The helicopter post has had the most reaction of any post on this blog. I guess that is the territory when you suggest that the solution to the financial crisis is to literally throw money from helicopters. Nonetheless I wish I could get that sort of reaction to a more serious post.
The reaction to the helicopter post fell into three categories:
- those that didn’t get it
- those that got it but may have had ethical problems, and
- those that understood it all too well.
I got one comment – via email – which explained very simply why the helicopter proposal wouldn’t work. I think that commentator’s argument is accurate – so – at the end I will lay it out and (tentatively) withdraw the helicopter proposal.
Those that didn’t get it
There seemed to be several comments (email and on blog) which suggested that it would be better if we just gave everyone a tax holiday (payroll, income, death duties depending on where in the political spectrum the commentator was).
This does not cut it. The purpose of the proposal (throwing money out of helicopters) was not to distribute money (for which plenty of effective mechanisms exist). The purpose was much more radical – to remove trust in money itself.
The proposal I made was remarkably cheap (a $2 billion solution to a multi-trillion dollar problem) and if it works it works for purely psychological reasons – which is that it is so reckless and irresponsible that nobody could ignore the inflationary impacts of Federal Reserve policy. Reckless and irresponsible (and small) was the charm of this proposal.
Indeed I suggested in the comments that it would work even better if Bernanke continuously surrounded himself with buxom prostitutes paid out of freshly minted moolah, but that image was just too horrific – even for this purpose (although it may be effective).
Some that simply got it
There were a couple of posts that simply got it. The cutest came from someone calling themselves the German Trader who put it very simply (if in very poor English):
You only give something away when you think it is worthless and what you get is of greater worth. While seeing the riots after Bens helicopters came past I surely want buy a new car.
Kieren (who I do not know) pointed out that the trick was really to produce inflationary expectations (and hence to get people to spend) without producing inflation. That is why this might work. The amount of money involved is small ($2 billion versus over $2 trillion in money supply) so its effect should also be small – but the expectations effect could be enormous. That was – in theoretical terms – what I was trying to achieve.
Some who got it and raised ethical objections
There were a few ethical objections raised – firstly by people who thought I was right that this policy would cause riots and deaths and then promoted more responsible ways of doing the same trick. The people killed in riots are collateral damage of a deliberately irresponsible policy. I don’t know how to weigh one life versus another – but this financial crisis will kill hundreds of people before it is over – either suicides or more bluntly hunger in some countries badly hit. The ethical objection is real – and I have no solution. The policy proposed is deliberately irresponsible – and irresponsibility causes death in some instances.
The main ethical objection I expected was about property rights and theft. I wrote the post in Australian hours and it was seen by Australian/Asians then English/Europeans and finally by North Americans.
I had to wait until American waking hours for someone to point out the obvious - which is that the policy being advocated was the deliberate theft of property (deliberate inflation being theft). Europeans somehow seem less concerned than Americans about property rights.
I am usually very harsh on government policies which involve the removal of property rights simply because those policies are usually counter-productive. There are plenty of posts on this blog along those lines. However those posts are argued on a facts-and-circumstances basis – the abrogation of property rights is argued as a problem in this instance and property rights are not automatically given full moral status. That is my position generally – honouring property rights is a good thing to do because it generally leads to better outcomes. I understand that some people (almost all Americans and including many readers of this blog) have raised property rights to full ethical status (along with for instance the rights to liberty etc). Not my ethics – but I understand – and the outcomes are usually OK so I am generally happy to leave that form of right wing fundamentalism alone.
I prefer argue for property rights from an outcomes perspective (as incidentally did many Modern Scots - esp Hume - but later Smith with regard to some economic matters*). Your blogger does not really wish to comment on the property rights as a moral precept here – other than to note for some people this really is fundamental. Just leave it at that.
The commentators that got it all too well
The comment on the post which got the most comment from other commentators was someone that got it all too well. The comment was that – as a result of this policy – some right wing “nut” would load a truck with fertilizer and diesel and blow up the Federal Reserve.
Some people objected to calling that person a nut – but I have no other word for suicide bomber of any persuasion. More to the point – this person – and eventually many others – would realise what this policy was about – which is removing all trust from dollars – and hence theft of one ideal that they hold quite dear.
The question which was raised in emails was about how you would reintroduce trust after you have destroyed it. I think that is actually a key problem. Trust is essential for an economic system in general – but trust in money at the moment is quite destructive as people would prefer hold enormous quantities of money rather than build real assets and employ real people. However you can’t build real assets and employ real people without trust either. The helicopter proposal is targeted at getting rid of trust in one place and one time only (the trust in money in the rare instance of a liquidity trap). Whether you can conduct a strike that surgical with a helicopter full of rolls of money is open for question. Military strikes are nowhere near as precise as the pictures on CNN.
Finally – the real objection
This came in an email from one of the most astute commentators on my blog:
It won't work because immediately after the drop, Congress would arrest Bernanke along with the entire Fed board (probably replace it with a money czar)…. Politicians would be forced to promise responsibility and accountability in the face of the threat of civil unrest - don't forget, a lot of people own guns legally in this country. There will be new laws designed to keep the value of the dollar. In the end, the dollar would get stronger, not weaker…
In other words the whole idea won’t work because it is actually not possible to be that irresponsible – that the underlying US system is sufficiently strong – that if Bernanke were that irresponsible he would simply be replaced.
If Bernanke can’t plausibly be quite that irresponsible we might as well park the helicopters.
And if you can’t use monetary policy to solve this recession then alas we are left with what appears to be two inferior choices (a) a fiscal expansion of gargantuan proportions or (b) letting the system burn and winding up in a great depression type scenario. Both are unpalatable – but I would vote for the fiscal expansion.
It would be much better to just load up that helicopter. Alas...
*There is a serious edit to the this post because I have not read theory of moral sentiments for twenty years and then did not finish it. I have pulled out my copy and I was wrong. I wasn't about Hume (who I have always thought right). Smith it seems thought that moral laws within the economic sphere were made by man - but outside Man was not capable of such moralizing. The rights to property seem - from my quick skim fall into manmade lot - but... suggestion withdrawn...