In the ongoing American and British debates on the financial crisis and the best ways to bring the economy out of the woods, two opposite views repeatedly collide – the one represented by those who prioritize deficit reduction, the other by those who argue for recapitalizing the economy. The case of the United Kingdom shows that drastic cuts – if not supported by stimulus packages – instead of tackling the debt may actually inflate it. The American policy record on the other hand, proves that even substantial stimulus packages do not always lead to economic revival. It’s not enough to throw some extra money into the pool – equally important is what these resources actually fund and whether they are accompanied by structural reforms.
Moody’s decision to downgrade UK’s rating from AAA to AA1 announced at the end of February was a serious blow to David Cameron’s government as it undermined the whole austerity program Conservatives embarked on precisely to regain the trust of both financial markets and rating agencies. Nonetheless, in a speech delivered on March 7th Prime Minister announced he would keep on the chosen course since – as his famous predecessor once asserted – for this policy “there is no alternative.”
Many British economists do, however, see an alternative, and their number grows as it becomes clear that the spending cuts introduced so far, instead of reducing the debt, have increased it (from 600 billion in 2008 to 1.1 trillion four years later to be precise). How is it possible to cut down on expenses and inflate the debt at the same time? Excessive savings lead to economic contraction, which in turn reduces state revenues and forces the government to continue on borrowing. “What truly is incredible” – argued Martin Wolf in his “Financial Times” column – “is that Mr. Cameron cannot understand that, if an entity that spends close to half of gross domestic product retrenches as the private sector is also retrenching, the decline in overall output may be so large that its finances end up worse than when it started”.
Even The Economist magazine, known for its “favorable neutrality” towards the Conservative Party, criticized the government’s policies and encouraged chancellor George Osborne to dig out some additional funds for infrastructure investments, which could boost the economic growth (compared to 2009 such investments were reduced from £48.5 billion to £28 billion). But where to get the money from?
At least some of the needed sum can be obtained by reducing expenses on civil service. Those – despite all the austerity rhetoric – not only were not diminished but increased in the past decade by £300 billion. However, in case these savings are not sufficient, should the government borrow the missing funds? “Economist’s” editors reply in the positive, but on the condition that these resources are spent on infrastructure – roads, bridges, railways, broadband, etc. – thus contributing to long-term economic growth and improvement of the competitiveness of the British economy. Then, the increase in debt will be offset by rising state revenues, and – thanks to the improving condition of the economy – interest rates should stay at their current low level. As a result, debt service costs will also remain low.
If, however, the money is spent on immediate tax cuts and exemptions, it will simply be wasted. The economy might benefit from such policies in the short run, due to the increase in personal consumption, but as soon as the money is gone, we will go back to square one. This is an argument Jeffrey Sachs makes in yesterday’s New York Times, thus criticizing anti-crisis remedies applied by President Barack Obama’s administration so far. According to Sachs, stimulus packages signed into law first by George W. Bush and then by Obama failed not because they were too small – as for example “The New York Times” columnist, Paul Krugman has long maintained – or too high – as the entire American right seems to believe – but because they have been poorly targeted.
“The original stimulus legislation” – Sachs wrote in another of his articles – “was overwhelmingly of the form of temporary tax cuts and temporary transfer payments, the kind of deficit spending especially likely to have little effect on aggregate demand. Only $88 billion of the $787 billion stimulus-package was in direct purchases of goods and services by the federal government. The rest was temporary transfers and tax cuts.” To make matters worse, in the debt ceiling deal signed by Democrats and Republicans on January 1, many of these cuts became permanent, which will further inflate American national debt. Currently it amounts to 15.5 trillion, which is about 105% of GDP.
According to Krugman – whose views Sachs openly challenged – we should not be particularly worried by these numbers. On the contrary, in order to succeed in reviving the economy, stimulus packages should be enlarged. To introduce any major savings at this stage would throw American economy back into recession, cause economic contraction and decrease government revenues, thus leading to a predicament roughly similar to the one British economy has found itself in. Following the advice of John Maynard Keynes, Krugman argues that the secret of managing the state economy lies in saving the money in times of prosperity, while spending surpluses in the time of crisis, when the economy needs a push.
The trouble is, replies Sachs, that American decision-makers have long spent much more than they should, both in times of economic prosperity under President Bush, and at the time of the current crisis. Besides, once they have decided to stimulate the economy, they chose wrong targets. The same dollar invested well can bring substantial return, but if invested badly, will either bring loses or have no effect at all. According to Sachs Krugman and other “crude Keynesians” – unlike Keynes himself – seem to have forgotten this simple truth. Sachs repeats in the U.S. the same arguments, which in Britain were put forward by The Economist. In his view American economy needs long-term investments in infrastructure (similar to those administered by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 or the moon program launched a few years later), not short-term incentives and benefits. How to get the money for these investments? Part of it can be borrowed. The rest may be obtained by curbing short-term tax-relief programs and finally introducing significant spending cuts, chiefly in the defense budget, which consumes more than $700 billion a year, or in other words more than 20 percent of all the federal resources.
Is it then better to tighten or stimulate the economy in crisis? Challenges faced by the United States and the United Kingdom make it quite clear – the best solution is to do both these things at the same time.
Łukasz Pawłowski is a managing editor at ‘Kultura Liberalna’ and a PhD candidate at the Institute of Sociology, University of Warsaw.