A clash of ideas – what to do about the deficit

On February 14, the Sunday Times published a letter by 20 eminent economists calling on the next government to cut the public-sector deficit more rapidly than that planned in last December’s pre-Budget report.

In order to minimise this risk and support a sustainable recovery, the next government should set out a detailed plan to reduce the structural budget deficit more quickly than set out in the 2009 pre-Budget report.

The exact timing of measures should be sensitive to developments in the economy, particularly the fragility of the recovery. However, in order to be credible, the government’s goal should be to eliminate the structural current budget deficit over the course of a parliament, and there is a compelling case, all else being equal, for the first measures beginning to take effect in the 2010-11 fiscal year.

Then on 18 February the Financial Times published two letters, between them from more than 60 economists, backing Alistair Darling’s policy of delaying cuts until the recovery is firmly established. They openly disagreed with the 20 economists who wrote to the Sunday Times.

… while unemployment is still high, it would be dangerous to reduce the government’s contribution to aggregate demand beyond the cuts already planned for 2010-11 (which amount to 1 per cent of gross domestic product). Further immediate cuts – even supposing they are practicable – would not produce an offsetting increase in private sector aggregate demand, and could easily reduce it. History is littered with examples of premature withdrawal of the government stimulus, from the US in 1937 to Japan in 1997. With people’s livelihoods at stake, a responsible government should avoid reckless actions.

… A sharp shock now would not remove the need for a sustained medium-term programme of deficit reduction. But it would be positively dangerous. If next year the government spent less and saved more than it currently plans, this would not “make a sustainable recovery more likely”. The weight of evidence points in the opposite direction.

So why do such eminent economists have apparently such divergent views on tackling the public-sector deficit? Is there any common ground between them? What does the disagreement imply about the state of macroeconomics? Read the letters and articles and then try answering the questions.

Tories right on cuts, say economists Sunday Times, David Smith (14/2/10)
Letter: UK economy cries out for credible rescue plan Sunday Times, 20 economists (14/2/10)
Economists reject calls for budget cuts Financial Times, Jean Eaglesham and Daniel Pimlott (18/2/10)
Letter: First priority must be to restore robust growth Financial Times, Lord Skidelsky and others (18/2/10)
Letter: Sharp shock now would be dangerous Financial Times, Lord Layard and others (18/2/10)
Economists urge swift action to reduce budget deficit BBC News (14/2/10)
Economists back delay on government spending cuts BBC News (19/2/10)
Economists back delay on government spending cuts BBC News (19/2/10)
Men of letters III BBC News blogs: Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (19/2/10)
Daily View: When to cut spending? (including podcast) BBC News blogs, Clare Spencer (19/2/10)
Cautious economists and cutters battle it out in print Guardian (20/2/10)
The great economics rift reopens Guardian, Gavyn Davies (19/2/10)
Focus on growth. Don’t argue about cuts Times Online, Eamonn Butler (20/2/10)
Recession’s ruins hide plenty of spare capacity Sunday Times, David Smith (14/2/10)


  1. To what extent is the disagreement between the two sets of economists largely one of the timing of the cuts?
  2. Is the disagreement the result of (a) different analysis, (b) different objectives or (c) different interpretation of forecasts of the robustness of the recovery and how markets are likely to respond to alternative policies? Or is it a combination of two of them or all three? Explain your answer.
  3. How would new classical economists respond to the Keynesian argument that it is necessary to focus on aggregate demand if the economy is to experience a sustained recovery?
  4. How would Keynesian economists respond to the argument that rapid cuts will reassure markets and allow private-sector recovery to more than compensate for reduced public-sector activity?
  5. Why is the effect of the recession on the supply-side of the economy crucial in determining the sustainability of a demand-led recovery?
  6. Distinguish between the cyclical and structural deficits. How would the policies advocated by the two groups of economists impact on the structural deficit?