Economists agree that this is how we got into the current mess, but they disagree about how to get out of it. Some, such as Paul Krugman and Lawrence Summers, argue for more relaxed fiscal policies. Cutting taxes or increasing public expenditure is the most certain way to stimulate demand. In Milton Friedman’s words it is an injection directly “into the income stream”. But this route out of recession would increase public debt even further. It seems blocked.
Instead, most countries have opted to combine fiscal tightening with ultra-loose monetary policy, setting short-term interest rates close to zero and using quantitative easing to reduce long-term rates and boost asset prices.
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But there are dangers. Sustained low interest rates create incentives for highly leveraged financial engineering. They make it easier for uncompetitive companies to survive, which could stymie productivity growth. And they work by restarting growth in private credit – which is what led to our current predicament. The Bank for International Settlements therefore argues that monetary policy should be tightened as well as fiscal, but that would depress demand yet further.
We should indeed seek a swift return to higher interest rates, to remove the dangerous subsidy to high leverage. But paradoxically, the best way to do that, particularly in Japan and the eurozone, would be to deploy a variant of Friedman’s idea of dropping money from a helicopter. Government deficits should temporarily increase, and they should be financed with new money created by the central bank and added permanently to the money supply.
Money-financed deficits would increase demand without creating debts that have to be serviced. This would lift either real output or inflation and allow interest rates to return to normal more quickly. True, banks might amplify the stimulus by creating additional private credit, but they can be restrained with higher reserve requirements.