This piece first appeared at Web of Debt.
You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, after they’ve tried everything else.
When an article appears in Foreign Affairs, the mouthpiece of the policy-setting Council on Foreign Relations, recommending that the Federal Reserve do a money drop directly on the 99%, you know the central bank must be down to its last bullet.
The September/October issue of Foreign Affairs features an article by Mark Blyth and Eric Lonergan titled “Print Less But Transfer More: Why Central Banks Should Give Money Directly To The People.” It’s the sort of thing normally heard only from money reformers and Social Credit enthusiasts far from the mainstream. What’s going on?
The Fed, it seems, has finally run out of other ammo. It has to taper its quantitative easing program, which is eating up the Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities needed as collateral for the repo market that is the engine of the bankers’ shell game. The Fed’s Zero Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP) has also done serious collateral damage. The banks that get the money just put it in interest-bearing Federal Reserve accounts or buy foreign debt or speculate with it; and the profits go back to the 1%, who park it offshore to avoid taxes. Worse, any increase in the money supply from increased borrowing increases the overall debt burden and compounding finance costs, which are already a major constraint on economic growth.
Meanwhile, the economy continues to teeter on the edge of deflation. The Fed needs to pump up the money supply and stimulate demand in some other way. All else having failed, it is reduced to trying what money reformers have been advocating for decades — get money into the pockets of the people who actually spend it on goods and services.
A Helicopter Drop on Main Street
Blyth and Lonergan write:
[L]ow inflation . . . occurs when people and businesses are too hesitant to spend their money, which keeps unemployment high and wage growth low. In the eurozone, inflation has recently dropped perilously close to zero. . . . At best, the current policies are not working; at worst, they will lead to further instability and prolonged stagnation.
Governments must do better. Rather than trying to spur private-sector spending through asset purchases or interest-rate changes, central banks, such as the Fed, should hand consumers cash directly. In practice, this policy could take the form of giving central banks the ability to hand their countries’ tax-paying households a certain amount of money. The government could distribute cash equally to all households or, even better, aim for the bottom 80 percent of households in terms of income. Targeting those who earn the least would have two primary benefits. For one thing, lower-income households are more prone to consume, so they would provide a greater boost to spending. For another, the policy would offset rising income inequality. [Emphasis added.]
A money drop directly on consumers is not a new idea for the Fed. Ben Bernanke recommended it in his notorious 2002 helicopter speech to the Japanese who were caught in a similar deflation trap. But the Japanese ignored the advice. According to Blyth and Lonergan:
Bernanke argued that the Bank of Japan needed to act more aggressively and suggested it consider an unconventional approach: give Japanese households cash directly. Consumers could use the new windfalls to spend their way out of the recession, driving up demand and raising prices.
. . . The conservative economist Milton Friedman also saw the appeal of direct money transfers, which he likened to dropping cash out of a helicopter. Japan never tried using them, however, and the country’s economy has never fully recovered. Between 1993 and 2003, Japan’s annual growth rates averaged less than one percent.
Today most of the global economy is drowning in debt, and central banks have played all their other cards. Blyth and Lonergan write:
It’s well past time, then, for U.S. policymakers — as well as their counterparts in other developed countries — to consider a version of Friedman’s helicopter drops. In the short term, such cash transfers could jump-start the economy. Over the long term, they could reduce dependence on the banking system for growth and reverse the trend of rising inequality. The transfers wouldn’t cause damaging inflation, and few doubt that they would work. The only real question is why no government has tried them.