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 Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR