Four years after the start of the Great Recession, the global economy has not recovered, voters are losing patience and governments around the world are falling like ninepins. This is a situation conducive to revolutionary thinking, if not yet in politics, then maybe in economics.
In the past few months the International Monetary Fund, previously a bastion of austerity, has swung in favor of expansionary fiscal policies. The U.S. Federal Reserve has committed itself to printing money without limit until it restores full employment. And the European Central Bank has announced unlimited bond purchases with printed money, a policy denounced, quite literally, as the work of the devil by the president of the German Bundesbank.
This week an even more radical debate burst into the open in Britain. Sir Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, found himself fighting a rearguard action against a groundswell of support for “dropping money from helicopters” – something proposed by Milton Friedman in 1969 as the ultimate cure for intractable economic depressions and recently described in this column as “Quantitative Easing for the People.”
King had to speak out because the sort of calculations presented here last summer started to catch on in Britain. The BoE has spent £50 billion over the past six months to support bond prices. That could instead have financed a cash handout of £830 for every man, woman and child in Britain, or £3,300 for a typical family of four. In the United States, the $40 billion the Fed has promised to transfer monthly, with no time limit, to banks and bond funds, could instead finance a monthly cash payment of $500 per family – to be continued indefinitely until full employment is restored.
Two weeks ago the British debate on QEP reached a crescendo in a daring speech by Lord Adair Turner, chairman of the Financial Services Authority, and one of the two leading contenders to replace King as governor of the BoE. Turner is a former management consultant famous in Britain for finding imaginative solutions to apparently insoluble issues, from climate change policy to reform of the National Health Service. While he stopped short of publicly endorsing “helicopter money,” Turner hinted strongly in that direction with a call for “still more innovative and unconventional” thinking since QE no longer seems to work. His speech was followed by a spate of editorials in the Financial Times, the BBC and other media outlets about helicopter money and the need for serious BoE thinking about such radical ideas.