The debate about how much and how fast to cut the deficit has often been presented as a replaying of the debates of the 1920s and 30s between Keynes and the Treasury.
The justification for fiscal expansion to tackle the recession in 2008/9 was portrayed as classic Keynesianism. The problem was seen as a short-term one of a lack of spending. The solution was seen as one of expansionary fiscal and monetary policies. There was relatively little resistance to such stimulus packages at the time, although some warned against the inevitable growth in public-sector debt.
But now that the world economy is in recovery mode – albeit a highly faltering one in many countries – and given the huge overhang of government deficits and debts, what would Keynes advocate now? Here there is considerable disagreement.
Vince Cable, the UK Business Secretary, argues that Keynes would have supported the deficit reduction plans of the Coalition government. He would still have stressed the importance of aggregate demand, but would have argued that investor and consumer confidence, which are vital preconditions for maintaining private-sector demand, are best maintained by a credible plan to reduce the deficit. What is more, inflows of capital are again best encouraged by fiscal rectitude. As he argued in the New Statesman article below
One plausible explanation, from Olivier Blanchard of the IMF, is that the Keynesian model of fiscal policy works well enough in most conditions, but not when there is a fiscal crisis. In those circumstances, households and businesses react to increased deficits by saving more, because they expect spending cuts and tax increases in the future. At a time like this, fiscal multipliers decline and turn negative. Conversely, firm action to reduce deficits provides reassurance to spend and invest. Such arguments are sometimes described as “Ricardian equivalence” – that deficits cannot stimulate demand because of expected future tax increases.
Those on the other side are not arguing against a long-term reduction in government deficits, but rather that the speed and magnitude of cuts should depend on the state of the economy. Too much cutting and too fast would cause a reduction in aggregate demand and a consequent reduction in output. This would undermine confidence, not strengthen it. Critics of the Coalition government’s policy point to the fragile nature of the recovery and the historically low levels of consumer confidence
The following articles provide some of the more recent contributions to the debate.
Keynes would be on our side New Statesman, Vince Cable (12/1/11)
Cable’s attempt to claim Keynes is well argued — but unconvincing New Statesman, David Blanchflower and Robert Skidelsky (27/1/11)
Growth or cuts? Keynes would not back the coalition – especially over jobs Guardian, Larry Elliott (17/1/11)
People do not understand how bad the economy is Guardian, Vince Cable (20/5/11)
The Budget Battle: WWHD? (What Would Hayek Do?) AK? (And Keynes?) PBS Newshour, Paul Solman (29/4/11)
Keynes vs. Hayek, the Rematch: Keynes Responds PBS Newshour, Paul Solman (2/5/11)
On Not Reading Keynes New York Times, Paul Krugman (1/5/11)
Would a More Expansionary Fiscal Policy Be Effective Right Now? Yes: On the Invisible Bond Market and Inflation Vigilantes Once Again Blog: Grasping Reality with a Prehensile Tail, Brad DeLong (12/5/11)
Keynes, Crisis and Monopoly Capitalism The Real News, Robert Skidelsky and Paul Jay (29/4/11)
- What factors in the current economic environment affect the level of consumer confidence?
- What are the most important factors that will determine whether or not a policy of fiscal consolidation will drive the economy back into recession?
- How expansionary is monetary policy at the moment? Is it enough simply to answer this question by reference to central bank repo rates?
- What degree of crowding out would be likely to result from an expansionary fiscal policy in the current economic environment? If confidence is adversely affected by expansionary fiscal policy, would this represent a form of crowding out?
- Why may fiscal multipliers have ‘turned negative’?
- For what reasons might a tight fiscal policy lead to an increase in aggregate demand?
- Your turn: what would Keynes have done in the current macroeconomic environment?
Now the details of the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) are known, the comments are coming thick and fast. As we saw in the last news blog, Taking sides in the war of the cuts, economists are divided over whether the cuts will be compensated by a rise in private expenditure or whether overall aggregate demand will fall, driving the economy back into recession. As you will see in the articles below, they are still as divided as ever.
At least we know the details of the cuts. The plan is for an average cut across government departments of some 19 per cent over four years, although the size will vary enormously from department to department. The government is predicting that the effect will be about 490,000 fewer jobs in the public sector. In addition to the cuts, the retirement age is to rise to 66 for both men and women by 2020 and regulated rail fares will rise by 3% above RPI inflation for three years from 2012.
Examine the details of the measures in the articles below and consider what the effects are likely to be, both on the macro economy and on income distribution.
Spending Review: Osborne wields axe BBC News (20/10/10)
Spending Review: Q&A – what does it mean? BBC News (20/10/10)
Main points from the Comprehensive Spending Review Independent (20/10/10)
Osborne swings the welfare axe Independent, Oliver Wright (20/10/10)
Chancellor spells out austerity gamble Financial Times (20/10/10)
Easier said than done The Economist (20/10/10)
Julian Callow Sees Consolidation in Europe Bloomberg Podcasts, Tom Keene interviews Julian Callow, chief European economist at Barclays Capital (21/10/10)
Spending Review 2010: Business leaders urge clearer strategy for growth Telegraph, Louise Armitstead (20/10/10)
Spending Review 2010: George Osborne leaves markets unmoved Telegraph (20/10/10)
Spending review: Osborne gambles with the economy Guardian, Larry Elliott (20/10/10)
Larry Elliott on George Osborne’s spending review Guardian video (20/10/10)
Spending review: What the economists think Guardian (20/10/10)
Spending review: The work of a gambler Guardian editorial (20/10/10)
Spending review: economists and other experts respond Guardian, various economists (20/10/10)
Comprehensive spending review: We deserve an explanation. This wasn’t it Guardian, Aditya Chakrabortty (20/10/10)
Spending review: the winners and losers Guardian, Sam Jones (20/10/10)
All in it together? BBC News blogs, Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (20/10/10)
The sack: Lessons for government BBC News blogs, Peston’s Picks, Robert Peston (20/10/10)
A gamble on the economics Financial Times, Philip Stephens (20/10/10)
Q&A: the devil in the details Financial Times, Chris Giles (20/10/10)
Spending Review: Poorest Take Biggest Hit Sky News, Miranda Richardson (20/10/10)
Spending Review 2010: ‘More cuts could be needed’ Telegraph, Andy Bloxham (21/10/10)
Cuts ‘will push UK close to recession’ BBC Today Programme, Martin Wolf and Ken Rogoff (21/10/10)
Spending review cuts ‘are regressive’ BBC Today Programme, Tim Harford (21/10/10)
Spending review is a full stop but history lesson is vital in economics Guardian, Larry Elliott (25/10/10)
The Spending Review document
Spending Review 2010 HM Treasury (20/10/10)
Link to HM Treasury Spending Review site
Briefing and analysis from the Institute for Fiscal Studies
Opening remarks IFS, Carl Emmerson (21/10/10)
Link to briefing presentations (PowerPoint) IFS (21/10/10)
Analysis of fiscal consolidation by the IMF
Will It Hurt? Macroeconomic Effects of Fiscal Consolidation World Economic Outlook, Chapter 3, IMF (Oct 2010)
- What is the distribution of cuts between government departments?
- To what extent can it be said that there will be a real increase in health expenditure?
- What will be the effect of the cuts and tax increases on the distribution of income?
- What will determine whether the effect of the cuts will be to stimulate or dampen economic growth (or even drive the economy back into recession)? Which do you think is most likely and on what do you base your judgement?
- Trace through the multiplier effects of the measures.
- If the effect of the cuts is to drive the economy back into recession, what should the government’s ‘Plan B’ be?
In 2008 and 2009, as the global recession deepened, so governments around the world turned to Keynesian policies. Aggregate demand had to be boosted. This meant a combination of fiscal and monetary policies. Fiscal stimulus packages were adopted, combining increased government expenditure and cuts in taxes. On the monetary policy front, central banks cut interest rates to virtually zero and expanded the money supply in bouts of quantitative easing.
The global recession turned out not to be a deep as many had feared and the Keynesian policies were hailed by many as a success.
But how the tide is turning! The combination of the recession (which reduced tax revenues and increased welfare spending) and the stimulus packages played havoc with public finances. Deficits soared. These deficits had to be financed, and increasingly credit agencies and others were asking how sustainable such deficits were over the longer term. These worries have been compounded by the perilous state of the public finances in countries such as Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Hungary. The focus has thus turned to cuts. In fact there is now an international ‘competition’ as to which country can wear the hairiest hair shirt. The new Coalition government in the UK, for example, is busy preparing the general public for deep cuts to come.
We are now seeing a re-emergence of new classical views that increased deficits, far from stimulating the economy and resulting in faster growth, largely crowd out private expenditure. To prevent this crowding out and restore confidence in financial markets, deficits must be rapidly cut, thereby allowing finance to be diverted to the private sector.
But if the contribution to aggregate demand of the public sector is to be reduced, and if consumption, the largest component of aggregate demand, is also reduced as households try to reduce their reliance on borrowing, where is the necessary rise in aggregate demand to come from? We are left with investment and net exports – the remaining two components of aggregate demand, where AD = C + G + I + (X – M).
But will firms want to invest if deficit reduction results in higher taxes, higher unemployment and less spending by the government on construction, equipment and many other private-sector goods and services. Won’t firms, fearing a decline in consumer demand, and possibly a ‘double-dip recession’, hold off from investing? As for export growth, this depends very much on growth in the rest of the world. If the rest of the world is busy making cuts too, then export growth may be very limited.
The G20, meeting in Korea on 4 June, wrestled with this problem. But the mood had definitely turned. Leaders seemed much more concerned about deficit reduction than maintaining the fiscal stimulus.
The following articles look at the arguments between Keynesians and new classicists. The disagreements between their authors reflect the disagreements between economists and between politicians about the timing and extent of cuts.
Time to plan for post-Keynesian era Financial Times, Jeffrey Sachs (7/6/10)
The Keynesian Endpoint CNBC Guest Blog, Tony Crescenzi (7/6/10)
Keynes, Recovered Boston Review, Jonathan Kirshner (May/June 2010)
How Keynes, not mining, saved us from recession Sydney Morning Herald, Ross Gittins (7/6/10)
The verdict on Keynes Asia Times, Martin Hutchinson (2/6/10)
The G20 Has Officially Voted For Global Depression Business Insider, Marshall Auerback (7/6/10)
Deficit disorder: the Keynes solution New Statesman, Robert Skidelsky (17/5/10)
Hawks v doves: economists square up over Osborne’s cuts Guardian, Phillip Inman (14/6/10)
Reports and data
OECD Economic Outlook No. 87, May 2010 (see)
Economics: Growth rising faster than expected but risks increasing too, says OECD Economic Outlook OECD (26/5/10)
Economy: responses must reflect governments’ views of national situations OECD (26/5/10)
Editorial and summary of projections OECD (26/5/10)
General assessment of the macroeconomic situation OECD (26/5/10)
Statistical Annex to OECD Economic Outlook No. 87 OECD (10/6/10)
Communiqué, Meeting of Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors, Busan, Republic of Korea G20 (5/6/10)
- Summarise the arguments for and against making rapid cuts in public-sector deficits.
- What forms can crowding out take? Under what circumstances will a rise in public-sector deficits (a) cause and (b) not cause crowding out?
- Assess the policy measures being proposed by the G20.
- How important is confidence for the success of (a) fiscal stimulus packages and (b) deficit reduction policies in boosting economic growth?
With an election approaching, there is much debate about recovery and cuts and about the relationships between the two. Will rapid cuts stimulate confidence in the UK by business and bankers and thereby stimulate investment and recovery, or will they drive the economy back into recession? The debate is not just between politicians vying for your vote; economists too are debating the issue. Many are taking to letter writing.
In the February 2010 news blog, A clash of ideas – what to do about the deficit, we considered three letters written by economists (linked to again below). There has now been a fourth – and doubtless not the last. This latest letter, in the wake of the Budget and the debates about the speed of the cuts, takes a Keynesian line and looks at the sustainability of the recovery – including social and environmental sustainability. It is signed by 34 people, mainly economists.
Letter: Better routes to economic recovery Guardian (27/3/10)
Letter: UK economy cries out for credible rescue plan Sunday Times, 20 economists (14/2/10)
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)
- Summarise the arguments for making rapid cuts in the deficit.
- Summarise the arguments for making gradual cuts in the deficit in line with the recovery in private-sector demand.
- Under what conditions would the current high deficit crowd out private expenditure?
- What do you understand by a ‘Green New Deal’? How realistic is such a New Deal and would there be any downsides?
- Is the disagreement between the economists 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.
- Why is the effect of the recession on the supply-side of the economy crucial in determining the sustainability of a demand-led recovery?
In an attempt to stave off recession, countries around the world have made extensive used of fiscal stimuli. Combinations of tax cuts and increases in government expenditure have been used to boost aggregate demand and thereby to halt falling national income. “The G20 group of economies … have introduced stimulus packages worth an average of 2% of GDP this year and 1.6% of GDP in 2010.”
But how much will national income respond to a particular fiscal stimulus? It depends on the size of the fiscal multiplier for each type of government expenditure increase or tax cut. The bigger the multiplier for each expansionary measure, the more will national income rise. Clearly, to estimate the effects of their fiscal measures, governments would very much like to know the size of these multipliers. But that’s not so easy, as the following article from The Economist explains.
Much ado about multipliers The Economist (24/9/09)
- What are the formulae for (a) the government expenditure multiplier; (b) the tax multiplier?
- Why is the value of the multiplier likely to vary with the type of government expenditure increase or tax cut that is used? Which types of government expenditure increases and tax cuts are likely to have (a) the largest effects; (b) the fastest acting effects?
- Why is the size of any particular fiscal multiplier difficult to predict? How do expectations impact on the size of the multiplier?
- Under what circumstances are fiscal measures likely to be ‘crowded out’? How can monetary policy be used to prevent, or at least minimise, crowding out?