Fixing the debt ceiling with a trillion dollar platinum coin

Make a silly demand, get a silly concession.

It's always interesting seeing an idea whose time has come, and today's seems to be the "platinum coin option" for the US.

America will, in two months, hit the debt ceiling. Again. The federal government will be denied, by law, the money it has been ordered to spend, by law. The three options facing it, in conventional wisdom, are a total government shut-down, a default on its loans, or the raising of the ceiling.

Since the first two are, frankly, unthinkable, the last is the only thing the administration can do. The Republicans know this, and are prepared to leverage their image as an unhinged party which would metaphorically kill the hostages to gain policy concessions.

But there is actually a fourth option. It's leveraging a quirk in the laws of the nation, but it is, by any reading of those laws, entirely legal. United States law says:

31 USC § 5112 (k) The Secretary [of the Treasury] may mint and issue platinum bullion coins and proof platinum coins in accordance with such specifications, designs, varieties, quantities, denominations, and inscriptions as the Secretary, in the Secretary’s discretion, may prescribe from time to time.

That is: at any time, the Treasury Secretary – Tim Geithner – can mint platinum coins in any denomination.

The other important aspect is how government spending is actually accounted for. The Treasury has a "bank account" at the Federal Reserve. When it pays someone, it's the Fed which hands the money over. When it needs money to put in that bank, it sells bonds at auction.

The debt ceiling is, in that simple version of the story, basically a ban on the Treasury selling any more bonds. As a result, it's bank account will run dry, and all hell will break loose.

But if Geithner mints a trillion dollar platinum coin, he can just waltz over to the Fed, deposit that, and the government's ability to spend is restored.

The plan sounds too good to be true, but it's really not. Joe Weisenthal has a bumper post debunking the biggest myths about it, but the trick to understanding it is to think of it as a legal, not monetary, trick. In terms of the real economy – outside of strange intragovernmental transfers designed to get around bizarre anachronistic limits – nothing has changed. The state is still taking money in through borrowing and taxing, and still putting money out through spending. It's just some of the borrowing is transferred from the Treasury, which does it under the authority it has to raise the national debt, to the Federal Reserve, which does it under the authority it has to borrow against assets it holds. Like, for instance, a trillion dollar coin.

This plan has been knocking around for years, now. It was first suggested during the last showdown, in 2011, by Pragmatic Capitalist's Cullen Roche. Weisenthal jumped on board, and then slowly so did others.

But in the last couple of days, there has been a White House petition calling for the President to do it, discussions in Congress, Paul Krugman mulling over the idea and a Huffington Post front page on it.

But the best argument has been Josh Barro's in Bloomberg. Barrow takes the legal quirks of the situation, and applies them to a political analysis. After all, although the President has the power to do it, doesn't mean it wouldn't be extremely politically damaging to actually go ahead with it. Barro's solution:

Hitting the debt ceiling isn't an option. It's no way to run the country, and Republicans know that. So, a debt-ceiling increase shouldn't count as a "concession," and it's nutty for Obama to have to give substantive policy ground to get one.

Monetizing deficits through direct presidential control of the currency, in lieu of borrowing, is also no way to run a country. It's silly, and it's perfectly legal. Agreeing not to do so is therefore the ideal "concession" for Obama to offer in return for Republicans agreeing to end the threat of a debt-default crisis.

Make a silly demand, get a silly concession. Perfect!

A non-platinum, single dollar coin. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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