Consumer Price Index (CPI).  The CPI fell by 0.2 %, taking the index back down to the level where it was one year ago.  Think about that: many prices have risen over the past year, but the typical U.S. consumer pays the same amount for goods and services today that she did one year ago.

CPI Graph September 15

The main reason for the decline is decreasing gas prices - again. Gas prices fell by almost 30% in September. In contrast, the food index actually increased by 0.4 %.

Core CPI (the CPI index for all items except than food and energy) is helpful for some applications because it is less volatile.  This measure rose by 0.2 percent.

Basic supply and demand explains the falling price of gasoline why the costs of gasoline. New discoveries of oil and new oil extraction techniques (think fracking) have greatly increased the supply of gasoline, shifting the supply curve outwards and reducing the price of crude oil in world markets. 

The table below shows the one-year price change for selected items, along with the weight given in the CPI index. Remember that the weight is determined as the portion of the typical consumer's budget dedicated to that spending category.  For example, a typical U.S. consumer allocates 3.97 % of their monthly spending toward gasoline.  

CPI table Sep 15

Notice how many food item prices rose significantly (egg prices up another 36 percent!), but gasoline prices fell almost 30 percent.  Television and personal computer prices continue their decades-long slide downward.