Thursday, January 10, 2008

Is An Electronic "Helicopter Drop" Feasible?

Economist Mark Thoma wrote about something called a "helicopter drop" on his blog last Sept. It was called "The Repo Man" The idea is that the FED (Federal Reserve Board), simply drops money out of helicopters so that people would spend it. We might do this if there is not enough aggregate demand (AD) in the economy. The FED might have lowered interest rates to stimulate spending, but businesses and consumers might be afraid to spend more even at these lower interest rates. So the argument is that if we are all just given cash, we would spend it.

But what if people don't spend it, the cash they recieve? Mark Thoma said that even the money they just stuff into cookie jars might make them take more risks, which could increase AD. But supposing that even that does not happen and there is no effect on AD, that everyone just holds it? Then I guess the drop does not work.

But suppose that everyone has an account with the FED and we are all given debit cards that initially have a zero balance. If the FED saw the need for a quick stimulus that they know would be spent, they could simply announce that everyone citizen now has $100 (or whatever amount is appropriate) in their account and they have some fixed, finite time period to spend it, say 1-3 months. If you don't spend that money, use the debit card, then after the deadline your account reverts back to zero. Maybe it would not be all citizens, just those who earned below a certain amount the previous year. Maybe the FED debit card could only be used in department stores and grocery stores if people are worried about what it gets spent on. People could not get cash back or withdraw the value in cash from the FED.

All consumers would have an incentive to spend it fairly quickly and we could get a quick stimulus to the economy with no time lag issues (other than the time it takes for the FED to realize the policy is needed). Once people started spending money, the FED would have to pay the stores the money that we spent in some similar fashion to the way current debit cards work. The FED would simply use a computer to put the money in everyone's account. They would have to create new money to pay the stores.

I know this might seem like a crazy idea and there could be all kinds of technical and logistical issues. Fraud and theft could be problems. There would be a cost of creating the debit cards and running the program.

Update: My department chair here at San Antonio College, Bruce Norton, said that people who get money put into their debit card accounts might spend less out of their paycheck than they normally do if they can spend the money in these accounts. They would put $100 from their paycheck into the bank (something they would not normally do) and can spend the money from the debit card. So it is possible that this increase in the money supply will not lead to an increase in AD. But it would be no worse than any other money supply increase. And if people in lower income groups get this money, their MPCs (marginal propensity to consume) may be higher than it is for other people, so they might be likely so spend it. Also, if we don't have enough AD, some of the people getting this money will be unemployed, so they are likely to spend it (I am not suggesting getting rid of unemployment insurance or other programs like this).

1 comment:

Brian Macker said...

I've got a better idea. Identify all the economists who think that dropping money from helicopters or even simulating such is a good idea, and then fire them all.

It's quite obvious they don't comprehend economics.