Krugman backs minting a $1trn platinum coin

The real funny story's the debt ceiling.

Paul Krugman, Nobel Laureate and New York Times columnist/blogger, has written that President Obama should be willing to mint a $1trn platinum coin in order to avoid having to compromise over the debt ceiling.

Krugman blogs:

He will, after all, be faced with a choice between two alternatives: one that’s silly but benign, the other that’s equally silly but both vile and disastrous. The decision should be obvious…

It’s easy to make sententious remarks to the effect that we shouldn’t look for gimmicks, we should sit down like serious people and deal with our problems realistically. That may sound reasonable — if you’ve been living in a cave for the past four years. Given the realities of our political situation, and in particular the mixture of ruthlessness and craziness that now characterizes House Republicans, it’s just ridiculous — far more ridiculous than the notion of the coin.

Krugman is… half right. As Felix Salmon notes, it's no surprise that the people most in favour of the platinum coin option are largely economists. From an economic point of view, there really is no reason not to do it. Less informed commentators use basic knowledge of economic theory to warn that minting the coin is "printing money" which will lead to "massive inflation"; but since using the legal quirk to prevent a government shutdown wouldn't lead to an increase in the money supply, those fears are unfounded.

Instead, the problem is the political one. Salmon sums it up:

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.

There are still some economic problems with the idea, which Salmon touches on. The chief ones are to do with the sheer uncertainty of minting the coin. Everyone thinks it is probably legal – but until and unless the Supreme Court affirms that, nobody can be certain it is. Which means that for an indeterminate period, the US economy would be like Schrödinger's Cat, in a superposition between default and creditworthiness. That's not desirable for anyone.

The real reason to carry on talking about minting the coin isn't, as Krugman argues, because it might mean that Obama actually mints it. But nor is it, as Salmon argues, because it might scare the Republicans into backing down. It is, instead, to come up with something Obama can "concede" on without actually having to concede on anything at all. Obama offers to change the law to ban minting the coin, in exchange for also changing the law to end the debt ceiling. It's the argument made by *Bloomberg*'s Josh Barro.

And make no mistake, the debt ceiling is ridiculous. Quite beyond its pernicious effects – it would prove beyond doubt that the American political system is broken, would almost certainly lead to the US defaulting on its international debt payments, and would definitely lead to crippling immediate defaults on *national* debt payments like tax refunds and federal salaries – it is a legal limit which makes no sense, politically or economically. The debt ceiling is a limit, set by congress, on how much the executive branch can borrow. But the executive branch's spending is also set by congress: when it authorises a bill, the president is not allowed to spend a penny over the amount specified, nor a penny under.

The debt ceiling could only ever have one of two effects: either it does nothing, because it is higher than the amount congress has ordered the executive branch to borrow; or it forces the President to break the law, either by ignoring the debt ceiling or by ignoring all of the other bills passed by congress instructing him to spend.

And we're laughing about the platinum coin?

A US platinum coin. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

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
Show Hide image

Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.