Both John Kay and Joerg Bibow think additional government spending on public investment is a good idea, and that helicopter money (HM) is either a distraction (Bibow) or fiscal policy by subterfuge (Kay). They are right about public investment, but wrong about HM.
We can have endless debates about whether HM is more monetary or fiscal. While attempts to distinguish between the two can sometime clarify important points (as here from Eric Lonergan) it is ultimately pointless. HM is what it is. Arguments that attempt to use definitions to then conclude that central banks should not do HM because its fiscal are equally pointless. Any HM distribution mechanism needs to be set up in agreement with governments, and existing monetary policy has fiscal consequences which governments have no control over.
Here is where Kay and Bibow are right. At this moment in time, even if a global recession is not about to happen, public investment should increase in the US, UK and Eurozone. There is absolutely no reason why that cannot be financed by issuing government debt. Furthermore, in the event of a new recession, increasing ‘shovel ready’ public investment is an excellent countercyclical tool. Indeed there would be a good case for bringing forward public investment even if monetary policy was capable of dealing with the recession on its own, because you would be investing when labour is cheap and interest rates are low.
Where Bibow is wrong is that the existence of HM in the central bank’s armory in no way compromises the points above. HM does not stop the government doing what it wants with fiscal policy. Monetary policy adapts to whatever fiscal policy plans the government has, and it can do this because it can move faster than governments.
This goes part of the way to answering Kay, but he also suggests that HM is somehow a way of getting politicians to do fiscal stimulus by calling it something else. This seems to ignore why fiscal stimulus ended. In 2010 both Osborne and Merkel argued we had to reduce government borrowing immediately because the markets demanded it.
HM is fiscal stimulus without any immediate increase in government borrowing. It therefore avoids the constraint that Osborne and Merkel said prevented further fiscal stimulus. To put it another way, they did not say that increasing government spending or cutting taxes were bad in itself, but just that they were extremely unwise because they had to be financed by adding to government debt. HM is not financed by increasing government debt.
Many argue that these concerns about debt are manufactured, and that in reality politicians on the right pushing austerity are using these concerns as a means of achieving a smaller state: what I call here deficit deceit. HM, particularly in its democratic form, calls their bluff. If we can avoid making the recession worse by maintaining public spending, financed in part by creating money while the recession persists, how can they object to that? Politicians who wanted to use deficit deceit will not like it, but that is their problem, not ours.
There is a related point in favour of HM that both Kay and Bibow miss. Independent central banks are a means of delegating macroeconomic stabilisation. Yet that delegation is crucially incomplete, because of the lower bound for nominal interest rates. While economists have generally understood that governments can in this situation come to the rescue, politicians either didn’t get the memo, or have proved that they are indeed not to be trusted with the task. HM is a much better instrument than Quantitative Easing, so why deny central banks the instrument they require to do the job they have been asked to do.