Can the ECB create money for a universal basic income?

Can the ECB create money for a universal basic income?

Funding basic income through taxation is costly. At the same time, low consumer demand is a major worry. The European Central Bank could kill two birds with one stone by giving money directly to citizens.

Guest post by Teemu Muhonen, originally posted on
Translation by Petri Flander

Finnish social welfare agency KELA’s basic income experiment has got plenty of attention in Finland and elsewhere. This is not surprising: in recent years various proposals for a basic income have been submitted by a growing number of scientists, politicians and non-governmental organizations in several countries.

According to a study by the Municipal Development Foundation, 51 percent of the Finnish population supports basic income. Last year, even greater support was found on surveys in France and the Spanish region of Catalonia.

The popularity of unconditional basic income can be explained by the fact that it can be argued from various standpoints: the left is attracted to the idea of eliminating poverty and making citizens freer; the right wants to simply welfare benefits, and encourage people to get out of benefits and take up whatever work is available.

There are problems with basic income models that still need attention. The most common of which was brought up last week In an interview on the Finnish public broadcaster Yle, history professor Juha Siltala brought up one of the most common objections: “We should really consider a basic income that you can really live on. But who pays it then?”

When KELA hinted that they might pay up to 800 euros per month, unconditional and tax-free, to participants in their basic income pilot, Canadian professor James Milligan dismissed the idea as “typical fiscal nonsense.” According to Milligan, if the amount was given to the whole population, it would require doubling the Finnish tax rate.

But what if a universal basic income is funded by other means, in addition to taxation?

The ECB to the rescue

In recent years, the European Central Bank (ECB) has tried to support the eurozone’s lagging inflation through “quantitative easing” (QE), a measure used by other central banks as well. The ECB has been buying securities from institutional investors such as banks, using large amounts of fresh money.

So far, national economies have not responded as hoped: despite the increase in the value of securities, consumer prices have stagnated.

Last year the leader of the British Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn promoted the idea of “People’s QE” in which the Bank of England would channel money directly to citizens, not banks.

The proposal received wide support, and many people believe the ECB should follow suit. Even former IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard praised the idea.

The expression that Corbyn used is misleading, however, because in his proposal the money is not channeled directly to the public, but to government, which then uses it to stimulate the economy through infrastructure projects and other measures.

Another model was suggested by a group of 19 economists, who signed a letter published in the Financial Times (FT) in March last year. They proposed that the money should be given directly to citizens of the eurozone countries. The idea was to use ECB money to give 175 euros per month to each citizen for 19 months.

Economist Milton Friedman once called this kind of payments “helicopter money”: it is as if the money is just thrown at people from the sky, with no strings attached. Effectively, what the FT letter proposed was a eurozone-wide unconditional basic income paid by the ECB.

One problem with helicopter money is inflation

If the ECB funds infrastructure investment and fiscal policy, it strengthens the position of states substantially. The impact of a pan-European basic income would be the opposite. It would transfer a substantial part of social security funding from states to the ECB. In addition, allocation of money would be determined by citizens, not governments.

The FT letter did not call for a permanent and comprehensive basic income. After all, 175 euros per month is a significant sum in the poorest countries of Europe, but not much at all in countries like Finland.

There are other problems. If the ECB pays a higher basic income, rising demand could lead to massive inflation, unless production of goods increased at the same pace as demand. ECB’s quantitative easing has inflated equity prices for a long time, but sharp increases in the prices of real goods are generally considered more harmful to the economy.

In addition, direct monetary payments to states and citizens would be incompatible with the EU treaties and further limit ECB’s independence.

Despite these problems, a pan-European basic income would have a distinct advantage when compared to a national basic income. A national basic income in countries that attract most migrants would make them an even more popular destination. A pan-European payment would equalize the differences between countries.

Two birds with one stone?

One model discussed by basic income activists would entail that the ECB pays the same amount to all European citizens. The countries with higher living expenses would top up their citizens’ basic income from their national treasury, or from the common EU budget.

Such an arrangement may sound utopian, as it would require a major revision of existing national social security frameworks, and probably a reform of the entire financial system.

But the reality is that the challenges faced by the current welfare arrangements and the economic system are reaching a crisis point. Many jobs have been shredded, and, as technology advances, returns from labor and tax revenues no longer increase as labor productivity rises.

Still, we need money to sustain consumer demand and fund social security. A pan-European basic income financed by the ECB could solve both problems. There is no doubt that we will see more of such discussions in the public sphere in the near future.


Photo Credit CC European Central Bank

EUROPE: 75 economists endorse Quantitative Easing for People campaign

EUROPE: 75 economists endorse Quantitative Easing for People campaign

At the end of November, a coalition of eurozone campaigners, civil society organizations and economists launched the campaign Quantitative Easing for People, calling for the European Central Bank (ECB) to radically change its approach to the current Quantitative Easing (QE) program. At the time of writing, 75 economists have endorsed the campaign.

The initiative brings together groups including Social Justice Ireland, Collectif Roosevelt (France), World Future Council (Germany), FairFin (Belgium), European Alternatives, and Basic Income Europe. The campaign is also supported by organizations from Italy, Greece, Spain, Austria, and the Netherlands; see the full list here.

QE is an unconventional monetary policy used by central banks to stimulate the economy. It usually consists of buying government bonds or other securities in order to lower interest rates and increase the money supply. QE began in the eurozone earlier this year, and the ECB is currently creating 60 billion Euros each month. Matthias Kroll from the World Future Council said: “So far the ECB’s QE program has proven to be ineffective in raising inflation back to its 2% target.”

“Flooding financial markets inflates share and bond prices, which makes the rich richer, but does little to help households and business. In fact, QE is helping fuel a new financial bubble, laying the foundation for another financial crisis. The eurozone needs a more direct and efficient stimulus.”

European stock markets plunged on December 3, when Draghi announced that the current QE program would be extended by six months to March 2017. This is a sign that even large corporations and financial markets do not believe in Draghi’s QE and expect more.

The aim of the QE for People campaign is to push the ECB to spend the money differently, by focusing on public investment, key social services or redistributive mechanisms like a citizens’ dividend – the last idea resonating well with basic income activists.

The proposal was first put forward in a letter signed by 19 economists and published in the Financial Times in March this year:

Rather than being injected into the financial markets, the new money created by eurozone central banks could be used to finance government spending (such as investing in much needed infrastructure projects); alternatively each eurozone citizen could be given €175 per month, for 19 months, which they could use to pay down existing debts or spend as they please.

Cash transfers under QE for People and basic income have common features. Both are directed to all citizens, with no strings attached. The time dimension differs though, as QE measures are by definition temporary, while basic income is a permanent scheme.

The 75 experts who support the campaign include several pioneers of the idea, such as Professor Steve Keen, Professor David Graeber and fund manager Eric Lonergan, as well as other influential economists and financial analysts like Ann Pettifor and Frances Coppola. These experts signed a statement of support that lays out the reasons behind the campaign:

1. Conventional QE does not work

Since it started in March, the eurozone QE program has not helped to rescue the eurozone economies from stagnation.


2. Conventional QE is risky and harmful

Flooding financial markets inflates share and bond prices, which makes the rich richer but does little to help ordinary people and businesses. In fact, QE is helping fuel a new financial bubble, laying the foundation for another financial crisis.


3. A more direct approach is needed

Countries in the eurozone need to stimulate their economies without increasing public and private debt, without increasing inequality, and without creating bubbles.


4. QE for People is possible

Instead of flooding financial markets, money created through QE should be spent into the real economy, on essential public investment such as green infrastructure, affordable housing and/or distributed as a citizens’ dividend to all residents.


5. QE for People is urgently needed

Given the challenges facing the eurozone, we urge economists, civil society organizations, and people from across the eurozone to join us in calling on the ECB to implement QE for People as soon as possible.


The campaign will focus on raising awareness of the failures of the current QE program, building political momentum around alternative monetary policies and fostering further research. “Having more than 70 economists endorsing the idea is a huge milestone, but this is only the beginning. Our goal is to create a much bigger coalition with citizens, academics and civil society organizations,” said Stan Jourdan, campaign coordinator.

If you want to know more about the campaign, visit the campaign website.

You can join the movement QE for People by signing up here.

Economists can endorse the campaign here.

See also: Stanislas Jourdan, “Europe: 19 economists call on the ECB to make ‘QE for the people’ in a letter to the Financial Times,” Basic Income News, March 27, 2015.

The European Central Bank could kick-start the economy with a limited, monetary basic income

The European Central Bank could kick-start the economy with a limited, monetary basic income

The Eurozone clearly needs a structural yet flexible central bank policy instrument that can be used to kick-start the economy as and when it is needed. A miniature version of the increasingly popular basic income policy would provide exactly this type of instrument.

By Willem Sas and Kevin Spiritus, originally published in Flemish Newspaper De Tijd, translation by Will Wachtmeister.

Can anyone remember what times were like before the crisis? When “cut-backs” was a word ascribed to the 1990s. When growth rates were healthy and inflation stable. When the benefits of a unified single European currency were still plain for all to see. Memories of those times have been fading rapidly. Especially so with persistent wage stagnation, mounting inequality and interest rates that have been reduced to basically their lowest possible level. Is there really no way out?

A policy response that is often put forward is looser monetary policy, the proverbial printing press. And since 9 March, the printing press has been in full swing in Europe too. Under the established label quantitative easing (QE), the European Central Bank has, after four years of hesitating, begun spending billions on buying up assets. This involves buying up private loans just as much as government bonds. The hope is essentially that this will stimulate both private and public investment.

Unfortunately, QE will not necessarily lead to more economic investment within the European Union. Insofar as public authorities aren’t able – or allowed – to invest, insofar as the financing doesn’t reach businesses and businesses don’t want to take on loans, QE will prove a fruitless endeavour. At the same time, QE could well lead to even more debt: by stimulating the economy through credit creation, it potentially blows more air into the bubbles caused by the most recent crisis. A massive buy-up of bonds and shares will in the end also cause asset-price rises, with the benefits going mainly to larger, wealthier investors.

Helicopter money

This all means that success is far from guaranteed: the approach is fraught with risks and has damaging implications for equality. QE thus does not appear to be the best way forward for Europe. This is why there are economists who propagate a more efficient alternative, the so-called “helicopter money” approach. For as long as the economy fails to recover, newly printed money is simply distributed directly to the general population, as if it were dropped from a helicopter. Research shows that the money would be spent pretty much straight after it’s received, which would restore confidence to invest among businesses. It would also restore business confidence to take on new employees, who in turn respond by consuming more. And so the result becomes a virtuous circle.

But there are drawbacks. Sharing out helicopter money is a temporary measure that can only be adopted in exceptional circumstances. If at some point it transpires that the ECB has gone too far and created a threat of runaway inflation, it is very difficult to remove the newly created money from the economy. This is why there is a clear need for a structural and flexible policy measure which the central bank is able to use to kick-start the economy as and when it is necessary.

A variation on the helicopter theme, a monetary basic income, provides a way forward. Under this scenario, the ECB would distribute an amount of money to each citizen on a monthly basis, calculated as a percentage of average income (the amount therefore varies between countries). Let’s assume for the sake of simplicity that the amount is 400 euros a month throughout the Eurozone. It’s important that the individual Eurozone countries remain responsible for raising the 400 euros – for example by reducing benefit payments or tax allowance levels – whereupon they pay it back to the ECB.

So far, this is a neutral measure that shuffles money around without creating a stimulus. This remains the case except in times of crisis when the central bank increases the monthly payment to, say, 600 euros, until the economy recovers. Meanwhile, each national authority keeps its repayment levels fixed at 400 euros. The ECB thereby ends up printing an additional 200 euros per person per month, and this money is relatively quickly spent. As the economy recovers and growth and inflation figures rise, the basic income can be returned to the neutral level of 400 euros. In cases where the ECB had been too generous, the basic income level could even be lowered temporarily to 300 euros until inflation stabilizes. This would essentially remove money from the economy.

Viewed as a monetary policy instrument for tackling crises, this type of basic income can hardly be considered an indulgence. But there is more to it than that. The approach also does what it says on the tin: it is a miniature version of exactly the sort of basic income which increasingly features in public debate. Supporters claim that a structural basic income would provide a way of dealing with automation, growing inequality as well as the stress and agitation of everyday life. It would also enable people to be more creative and entrepreneurial.

This last point is far from a certainty and in effect represents the biggest drawback of a basic income policy. How many people would actually invest in new skills? And what will happen to the labour supply? There do exist several economic models that simulate the effects of minor reforms but when it comes to the effects of a comprehensive reform such as basic income, we’re very much in the dark.

Income shock

As long as we can’t anticipate the consequences of introducing a basic income, making a case for it will remain difficult. And because the advantages will only really be felt when basic income is set at higher amounts, introducing it step by step is just as problematic.

Here our proposal for a limited monetary basic income offers yet another opportunity. To be sure, we don’t expect an amount that guarantees a dignified life to be introduced from the outset. But our proposal does allow economists to research the effects of a large income shock. When the central bank increases the monthly payment in times of crisis, this will generate a great deal of valuable evidence. As soon as the positive effects are ascertained, the neutral-level basic income can be increased step by step, eventually reaching the point of a fully-fledged basic income.

So we have stronger guarantees of success, less risk, and more equal opportunities to boot. That’s a better idea than quantitative easing for a start.

Willem Sas and Kevin Spiritus are completing their doctorates in public economics at the Center of Economic Studies at Belgian university KU Leuven.

Credit Picture CC Bobby Hidy