Why we won’t mint a platinum coin

By Felix Salmon
January 7, 2013
mint a trillion-dollar platinum coin.

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Let’s be clear about this: no one’s going to mint a trillion-dollar platinum coin. Nor is anybody going to mint a million million-dollar platinum coins. But it would probably be stupid for anybody in the government to say that they’re not going to do it.

The trillion-dollar coin is the fiscal equivalent of the Flying Spaghetti Monster: a logical reductio ad absurdum designed to emphasize the silliness of an opposing position. For instance, if you don’t believe that churches should be tax-exempt, then you just claim that your entire family are Pastafarian priests, and that therefore all your investment income should be tax-exempt. Or rather you claim that you could claim that, but doing so would obviously be absurd; the logical implication is that failing to tax the investment income of, say, the Catholic church is equally absurd.

In this case, the absurdity to be pointed out is the debt ceiling. Everybody who’s ever been in charge of any country’s finances knows that the concept of a debt ceiling is profoundly stupid, self-defeating, and generally idiotic. And we discovered in 2011 that it can do very real harm. Back then, I hated the idea of the platinum coin:

Tools like the 14th Amendment or even crazier loopholes like coin seignorage would be signs of the utter failure of the US political system and civil society. And that alone could mean the loss of America’s status as a safe haven and a reserve currency. The present value of such a loss? Much bigger than $2 trillion.

This is the real problem with the main argument for minting a coin, which is that “yes, it’s a stupid gimmick, but so is the debt ceiling, and the debt ceiling is a lot more harmful than a coin would be”. That’s true, but it’s important to recognize just how damaging the platinum-coin move would be, all the same. It would effectively mark the demise of the three-branch system of government, by allowing the executive branch to simply steamroller the rights and privileges of the legislative branch. Yes, the legislature is behaving like a bunch of utter morons if they think that driving the US government into default is a good idea. But it’s their right to behave like a bunch of utter morons. If the executive branch failed to respect that right, it would effectively be defying the exact same authority by which the president himself governs. The result would be a governance crisis which would make the last debt-ceiling fiasco look positively benign in comparison.

There’s a reason why the proponents of the platinum-coin approach are generally economists, or at least economically-minded. The idea makes gloriously elegant economic sense, and attempts to shoot it down on economic grounds generally fail miserably. You can try a legal tack instead, but that doesn’t work much better: the coin is as logically robust as it is Constitutionally stupid.

No one in the executive branch has any real desire to mint a trillion-dollar coin — you can be sure of that. But the coin-minting advocates are OK with that: they just want to use the threat of the coin to persuade Congress that it should just go ahead and allow Treasury to pay for all the spending that Congress has, after all, already mandated. As a result, while no one intends to actually mint a coin, any statement to that effect would constitute unilateral disarmament in the war between the executive and the legislature.

But there are two problems with this approach. The first is that it’s a version of Hank Paulson’s famous dictum that “if you have a bazooka in your pocket and people know it, you probably won’t have to use it”. That wasn’t true for Paulson, and in general it’s not true of bazookas. In politics as in the markets, if you have a bazooka in your pocket, you’re likely to be backed into a position where you’re forced to use it, sooner rather than later.

The second problem is that what we’re talking about here has a kind of Cold War mutually-assured-destruction mentality: “don’t you dare try to force a debt default, because if you do, I’ll come out and render you entirely irrelevant with my platinum coin”. The nihilistic logic of the Cold War was brutal and scary at the time; but at least it was played by people who respected each others’ intellectual prowess. In this case, we’re basically talking about Barack Obama trying to bluff the House Republicans. And as any poker player knows, when you’re up against a very stupid opponent, you should never try to bluff.

The solution to the fiscal cliff crisis was to let the House Republicans overstretch, self-destruct, and render themselves powerless: that’s how to best deal with such people. There’s exactly zero chance that the House Republicans, faced with the Coin Threat, will suddenly turn logical and decide that they’re not going to play political games around the debt ceiling after all. Rather, the Coin Threat is a political game, played by the other side: it’s the executive branch bringing itself down to the House Republicans’ level.

If you believe that the country is best run by grown-ups, you can’t believe in #mintthecoin, because it simply isn’t a grown-up strategy. If you believe that the House Republicans behave in crazy and illogical ways, then you can’t believe in #mintthecoin, because the threat of minting the coin doesn’t work against someone who’s crazy and illogical. And if you believe that the best way to approach the debt ceiling is to try and abolish it altogether, then you can’t believe in #mintthecoin, because the entire strategy is based on the idea of keeping the ceiling where it is, and then trying to circumvent it.

So while #mintthecoin is an amusing intellectual exercise, no serious executive-branch politician should or will embrace it. Not unless he wanted to torpedo the international credibility of the United States just for the sake of some short-term political one-upmanship.

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