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.”
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Take the early 2000s, for example. During the recession caused by the collapse of the dot-com bubble, the Fed lowered rates almost to zero, yet the stimulative effect was strikingly weak. Aside from today’s economy, the 2000s expansion was by far the weakest in postwar history, despite being driven by a housing bubble of world-historical proportions and enormous deficit spending. Then came the financial crisis in late 2007 and early 2008. When the economy fell into recession, the Fed started to lower rates sharply and reached near zero by late 2008. (For complicated reasons, the Fed refuses to go all the way to zero.) This action, coupled with the sizable fiscal stimulus of 2009, was enough to stave off a full-blown depression, but it was not enough to prevent mass unemployment, which spiked to over 10 percent and, more importantly, has come down at an agonizing pace. The prime working-age employment rate collapsed during the crisis, and has barely budged since (see Graph 4).
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