Tim Harford in the FT talks to seven random mainstream economists about their radical ideas for economic policy. (Podcast, not pay walled, here.) Nick Stern wants green cities (with much greater economic autonomy), Jonathan Haskel wants more spent on research (because the returns are very high), Gemma Tetlow wants to merge income tax with national insurance, Diane Coyle wants to reduce boardroom pay, John van Reenen wants new institutions to promote infrastructure, Kate Barker wants changes to how housing is taxed, including capital gains on main residences, and Simon Wren-Lewis wants ‘democratic helicopter money’.
You can find more details about democratic helicopter money here. The democratic bit is that the central bank gives the created money to the government on condition that it is used for a stimulus package, but the form of the stimulus package would be the government’s choosing. I was impressed that Tim managed to turn a very pleasant chat over coffee (while taking few notes) into a coherent account of my argument. The only point I might have added is that my suggestion of turning helicopter money democratic is in part to avoid some of the political difficulties he alluded to.
The common strand in many of these suggestions, which Tim draws out, is a desire to replace direct political control by something more technocratic. Now you could say that this is simply a power grab by economists. However if you think about the examples here, they represent important and widely recognised policy mistakes which tend to be universal and persistent: failure to deal with climate change, failure to invest enough in R&D, unnecessary complications in the tax system, runaway boardroom pay, failure to invest in infrastructure even when borrowing is ultra cheap, a broken housing sector and procyclical fiscal policy. It is not as if the status quo is doing just fine.
I would add just two observations. First, the argument is often not about ‘losing democratic control’, but instead about advice being open and transparent. The alternative to some advisory body, whose deliberations should be publicly available and subject to scrutiny, is often secret advice from the civil service, or worse still from policy entrepreneurs. Second, what is thought political infeasible today may relatively quickly become commonly accepted.
I was quite surprised that Tim thought democratic helicopter money was particularly radical and politically infeasible. But then I remembered fiscal councils. My first published piece advocating (advisory) fiscal councils was in 1996, and for more than a decade this was considered the impractical idea of a few ‘out of touch’ economists, who were obviously anti-democratic. Then, little more than a decade later, the idea very quickly became acceptable. Nowadays, it seems like fiscal councils are everywhere. So the one part of Tim’s piece that I would not take too seriously are his scores for political feasibility and radicalism. Today’s supposedly radical idea can quite quickly become received wisdom.