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.

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era