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. Federal Grant To Start A Farm
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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.)
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. Free Money Elementary Schools
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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. Free Money Machine
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