Way back during the post-World War II era, the economy was booming. Unemployment was very low, productivity was up, and workers’ wages were growing steadily in real terms—that is, even after adjusting for inflation. Along with the cost-of-living adjustments written into many job contracts, that meant wage-price inflationary spirals were always on the horizon. As a result, for about thirty years, from the mid-1940s through the ’70s, the main problem for economic policymakers was not growth or unemployment, it was simply keeping inflation in check. Since it’s very hard to cut wages, the Fed did that by repeatedly inducing small recessions. The idea was to create enough unemployment to slow both aggregate wage growth and the ensuing spending. Despite the often-uncomfortable abruptness with which the economy bounced from recession to rapid growth, this was still the greatest economic boom in American history. Federal Grant Small Business
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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This is why income inequality is dangerous: it is a drag on aggregate demand. As inequality increases, as it has in the U.S., the drag grows commensurately. Stagnant wages mean that consumer borrowing must be steadily increased to keep the economy moving forward. Meanwhile, the fruits of growth flowing to the top mean a vast pile-up in savings and associated asset bubbles, and the recessions that follow are harder and harder to recover from. In other words, keeping an economy that suffers from galloping economic inequality pressurized and growing requires an economic policy regime that contains the seeds of its own destruction. And this leads us to where we are now: consumers today can’t stomach any more debt, interest rates have hit the floor, and a grinding, low-level depression is upon us. Welcome to 2014.
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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. Free Money In Minutes