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.

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.