The game theory of #mintthecoin

By Felix Salmon
January 9, 2013

As Cardiff Garcia says, when it comes to #mintthecoin, “it’s important for advocates to define carefully what they’re actually calling for”. The basic matrix, as I see it, looks a bit like this:

Don’t mint the coin Mint the coin
Threaten to mint the coin Bluff Open Defiance
Don’t threaten to mint the coin Negotiate Last Resort

I’m in the bottom-left corner: Negotiate. That’s the job of the President of the United States: to negotiate with Congress, rather than to do tricksy, Constitutionally-dubious end-runs around it. Joe Weisenthal, to his credit, is also clear where he stands — he’s in the bottom-right corner. He doesn’t advocate using the threat of minting the coin as a negotiating tool; rather, he’s advocating that negotiations should happen as normal, and only in the very last resort, if all negotiations fail, should the coin be deposited at the Federal Reserve so as to avoid a catastrophic default.

One problem is that it’s very hard to keep the existence of the coin secret, especially if the executive-branch negotiators, who are going to be spending a lot of time with the representatives of House Republicans, know that they have it in their metaphorical back pocket. Basically, the existence of  a secret plan to mint a coin is functionally equivalent to a public threat to mint the coin, if the House Republicans find out about the secret plan. In that event, the Negotiate strategy becomes the Bluff strategy. And as Cardiff says, the Bluff strategy is really stupid:

For the Republicans, having Obama threaten to use the coin might be wonderful news because then they could force him to actually use it. By this reasoning, not only will the worst-case scenario of default be avoided, but they could then look forward to screaming “Dictator!” while accusing him of having used a legally questionable tactic (or at least of going against the intent of the law) and of running an end-around on the balance of powers (and actually they’d be right about this).

This argument would be ludicrously hypocritical, but unfortunately it would also play better publicly than the hypothetical White House defence. Which would probably sound something like this: “The Republicans backed me into a corner again, and despite my being the president who said that we should all put aside childish things, I ordered a shiny coin and called it a trillion dollars, which I’m allowed to do because of a poorly written amendment to a law that was undeniably meant for something else.” Not exactly a winning case.

The Open Defiance strategy — let’s just print the coin anyway, and thereby stop the House Republicans from using the threat of default as a negotiating tactic — looks pretty silly too, because you’re basically using a sledgehammer to crack what might ultimately be a pretty thin nut. At this point, it’s worth moving out of the econowonkosphere and into the even weirder world of Republican politics. Once we get there, we learn from the likes of Greg Sargent and Kim Strassel that the Republicans aren’t nearly as coherent on this issue as they were in 2011, and that, in Strassel’s words, there’s a good chance that “Round Two is already Mr. Obama’s”.

The grown-up Negotiate strategy, it turns out, actually has an incredibly high chance of success, while any other strategy risks creating massive political chaos. (I can easily, for example, see the Republican party refusing to support any nominee at all for key positions like Defense and Treasury and State, if Obama goes all scorched-earth with a Coin strategy.)

The Negotiate strategy is far from ideal, of course. Since the debt ceiling has been and will be reached many, many times, even something with a very high chance of success is statistically certain to fail eventually. So the obvious best-case scenario is to abolish the debt ceiling entirely, or, failing that, to raise it to, say, a few quadrillion dollars. But right now, when we’ve already reached the debt ceiling, is probably not the best time to try to negotiate such a thing. (In fact, any time there’s a Democrat in the White House is probably not the best time to try to negotiate such a thing.) For the time being, the executive branch should do what the executive branch has always done when the debt ceiling looms, which is to persuade Congress to raise it.

It’s worth adding a meta-media note here, too. The #mintthecoin meme has successfully migrated from the outer reaches of the econoblogosphere into a fair amount of mainstream media coverage, and as a result it has actually started to be taken seriously outside the Beltway. And even, in a few cases, inside the Beltway too. But be clear, this is absolutely a media-driven meme: people talking about it are not talking about an actual political proposal which an important number of serious DC politicians genuinely want to implement. As I say, it’s a Flying Spaghetti Monster thing — it’s a ticklish thought experiment, nothing more. Many media organizations are having a lot of fun with it, and that’s their right. But, especially in this case, it’s important not to mistake media coverage for reality.

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