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?
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)
- To what extent is the disagreement between the two sets of economists largely one of the timing of the cuts?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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?
- Why is the effect of the recession on the supply-side of the economy crucial in determining the sustainability of a demand-led recovery?
- Distinguish between the cyclical and structural deficits. How would the policies advocated by the two groups of economists impact on the structural deficit?
The current recession has seen the re-emergence of many of the intellectual battles fought amongst economists between the two worlds wars and again from the 1960s to the 1980s. The current debate has hinged around the appropriate policy response to the current recession. Is the solution a Keynesian one of stimulating aggregate demand; or is it a new classical one of keeping public spending under control to make room for private spending and to allow the market to function to best effect? And what about banking reform? What are the arguments here? The following articles by Lord Skidelsky examine the debate.
Robert Skidelsky, Economists clash on shifting sands Financial Times (9/6/09)
Robert Skidelsky, Economic reform needs a dose of reality Guardian (27/7/09)
See also the following video:
Robert Skidelsky, The financial challenge of our times Guardian (2/3/09)
- Explain the ways in which economics is (a) similar to and (b) different from the natural sciences.
- For what reasons would new classical economists criticise the fiscal stimulus packages pursued by many countries in the past few months?
- Under what circumstances would a fiscal stimulus crowd out private spending? Do these circumstances apply (a) today; (b) over the next two years?
- Why may crowding out in practice depend on issues of confidence?
- What ‘Keynesian lessons’ have been learned from the banking crisis and recession?