The only thing we have to fear is fear of the trillion-dollar coin itself.
It is the single most important comment in the history of Internet comments. Probably.
Back in the summer of 2011, as House Republicans threatened to force us to default on our obligations, a commenter on Cullen Roche's blog, Pragmatic Capitalism, suggested an inventive way around the debt ceiling: a trillion-dollar coin.
Ah, the debt ceiling. It's the ludicrous credit limit Congress has given itself, which could force us into default. Here's why it makes no sense. Imagine you were a high-earner living beyond your means, and your credit card company came to you offering to pay you to expand your line of credit -- but you said no! You've made a resolution not to increase your total debt anymore, no matter how attractive the offer. That's a fine resolution, but, remember, you're still living beyond your means. Uh-oh. You still have all your old bills to pay, but now you don't have the money to pay them all. Pretty soon, your credit card notices you're not paying all your bills, and jack up your interest rate. This is the worst personal-finance plan ever, and it's what House Republicans are saying they'll do to the economy by holding the debt limit hostage to their demand for deep spending cuts.
Enter the trillion-dollar coin. It sounds nuts. But there's a loophole that actually lets the Treasury create coins in whatever value it wants, even $1 trillion. It's all straightforward enough. The Treasury would create one of these coins, deposit it at the Federal Reserve, and use the new money in its account to pay our bills if the debt ceiling isn't increased. This has gone from being just another wacky idea in the world of internet comments to something that's getting taken seriously due, in large part, to the efforts of Joe Weisenthal of Business Insider and Josh Barro of Bloomberg View to promote it. (Which you can follow on Twitter at #MintTheCoin). Their logic is that as silly as the trillion-dollar coin sounds, the debt ceiling is far sillier -- and much more destructive.
As this terrifying report from the Bipartisan Policy Center shows, the consequences of going over the debt ceiling are unthinkable and unpredictable. At best, it will mean immediate 40 percent austerity; at worst, it will mean an outright default on our debt. Both are bad enough that a legal gimmick like the trillion dollar coin sounds sane in comparison, if it comes to that. At least that's what Representative Jerry Nadler, Paul Krugman, and, as of pixel time, over 6,000 other patriotic Americans think.
But maybe you're not convinced yet. Alright, here is EVERYTHING you need to know about the trillion-dollar coin, and why it might just be the crazy solution Washington deserves and needs.
What's this nonsense I've been hearing about a trillion-dollar coin? It's got to be some kind of elaborate --
Stop. It's no joke. At least no more than voluntarily defaulting on our obligations by refusing to lift the debt ceiling would be. It sounds like something out of the Simpsons, but thanks to a crazy technicality the Treasury really can create a trillion-dollar coin, which would let us keep paying our bills if the debt ceiling isn't raised. It's an absurd solution to an absurd problem, but a solution nonetheless. As they say, when in Washington....
No, I'm pretty sure this is from the Simpsons.
Almost. That was a $1 trillion bill, which Fidel Castro tricked out of Monty Burns, but this is real life, so it has to be a $1 trillion coin. A platinum coin, to be exact.
I'm almost afraid to ask, but why does it need to be a coin? And why platinum?
We don't make the loopholes. We just find them. The Treasury can't print money on its own, because the money supply is supposed to be the strict purview of the Federal Reserve ... but that might not be quite so strict after all, thanks to a coin-sized exception. Congress passed a law in 1997, later amended in 2000, that gives the Secretary of the Treasury the authority to mint platinum coins, and only platinum coins, in whatever denomination and quantity he or she wants. That could be $100, or $1,000, or ... $1 trillion.
Did Congress decide life wasn't imitating Bond films enough? What were they possibly thinking?
The idea was Treasury would only use this authority for collectible coins, while making a little money for the government in the process. But the law is vague. It only says the Treasury can mint platinum coins in any denomination it wants. So, to infinity and beyond!
Okay. So the Treasury can mint a trillion-dollar coin because of a law that lets it mint commemorative coins in whatever denomination it chooses, right? Doesn't this violate the spirit of the law?
Maybe. But remember, part of the point of creating these commemorative coins was to increase government revenue. As former Congressman and author of the original bill Mike Castle told Dylan Matthews of the Washington Post, the intent was to use the government's seigniorage power to very modestly reduce the deficit. Seigniorage is the delightfully literal concept of making money by making money. It's the difference between the cost of creating currency, and the value you assign to that currency -- in other words, the "profit" governments get from minting money. The trillion-dollar coin is seigniorage just like commemorative coins are seigniorage -- well, except that the trillion-dollar coin is a whole, whole lot more of it. Even if you don't find this terribly convincing, it doesn't really matter. The plain text of the law, not its intent, is what matters. And that means the trillion-dollar coin is almost certainly legal.
"Almost certainly legal" is good enough for me, but what if it isn't for everybody else? Would it survive a court challenge?
I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. Standing. It's far from clear anybody would have the legal standing to challenge the trillion-dollar coin in court. That would at least require a joint resolution of Congress, which isn't happening, or an investor who can show that not defaulting on our obligations caused them injury. Even if such an investor exists, say somebody who took credit default swaps (CDS) out on Treasury bonds, they'd be going up against a good bit of precedent. Call it FDR's revenge. When he took office in 1933, FDR faced the singular economic challenge of reversing the massive deflation of the previous four years. Falling wages and prices had increased real debt burdens, and set off a wave of mass bankruptcy. FDR turned this around when he devalued the dollar by taking us off the gold standard, but one problem remained: the gold clauses. These clauses gave creditors the option of getting back in either dollars or gold, with the latter being particularly appealing after its price soared almost 60 percent. But increasing inflation doesn't help debtors if their debts increase in equal measure, so Congress passed a joint resolution that voided all gold clauses in all contracts.
Bondholders were understandably upset about having to get paid back in cheaper dollars, sued, and lost. In a series of cases, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress could indeed nullify the gold clauses in private contracts under its power to regulate money, and that Treasury bondholders could not seek redress. As far as precedents go, this suggests the trillion dollar coin should be legal even if it changes the value of private contracts, like CDS, under the power to regulate money. And that's assuming CDS holders even have standing. They might not. As UCLA law professor Jonathan Zasloff explained to me, investors betting on a U.S. default are betting on something that's unconstitutional under the 14th amendment, and you probably can't base a contract off something that's illegal.
Okay, so this might be legal, but --
If you're still not convinced, just ask Representative Greg Walden, a Republican from Oregon, who's so convinced it's legal that he introduced a bill to close the platinum coin loophole.
FINE. It's legal. But there's still one thing I don't understand. Would we need to come up with $1 trillion worth of platinum to mint our $1 trillion platinum coin?
Repeat after me: seigniorage, seigniorage, seigniorage. Oh, and seigniorage. The entire point of the trillion-dollar coin is it gives us money to pay our bills if the debt ceiling isn't raised. But it won't give us any money if we spend an equal amount creating it. Basically, we want to take the smallest amount of platinum we can find and scribble "$1 trillion" on it. If you think this sounds nutty, ask yourself whether your $100 bill is made from $100 worth of cotton.
So why not just mint 16 of these $1 trillion coins and retire the entire national debt, smart guy? Or, even better, create a single $16 trillion coin -- scratch that, make it $100 trillion!
Now that's just crazy talk. Let me be clear: Nobody wants to use platinum coins to eliminate the debt. As Paul Krugman points out, there's a limit to how much seigniorage a government can extract before hyperinflation sets in, and that's certainly far less than $1 trillion, let alone $16 trillion. The trillion-dollar coin is just a technical fix to the technical problem of the debt ceiling. Remember, not lifting the debt ceiling doesn't prevent borrowing for new spending. It prevents borrowing for spending Congress has already appropriated. The Treasury can get around this by minting the trillion dollar coin, depositing it at the Fed, and paying the bills we've previously promised to pay -- and nothing more. It's about not defaulting on our debts, rather than paying them down.
Can we cut this short? I need to run out and buy some canned food and gold bars to prep for the coming hyperinflation. A trillion dollar coin is only two orders of magnitude away from us matching Zimbabwe for monetary ignominy.
Take a deep breath before you do something rash, like buying overpriced gold coins from Glenn Beck's buddies. As Joe Weisenthal of Business Insider points out, the biggest fallacy about the trillion-dollar coin is that it will be massively inflationary. It won't be. If the government quickly spent $1 trillion, that might be inflationary. But the coin wouldn't pay for new spending. It would pay for old spending -- spending already authorized by Congress that we can't pay for because of a ridiculous self-imposed limit on government borrowing, the debt ceiling. The total amount of spending in the economy would stay the same.
Now, inflation might go up in the long-term if the Fed doesn't intervene. That's because the composition of spending will have changed -- more currency, less borrowing -- even though the amount has not. If the monetary base stays permanently larger, inflation should eventually increase -- which is why the Fed will intervene. It has its inflation target, and it cares very much about hitting it. The Fed can do this if it "sterilizes" the trillion-dollar coin by selling bond in an equal amount, vacuuming up just as much money as the trillion dollar coin injects. Inflation, whipped.
Let me see if I've got this right. The Treasury mints money and pays for stuff with it, and the Fed sells bonds to offset this new money? This sounds kind of like ...
Monetary policy! It's just a particularly convoluted way of doing sterilized quantitative easing (QE). Okay, let's translate this into English. QE is plenty misunderstood, but it's actually simple enough. It's about printing money and buying stuff. More specifically, the Fed prints money and uses it to buy bonds from banks, which increases the reserves banks hold. In sterilized QE, the Fed uses operations like reverse repos -- don't worry, it's not important -- to prevent these new bank reserves from getting lent out. Putting it all together, the Fed 1) prints money, 2) buys stuff, and 3) sucks out as much money as it prints. This should sound familiar. It's exactly how the trillion-dollar coin would work, with the Treasury just replacing the Fed in the first two steps. To simplify a bit, the Treasury would 1) mint the trillion dollar coin, 2) use it to pay for already approved obligations, and 3) have the Fed would suck out as much money as the Treasury mints. It's sterilized QE through the platinum looking-glass.
It seems like a really bad idea to let the executive usurp control of monetary policy from the Fed. Isn't this a frightful precedent?
Yes and no. The consequences could be terrible if trillion-dollar coins become a regular part of policymaking, but monetary-policy-by-executive isn't exactly unprecedented. As former Treasury official and Western Kentucky professor David Beckworth points out, FDR grabbed the reins of monetary policy when he took the U.S. off the gold standard in 1933 and announced he wanted prices to return to their pre-Depression level. Obama could theoretically use platinum coins to do the same, perhaps targeting nominal GDP instead. But the danger, as Ryan Avent of The Economist points out, is if this extraordinary measure became ordinary, or if markets merely feared it might. Treasury bonds might lose some of their safe haven luster and send interest rates up if investors began to anticipate a new normal of higher inflation due to period coin seigniorage.
Hmmm. I'm feeling generous, so I'll concede two points. First, the trillion dollar coin is legal, and second, the economics of it make sense. But that doesn't mean it wouldn't be a political trainwreck.
Indeed. Cardiff Garcia of FT Alphaville makes the rather persuasive case that Democrats shouldn't use the trillion dollar coin as a negotiating tactic to increase their leverage in the debt ceiling talks, since House Republicans would welcome Obama embracing such a ludicrous-sounding ploy -- making a debt ceiling breach more likely. But it does make sense as a form of insurance against the economic carnage a protracted debt ceiling breach would entail.
Okay, serious question time. What if somebody stole the trillion dollar coin?
Good luck getting change for it. Or finding a bank that will accept it as a deposit. It would only turn out to be worth the platinum it was minted on -- which, hopefully, should not be very much.
Even more serious question time. Who should we put on the trillion dollar coin?
There are lots of good options here. Paul Krugman has suggested John Boehner, which has a certain poetic justice to it, but Ron Paul or a banana are good options too.
Last question. You don't seriously think this is a good idea, do you? If ever there was something that tells the world we're a banana republic, it's --
Choosing to default on our obligations. There is nothing crazier than that. If it it's a choice between defaulting on our obligations, and minting a trillion-dollar coin, I say mint the coin. In an ideal world, Obama would end the platinum coin loophole in return for the House GOP forever ending the debt ceiling, as Josh Barro proposed, but I'll settle for anything that involves us paying our bills as we promised.
The only thing we have to fear is fear of the trillion-dollar coin itself.
It happened gradually—and until the U.S. figures out how to treat the problem, it will only get worse.
It’s 2020, four years from now. The campaign is under way to succeed the president, who is retiring after a single wretched term. Voters are angrier than ever—at politicians, at compromisers, at the establishment. Congress and the White House seem incapable of working together on anything, even when their interests align. With lawmaking at a standstill, the president’s use of executive orders and regulatory discretion has reached a level that Congress views as dictatorial—not that Congress can do anything about it, except file lawsuits that the divided Supreme Court, its three vacancies unfilled, has been unable to resolve.
On Capitol Hill, Speaker Paul Ryan resigned after proving unable to pass a budget, or much else. The House burned through two more speakers and one “acting” speaker, a job invented following four speakerless months. The Senate, meanwhile, is tied in knots by wannabe presidents and aspiring talk-show hosts, who use the chamber as a social-media platform to build their brands by obstructing—well, everything. The Defense Department is among hundreds of agencies that have not been reauthorized, the government has shut down three times, and, yes, it finally happened: The United States briefly defaulted on the national debt, precipitating a market collapse and an economic downturn. No one wanted that outcome, but no one was able to prevent it.
In the early 19th century, a series of massive quakes rocked Missouri. Some experts predict that the state could be in for another round of violent shaking, while others warn that a big quake could strike elsewhere in the center of the continent.
As I drove across the I-40 bridge into Memphis, I was reassured: chances were slim that a massive earthquake would wrest the road from its supports, and plunge me more than a hundred feet into the murky Mississippi. Thanks to a recently completed $260 million seismic retrofit, the bridge—a chokepoint for traffic in the central U.S.—is now fortified. It’s also decked out with strong-motion accelerometers and bookended by borehole seismometers to record convulsions in the earth.
The bridge passes a glass colossus, the Memphis Pyramid. Originally built as a nod to the city’s Old Kingdom namesake, the pyramid now enshrines a Bass Pro Shops megastore. The city recently spent $25 million to prevent the pyramid from being swallowed, perhaps by Geb, the ancient Egyptian god of earthquakes. Further downtown, AutoZone’s corporate headquarters also stands ready for a tectonic throttling, propped up as it is on top of giant shock absorbers, while, the nearby Memphis VA is similarly inured to temblors after the city spent $64 million dollars removing nine floors of the hospital to reduce the risk of collapse in a catastrophic earthquake.
How the Brexit vote activated some of the most politically destabilizing forces threatening the U.K.
Among the uncertainties unleashed by the Brexit referendum, which early Friday morning heralded the United Kingdom’s coming breakup with the European Union, was what happens to the “union” of the United Kingdom itself. Ahead of the vote, marquee campaign themes included, on the “leave” side, the question of the U.K.’s sovereignty within the European Union—specifically its ability to control migration—and, on the “remain” side, the economic benefits of belonging to the world’s largest trading bloc, as well as the potentially catastrophic consequences of withdrawing from it. Many of the key arguments on either side concerned the contours of the U.K.-EU relationship, and quite sensibly so. “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” was, after all, the precise question people were voting on.
Patrick Griffin, his chief congressional affairs lobbyist, recalls the lead up to the bill’s passage in 1994—and the steep political price that followed.
For those who question whether anything will ever be done to curb the use of military grade weaponry for mass shootings in the United States, history provides some good news—and some bad. The good news is that there is, within the recent past, an example of a president—namely Bill Clinton—who successfully wielded the powers of the White House to institute a partial ban of assault weapons from the nation’s streets. The bad news, however, is that Clinton’s victory proved to be so costly to him and to his party that it stands as an enduring cautionary tale in Washington about the political dangers of taking on the issue of gun control.
In 1994, Clinton signed into law the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, placing restrictions on the number of military features a gun could have and banning large capacity magazines for consumer use. Given the potent dynamics of Second Amendment politics, it was a signal accomplishment. Yet the story behind the ban has been largely forgotten since it expired in 2004 and, in part, because the provision was embedded in the larger crime bill.
The June 23 vote represents a huge popular rebellion against a future in which British people feel increasingly crowded within—and even crowded out of—their own country.
I said goodnight to a gloomy party of Leave-minded Londoners a few minutes after midnight. The paper ballots were still being counted by hand. Only the British overseas territory of Gibraltar had reported final results. Yet the assumption of a Remain victory filled the room—and depressed my hosts. One important journalist had received a detailed briefing earlier that evening of the results of the government’s exit polling: 57 percent for Remain.
The polling industry will be one victim of the Brexit vote. A few days before the vote, I met with a pollster who had departed from the cheap and dirty methods of his peers to perform a much more costly survey for a major financial firm. His results showed a comfortable margin for Remain. Ten days later, anyone who heeded his expensive advice suffered the biggest percentage losses since the 2008 financial crisis.
American society increasingly mistakes intelligence for human worth.
As recently as the 1950s, possessing only middling intelligence was not likely to severely limit your life’s trajectory. IQ wasn’t a big factor in whom you married, where you lived, or what others thought of you. The qualifications for a good job, whether on an assembly line or behind a desk, mostly revolved around integrity, work ethic, and a knack for getting along—bosses didn’t routinely expect college degrees, much less ask to see SAT scores. As one account of the era put it, hiring decisions were “based on a candidate having a critical skill or two and on soft factors such as eagerness, appearance, family background, and physical characteristics.”
The 2010s, in contrast, are a terrible time to not be brainy. Those who consider themselves bright openly mock others for being less so. Even in this age of rampant concern over microaggressions and victimization, we maintain open season on the nonsmart. People who’d swerve off a cliff rather than use a pejorative for race, religion, physical appearance, or disability are all too happy to drop the s‑bomb: Indeed, degrading others for being “stupid” has become nearly automatic in all forms of disagreement.
The U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union betrays a failure of empathy and imagination among its leaders. Will America’s political establishment fare any better?
If there is a regnant consensus among the men and women who steer the Western world, it is this: The globe is flattening. Borders are crumbling. Identities are fluid. Commerce and communications form the warp and woof, weaving nations into the tight fabric of a global economy. People are free to pursue opportunity, enriching their new homes culturally and economically. There may be painful dislocations along the way, but the benefits of globalization heavily outweigh its costs. And those who cannot see this, those who would resist it, those who would undo it—they are ignorant of their own interests, bigoted, xenophobic, and backward.
So entrenched is this consensus that, for decades, in most Western democracies, few mainstream political parties have thought to challenge it. They have left it to the politicians on the margins of the left and the right to give voice to such sentiments—and voicing such sentiments relegated politicians to the margins of political life.
A hotly contested, supposedly ancient manuscript suggests Christ was married. But believing its origin story—a real-life Da Vinci Code, involving a Harvard professor, a onetime Florida pornographer, and an escape from East Germany—requires a big leap of faith.
On a humid afternoon this past November, I pulled off Interstate 75 into a stretch of Florida pine forest tangled with runaway vines. My GPS was homing in on the house of a man I thought might hold the master key to one of the strangest scholarly mysteries in recent decades: a 1,300-year-old scrap of papyrus that bore the phrase “Jesus said to them, My wife.” The fragment, written in the ancient language of Coptic, had set off shock waves when an eminent Harvard historian of early Christianity, Karen L. King, presented it in September 2012 at a conference in Rome.
Never before had an ancient manuscript alluded to Jesus’s being married. The papyrus’s lines were incomplete, but they seemed to describe a dialogue between Jesus and the apostles over whether his “wife”—possibly Mary Magdalene—was “worthy” of discipleship. Its main point, King argued, was that “women who are wives and mothers can be Jesus’s disciples.” She thought the passage likely figured into ancient debates over whether “marriage or celibacy [was] the ideal mode of Christian life” and, ultimately, whether a person could be both sexual and holy.
Should the United Kingdom referendum serve as a warning not to underestimate Donald Trump?
The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union has set off shockwaves across the globe—and rightfully so. Betting markets, pollsters, andpundits suggested the Brits would uphold the status quo. It didn’t take long before Americans started wondering what a failure to predict the Brexit could mean for the United States in a year where Donald Trump, the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential nominee, has outperformed expectations.
There are certainly parallels to be drawn. A similar demographic profile unites many of the people who voted for Britain to leave the EU and voters who have stood by Trump. “Brexit supporters mirror Trump voters,” Reuters reported, “in that they tend to be older, white, less affluent, and less likely to live in urban areas.” So should the referendum results serve as a warning to Americans not to underestimate the potential of a Trump presidency?
Thoughts on the first episode of ESPN’s five-part documentary
Every fall Sunday, when I was a kid, half an hour before the pre-game shows and an hour before the games themselves, I would tune into the latest offering from NFL Films. This was the pre-pre-game show—an assembly of short films derived from the massive archive of professional football. Steve Sabol, whose father founded NFL Films, would preside. He’d offer and then throw it to Jon Facenda or Jefferson Kaye, who would narrate the career highlights of players likeGale Sayers, Earl Campbell, or Dick “Night Train” Lane.
“Highlights” understates what NFL films was actually doing. The shorts were drawn from some the most beautifully shot footage in all of sports. It wasn’t unheard of for NFL Films to go high concept—this piece on football and ballet, with cameos from Allen Ginsberg and George Will, may be the definitive example. Great football plays would be injected not with the normal hurrahs, but with poetry. When Facenda, for instance, wanted to introduce a spectacular touchdown run by Marcus Allen, he did so in the omniscient third person: “On came Marcus Allen—running with the night.”