Free Money for the People!

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Via Atrios, I see that the idea of just printing money and handing it out is gaining some elite traction. Here’s Anatole Kaletsky in Reuters:

Last week I discussed in this column the idea that the vast amounts of money created by central banks and distributed for free to banks and bond funds – equivalent to $6,000 per man, woman and child in America and £6,500 in Britain – should instead be given directly to citizens, who could spend or save it as they pleased. I return to this theme so soon because radical ideas about monetary policy suddenly seem to be gaining traction. Some of the world’s most powerful central bankers – Mario Draghi of the European Central Bank last Thursday, Eric Rosengren of the Boston Fed on Monday and Mervyn King of the Bank of England this Wednesday – are starting to admit that the present approach to creating money, known as quantitative easing, is failing to generate economic growth. Previously taboo ideas can suddenly be mentioned.

The nice thing about this is it wouldn’t rely on some second-order effects through the expectation channel. With a big cash windfall a major fraction of the population are sure to spend it or use it to pay down some debt. When you’re in a depression, as we are, that’s just what the doctor ordered. This is as opposed to normal quantitative easing, which relies on pushing on the economy through the rotten banking system. Like a sponge, the banks absorb most of the money before it seeps out into the real economy.

Probably the biggest obstacle with this is how ridiculous it sounds. “The money has to come from somewhere,” people say. Actually, no it doesn’t. That’s the whole idea behind fiat money. Nothing behind it. “It’ll create hyperinflation,” conservatives will say. Nope. Right now we’re in a depression: we have very low inflation from too few people with jobs and money buying not enough goods and services to run the economy at potential.

Therefore, more spending will just pull in more idle people and resources. Only when the economy is at capacity is serious inflation a possibility. If it starts to happen, the Fed can easily act to restrain it.

The least convincing counterargument is the moral hazard one. “Can’t give people free money,” people say, “otherwise they’ll lose their moral fiber. Success must be earned.” I suppose all other things equal that’s the case, but that argument sure didn’t stop the Treasury from stuffing $700 billion down the rotting throats of the banks back in 2008, and it hasn’t stopped the Fed from stuffing God knows how many more trillions in cheap loans after it.

Again, I agree that moral hazard should be a consideration, especially for the richest and most powerful people and corporations, but we recognize in a crisis sometimes it’s more important to keep the system from collapsing than make sure every person gets exactly what she deserves. When we had a banking crisis, everyone agreed on this. Elites everywhere panicked, and swooped in with “incredible speed and force to bail out the financial sectors in which creditors are invested, trampling over prior norms and laws as necessary.” We’re now in the fourth year of an unemployment crisis, and it’s high time we found some similar urgency.

Nothing I haven’t said before, and still probably little chance of happening, but here’s hoping. Regular people could use a bailout every bit as much, if not more, than wealthy elites.

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Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.