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March/ April/ May 2014 Free Money for Everyone

A wacky-sounding idea with surprisingly conservative roots may be our best hope for escaping endless, grinding economic stagnation.

By Ryan Cooper

Forward guidance consists of trying to reassure the markets that the Fed funds rate will stay low for a long time after full employment is reached, thereby calming fears that the Fed will step on the brakes the moment employment returns to normal levels. Quantitative easing is when the Fed uses newly printed money to purchase Treasury bonds and other financial assets, with the idea of pushing down longer-term interest rates and forcing money out into the economy. Economists and financial wonks can (and do) discuss the relative merits of these policies all day, but the one thing that almost everyone agrees on is that while they helped us avoid a full-blown depression, they did not restore full employment—or anything even close to it. Since the crisis, both output and employment growth has been weak.

Therefore, economists have been discussing the possibility of using more drastic tools. There are four major options under discussion.

The first is to push interest rates below zero. The idea here is fairly simple. If the problem with our economy is framed in terms of people trying to save too much relative to their spending, then negative interest rates would make saving money expensive. If you kept cash in a savings account with a negative interest rate, you would actually lose money. There are a few major problems with this idea, one of which is cultural. We Americans consider saving virtuous; a Fed policy that punished savers would simply not go over well. Another problem is that if interest rates on money were sharply negative, investors might just pour their money into commodities like wheat, oil, or copper as a store of value, which would keep those raw materials from socially positive uses and be tough to regulate. Yet another problem, which the economist Miles Kimball (an advocate of this idea) points out, is that if we really wanted to make this work, all money would have to be subject to interest rate fluctuations, which means we’d have to get rid of paper money. (If everything were electronic, there would be nowhere for savers to hide.)

The second major policy option, championed by International Monetary Fund economist Olivier Blanchard, is functionally very similar to the negative interest rate proposal, although it’s a little sneakier. Right now, the Fed targets inflation of 2 percent. Raising the target to 4 or 5 percent (assuming it could be achieved) would discourage savings and promote spending in the same way that negative interest rates would, but without the probable outrage at having money subtracted from one’s bank account.

The third policy option is known as nominal gross domestic product targeting, the major proponent of which is the economist Scott Sumner. The idea is all about self-fulfilling expectations. Recall that the central bank owns the printing press, so it can create arbitrary quantities of dollars. By making a pre-commitment to keep the economy on a particular spending trajectory, self-fulfilling collapses in spending would not happen. Something similar to this policy seems to have kept Australia and Israel out of the Great Recession. But in order to sustain such a policy, the Fed might have to intervene in the economy quite frequently, and then the distributional consequences could be serious. Quantitative easing, for example, helps push up asset prices (the stock market has regained all the ground lost since 2009 and then some), which disproportionately benefits the wealthy.

The fourth and final policy proposal on the table is what I’ll call the “helicopter money” option. It too is fairly simple. Under such a policy (which could be combined with aspects of the first three), every U.S. citizen would receive a regular payment, in the form of, say, a check from the Internal Revenue Service. The amount of each check would change depending on the health of the economy, but it could be fairly substantial during times of economic slack. To jar us out of our current slump, for instance, I’d start with payments on the order of $2,000 per person. These checks would arrive on an as-needed basis, depending on the state of the economy.

Again, that may sound crazy. But the idea is to address the lack of aggregate demand in the economy in the simplest, most mechanical fashion: if the economy needs more aggregate demand, you give people money to spend, since when people (especially non-rich ones) have more money, they spend more money, and therefore aggregate demand increases. People who don’t spend the money outright might choose instead to pay down debt, leaving them more willing to use credit for future spending, and people who worry that the policy will create inflation will move their money from cash and savings to spending on durable goods. (And, remember, the policy won’t create excessive inflation so long as there is slack in aggregate demand.)

The Fed would then “pay” for it by creating new money. That new money, by the way, would be added to the monetary base, not the deficit. While this concept gets into arcane government accounting conventions very quickly, the point is that the Fed has the power to create infinite cash. Indeed, such mass money creation is hardly new: the quantitative easing program has already been carried out in a similar way—with trillions of dollars in new money.

At any rate, the only thing standing in the way of the helicopter money plan is the way the Fed’s charter is written. Namely, it’s illegal: the Fed does not currently have the power to hand out checks to the American people; Congress has to do that. But laws can be changed.

On the straight economics, this solution is nearly identical to the 2008 Bush/Pelosi stimulus. In that case, Congress sent money to everyone and paid for it by issuing debt. Later, the Fed bought more than that amount’s worth of Treasury bonds. (In this case, we would simply avoid that two-step process: Congress would hand over the reins directly to the Fed.) This similarity leads many economists to be skeptical of the helicopter solution as redundant. “I’m all for fiscal and monetary stimulus,” Paul Krugman told me in late January. “But I don’t see helicopter money as adding anything substantive to the menu of policy tools, or as making the politics any easier.”

Krugman is right that helicopter money isn’t fundamentally innovative economically. The argument here, however, is not economic; it’s institutional. Instead of Congress being in charge of distributing resources according to its erratic whims and halting ability to compromise, the Fed would do it. The Fed would watch aggregate demand closely (indeed, it already does this) and make quick, proactive decisions on whether to send everyone money, and how much, without having to wait for Congress to deliberate over a stimulus bill.

Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper

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