While depression economics has many strange features, the most important one to remember is this: with slack in the economy, it’s possible to have an economic free lunch. If our economy were running at capacity, new government spending, for example, would tend to create inflation because the capacity (workers, raw materials, and equipment) would have to be bid away from someone else, thereby raising prices. But during a depression that doesn’t happen. Instead, new spending brings idle capacity into production. To put that another way, the single-most-important underpinning of a functioning economy is to ensure that there is sufficient aggregate demand.
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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. Federal Grant Agent
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. Free Money Phone Tap
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Why? Because the economy has evolved to a point where it is vulnerable to mild depressions. In fact, the one we’re in now could persist for decades, as similar conditions have in Japan and other countries. In order to avoid that slow, painful outcome, we need a policy that will jump-start our economy. After three straight years of political gridlock it’s clear that Congress is not going to provide the fiscal stimulus we need, and while the tools the Federal Reserve has at its disposal have helped, they’ve not done enough. If Congress could be persuaded to give the Fed a new tool, one that would let it distribute purchasing power to the broad mass of the population—to “drop money from helicopters,” so to speak—it might be enough to help us escape the nightmare of slow growth and persistent unemployment we’re in now. Federal Grant Recipient Database