Ben Bernanke and Democratic Helicopter Money: “The fact that no responsible government would ever literally drop money from the sky should not prevent us from exploring the logic of Friedman’s thought experiment, which was designed to show—in admittedly extreme terms—why governments should never have to give in to deflation.”
The quote above is from a post by Ben Bernanke... I put it up front because it expresses a macroeconomic truth that no one should ever forget: persistent recessions and deflation are never inevitable, and always represent the failure of policy makers to do the right thing.
There are many useful points in his post, but I just want to talk about one: Bernanke is in fact not talking about helicopter money in its traditional sense, but what I have called elsewhere ‘democratic helicopter money’.
When most people talk about HM, they imagine some scheme whereby the central bank sends ‘everyone’ a cheque in the post, or transmits some money to each individual some other way. It is what economists would call a reverse lump sum tax, or reverse poll tax: the amount you get is independent of your income. That makes it different from a normal tax cut.
In practice the central bank could only really do this with the cooperation of governments. It would not want to take the decision about what 'everyone' means on its own. (Do we include children or not. How do we find everyone?) But once those details had been sorted out, a system would be in place that the central bank could operate whenever it needed to.
Bernanke suggests an alternative. The central bank sets aside a sum of newly created money, and the fiscal authorities then spend it as they wish. They could decide to use all the money to build bridges or schools rather than give it to individuals. There might be two reasons for doing HM this way. First, for some reason the fiscal authorities are reluctant to spend if they have to fund it by creating more debt, so it may allow them to get around this (normally self-imposed) ‘constraint’. Second, a money financed fiscal expansion could be more expansionary than a bond financed fiscal expansion. Lets leave the second advantage to one side, as the first is sufficient in a world obsessed by government debt.
I have talked about something similar in the past (first here, but later here and here), which I have called democratic helicopter money. This label also seems appropriate for Bernanke’s scheme, because the elected government decides on the form of fiscal expansion. The difference between what I had discussed earlier under this label and Bernanke’s suggestion is that in my scheme the fiscal authorities and the central bank talk to each other before deciding on how much money to create and what it will be spent on (although the initiative always comes from the central bank, and would only happen in a recession where interest rates were at their lower bound). The reason I think talking would be preferable is simply that it helps the central bank decide how much money it needs to create. ...
While democratic HM is not talked about much among economists (Bernanke excepted), I think there are good political economy reasons why it may be the form of HM that is eventually tried. As I have said, conventional HM of the cheque in the post kind almost certainly requires the involvement of government. Once governments realise what is going on, they may naturally think why set up something new when they could decide how the money is spent themselves in a more traditional manner. Democratic HM is essentially a method of doing a money financed fiscal expansion in a world of independent central banks.
Which brings me back to the quote at the head of this post. The straight macroeconomics of most versions of HM is clear: all the discussion is about institutional and distributional details. If it is beyond us to manage to set in place any of them before the next recession that would be a huge indictment of our collective imagination, and is probably a testament to the power of imaginary fears and taboos created in very different circumstances.