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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

Right now, Congress has the power to directly spend its way to full employment, but it’s not doing it. And neither are the state governments. In fact, since 2010, Congress and most of the states have been doing the exact opposite, sharply reducing spending. After the Great Depression, it took World War II to break the political deadlock and get Congress to dump money into the economy, but today, nothing similarly jarring is in sight. If the Fed took over, it would respond directly to the needs of the economy, without getting bogged down in endless politically charged debates about the virtues of austerity or the moral peril of government checks (recall how Senate “moderates” forced the Obama stimulus to be too small). Instead, it could respond, quickly and efficiently, to fluctuations in aggregate demand.

Handing the reins to the Fed is a good idea for another reason: it would give the Fed a policy tool that shares the fine-tuning properties of the interest rate mechanism, but without the constraint of the zero lower bound and the tendency to create skyrocketing household debt. When the economy is running hot, threatening inflation, the Fed could slow deposits to a trickle (or raise rates), but when recession strikes, it could speed them back up again, quickly and easily. After all, in order for macroeconomic stabilization policy to work, it must be adjusted frequently and quickly—especially in the computer age, when recessions can gather force with astonishing speed.

What’s more, there is no reason to think that our aggregate demand problem will be cured without some kind of aggressive change. The economist Brad DeLong has calculated that reasonable estimates of the current and future damage to our economy from the present crisis are greater than those from the Great Depression. “Unless something—and it will need to be something major—returns the U.S. to its pre-2008 growth trajectory, future economic historians will not regard the Great Depression as the worst business-cycle disaster of the industrial age,” he wrote in the journal Project Syndicate. “It is we who are living in their worst case.” Already our current weak economic expansion is near the length of the postwar average, and a new recession may strike at any time, which would erase the pitiful gains of the past five years. (God only knows what is cooking in the dungeons of Wall Street.) If we change nothing, we could be stuck in our current situation for decades. Japan has been mired in a similar trap for almost thirty years.

Why hasn’t the helicopter money option already been enacted? The main reason is simply that until very recently we thought we had cured chronic shortages of aggregate demand, so no one was really thinking about these issues. The other reason is that Congress has not yet gotten it together to pass a law allowing the Fed to cut checks to the American people.

But there’s no reason why they shouldn’t. Democrats should be for it because it is straight-up economic stimulus, writ large. And Republicans should be for it because it is the stimulus option that’s most in line with conservative values. To be sure, a whole lot of right-wing conservatives will object to the very notion—government checks give them the willies. And for conservatives with the strongest tendencies toward gold buggery, who are already freaked out that the Fed’s quantitative easing is debasing the currency and setting us up for hyperinflation, the idea will never be in favor. But what conservatives really objected to about the Obama stimulus and all subsequent Democratic proposals for fiscal pump priming was not so much the fiscal consequences, despite what they said—after all, they favored the Iraq War and the Bush tax cuts, which drove up the debt, and voted for Paul Ryan’s budget, which would have done the same. What really infuriates them about Democratic stimulus measures is that it is spending by government, meant to achieve government priorities, and delivered through government channels in ways that enhance the reach and influence of the government.

The helicopter money policy, by contrast, keeps government almost completely out of the picture. It distributes resources directly to citizens, with no limits on how they can spend it, thereby strengthening individual choice and the private sector, not government bureaucracies. It’s a stimulus Milton Friedman could love. And if everyone gets the same-sized check, there’s not even a concession to the god of progressivity—it’s like a flat tax in reverse! There will be a Republican president again someday, and as we’ve seen, it is highly likely that government will face the same weak growth and high unemployment we face today. This is a tool as friendly to the conservatives’ ideology as they are likely to find.

In any case, we shouldn’t forget the relative simplicity of what’s wrong with our economy right now: it’s a simple divergence between incentives for production and those for consumption. The money supply is a very powerful tool to fix that misalignment of incentives, and its power is communal. It comes from the fact that it is accepted as a medium of exchange by all 310 million Americans. We should not fear to use that tool, and to provide badly needed help to millions of people in the process.

Chart credits: St. Louis Fed

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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