The path to deficit reduction: following the yellow brick road

There seems to be consensus among most politicians on both sides of the Atlantic that there needs to be a reduction in government deficits and debt as a proportion of GDP. But there is considerable debate as to how such reductions should be achieved.

Conservatives, Republicans and centre right parties in Europe, such as Greece’s Νεα Διμοκρατια (New Democracy) party, believe that there should be tough policies to reduce government expenditure and that the deficit should be reduced relatively quickly in order to retain the confidence of markets.

Politicians on the centre left, including Labour, many Democrats in the USA and centre-left parties in Europe, such as Fran├žois Hollande’s Socialists, argue that the austerity policies pursued by centre-right governments have led to a decline in growth, which makes it harder to reduce the current deficit.

Then there is debate about what is happening to the structural deficit – the deficit that would remain at a zero output gap. Politicians on the centre right argue that their austerity policies are leading to a rapid reduction in the structural deficit. This, combined with the supply-side policies they claim they are implementing, will allow growth to be resumed more quickly and will increase the long-term growth rate (i.e. the growth in potential output).

Politicians on the centre left argue that deep cuts, by reducing short-term growth (even making it negative in some cases, such as the UK), are discouraging investment and construction. This in turn will lower the growth in potential output and make it harder to reduce the structural deficit.

The following podcast and articles consider these arguments – arguments that are often badly put by politicians, who often use ‘questionable’ economics to justify their party line.

A grand economic experiment (also at) More or Less: BBC Radio 4 (first part), Tim Harford (4/5/12) (Programme details)

The fine art of squeezing: Britain vs America BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (4/5/12)
The Slippery Structural Deficit Wall Street Journal (blog), Matthew Dalton (11/5/12)
The right kinds of austerity policy Financial Times (1/5/12)
We can fix up the old status quo to get out of this mess The Olympian, David Brooks (11/5/12)
Europe’s austerity drive is a misdiagnosis of its problems Gulf News, Joseph Stiglitz (13/5/12)
How Nick Clegg got it wrong on debt Guardian, Polly Curtis (9/5/12)
Ten Reasons Wall Street Should Be (Very) Worried About The U.S. Debt Forbes, Bruce Upbin (4/5/12)


  1. Distinguish between the structural and cyclical budget deficit.
  2. Explain the distinction between stocks and flows. Which of the following are stocks and which are flows: (a) public-sector deficit; (b) public-sector debt; (c) public-sector net cash requirement; (d) debt reduction; (e) a bank’s balance sheet?
  3. Under what circumstances will a reduction in the public-sector deficit lead to: (a) a reduction in the public-sector debt (total); (b) a reduction in the public-sector debt as a proportion of GDP?
  4. How would you decide what is the desirable level of the public-sector deficit: (a) in the short run; (b) in the long run?
  5. Explain and comment on the following statement from the Stephanie Flanders article: “What is clear is that America has been able to ‘cut its debt (sic) further and faster’ than Britain – but this has not been the result of any closet commitment to austerity. Quite the opposite.”