The platinum coin is killed as America careens toward default

The platinum coin is dead, long live the debt ceiling.

On Saturday evening, the Washington Post's Ezra Klein dropped a bombshell: The platinum coin gambit – the plan to circumvent the American debt ceiling by minting a trillion-dollar coin and depositing it in the Federal Reserve – is dead. Klein writes:

That’s the bottom line of the statement that Anthony Coley, a spokesman for the Treasury Department, gave me today. “Neither the Treasury Department nor the Federal Reserve believes that the law can or should be used to facilitate the production of platinum coins for the purpose of avoiding an increase in the debt limit,” he said.

The Treasury's take on the law is one thing; but the Federal Reserve, as a quasi-independent body, is really what's put the kibosh on the whole plan. If it doesn't believe that using a platinum coin to circumvent the debt limit would be legal, that's it. The lynchpin of the plan was that the Treasury, after using powers granted to it through a loophole in a law intended to let it mint commemorative coins for collectors, would be able to deposit the coin in its account in the Fed. If the Fed won't take it, the plan's bust.

Joe Weisenthal, the most consistent advocate of the platinum coin, points out that it's hard to work out what point of law the Fed was actually trying to apply here:

It seems odd that the Fed would decide that there's some legal tender that it will recognize, and some legal tender that it wouldn't recognize.

Paul Krugman, who became a high-profile advocate of minting the coin last week, asks what the administration's plan is now, but also somewhat unfairly places the blame on Obama. Given the White House's comment to Buzzfeed focuses on the Fed, it seems like they weren't exactly behind the move to pre-emptively remove the bargaining chip from the table.

Regardless, the administration's position now is clear. The debt ceiling must be lifted, and they will offer no "concessions" to do so. With the platinum coin out of the equation – and with the so-called "constitutional option", where the President cites the 14th amendment's command that the validity of the public debt "shall not be questioned" and ignores the debt ceiling, ruled out by the White House last month – the Republicans can be under no illusions that if they fail to concede, America will definitely have a messy government shutdown, and will likely enter technical default on its public debt. The only question that they have to answer is whether they have an ounce of rationality left, or if they'll take the whole system down, themselves included.

Past experience suggests that the latter is worryingly possible. For one thing, conservative economists like John Cochrane have been minimising the effect of hitting the ceiling. Cochrane casts doubt on possibility of default by rightly pointing out that the Treasury has enough income to make debt repayments even if the ceiling is hit. But by ignoring the practical aspects of hitting the ceiling, he bypasses an important point. The treasury pays its bills with a vastly complex, automated system. It is not clear it has the technology to "prioritise" debt repayments, nor is it clear that to do so would be legal.

And even worse, those GOP members who do understand the likelihood of a default aren't too concerned. Politico's Jim Vandehei, Mike Allen and Jake Sherman write:

GOP officials said more than half of their members are prepared to allow default unless Obama agrees to dramatic cuts he has repeatedly said he opposes…

“For too long, the pitch was, we’ll deal with it next time,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a conservative from Utah. He said GOP lawmakers are prepared to shut things down or even default if Obama doesn’t bend on spending. “No one wants to default, but we are not going to continue to give the president a limitless credit card.”

If the US did default on its debt – even just by paying a coupon a day late – the international knock-on effects would be massive, and unprecedented. Now that every option for preventing that has been taken off the table save for negotiating with the most radical congress ever, the financial community may start to take note.

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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Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity