Here's why Ben Bernanke killed the platinum coin, and what it means for the debt-ceiling showdown
The coin will not be minted.
At least, not in anything remotely close to 13-digit denominations. As Ezra Klein of the Washington Post reports, the Treasury and Federal Reserve have ruled out creating a trillion-dollar coin, which was a real possibility thanks to a crazy loophole, to stop us from defaulting on our obligations if the debt ceiling isn't raised. It's Congress or bust, when it comes to paying our bills on time.
This was probably the least surprising development in the history of developments. It wasn't just that the trillion-dollar coin would have been a political liability because it sounds silly -- that was the best, and only, argument against it -- but rather that it required the Fed to give up its sole control of monetary policy. The Fed would not do that. Now, the Treasury minting trillion-dollar coins sure sounds different from the Fed buying bonds, but it's not. It's just sterilized quantitative easing (QE), albeit with a platinum tint. Or, in English, it's printing money, buying stuff, and preventing this new money from increasing inflation. The Fed does this when it 1) electronically "prints" money, 2) buys bonds from banks with this new money, and 3) ties up these new bank reserves with operations like reverse repos. The Treasury does the same when it 1) mints the trillion-dollar coin, 2) uses it to pay for the government's existing obligations, and 3) the Fed sells bonds in equal measure to suck the money out.
You might wonder why the Fed would play along if the Treasury turned to coin seigniorage. Answer: the Fed has its inflation target, and it cares very much about hitting it. The Fed would be compelled to counter the Treasury's coin-minting, although, as as Greg Ip of The Economist points out, the Fed might not need to do so for quite awhile, and could resort to raising interest rates on interbank lending and reserves instead of selling long-term bonds. In either case, the Treasury would be dragging the Fed into QE it didn't want, and, as University of Oregon professor Tim Duy put it, effectively blurring the line between fiscal and monetary policy. Fed independence would be a thing of the past ... unless it killed the coin first. Which, of course, it did, as Zeke Miller of Buzzfeed reports. The platinum coin gambit depended on the Fed accepting it as legal currency for the Treasury's account, and the Fed said it would not. RIP, trillion-dollar coin.
Now, the trillion-dollar coin may be dead, but the debt ceiling is not. President Obama continues to insist he will not negotiate over it, but the administration has said it won't use either of the most likely work-arounds -- the 14th amendment or the platinum coin -- if it comes to that. That leaves the president with (at least) four more outlandish-ish options if House Republicans refuse to pay the bills they authorized, and one actual option. Here they are, from least likely to most likely.
-- The Treasury could repo Mount Rushmore to the Fed. As Karl Smith of Modeled Behavior argues, the Treasury could theoretically sell anything valuable enough, like offshore oil rights, to the Fed, and agree to buy it back later. This kind of repurchase (repo) agreement would give the Treasury cash flow if it's running so low that it can't pay the interest on our debt, but there are two big problems. First, repo agreements are not, economically-speaking, sales, but rather loans, so it would almost certainly violate the debt ceiling. And second, there's no way the Fed would do this. So there's that.
-- The Fed could send some of its bonds back to the Treasury as dividends. Printing money is a pretty good way to make money, never more so than the past few years. The Fed remits most of its profits -- $89 billion in 2012 -- to the Treasury, which kind of makes the Treasury its sole shareholder. As @IvanTheK first suggested, the Fed could advance some of these profits to the Treasury as a dividend if there wasn't enough incoming revenue to pay the interest on the debt on any given day during a debt ceiling standoff. It's an elegant solution, but, again, not one the Fed is likely to go for.
-- Use IOUs to pay our bills. If we don't hit the debt ceiling, we will immediately have to stop paying 40 percent of our bills ... unless we pay the rest with IOUs. Paul Krugman proposed something along these lines, and law professor Edward Kleinbard points out that California successfully used them during its own budget crisis in 2009. Back then, California paid people with IOUs yielding 3.75 percent that people could trade to banks for cash at a slight haircut. In other words, the banks made money off the trades. The federal government could do the same, but there are a few legal hurdles. If the IOUs pay any interest, it's hard to see how they're not debt; but if they don't pay any interest, it's hard to see how they're not money. Either would be illegal. Maybe everybody would be happy enough with this arrangement not to challenge it, like in California, but maybe not -- not to mention the awful optics of "Obama dollars".
-- Refuse to negotiate, and blame the Republicans for any economic damage. Welcome to everybody's favorite game, debt ceiling chicken! Here's how it works. Obama says there's nothing he can do to lift the debt ceiling on his own; that's it up to Republicans to pay the country's bills; and that if they don't, they will get blamed for Social Security checks not going out. It's the strategy former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin used back in the mid-90s when then-Speaker Newt Gingrich threatened to hold the debt ceiling hostage, and it's the strategy Obama seems to be using now. As Ezra Klein points out, Obama has deliberately ruled out all of these different debt ceiling end-arounds, because he doesn't want Republicans to think they have any alternative to increasing it themselves. Now, maybe half of them really do welcome default, as Politico reports, but maybe not. That's a terrifying bunch of "maybes", but it's where we are today.
In other words, Obama is happy not to mint the coin, because he thinks minting it reduces his leverage. Now it's a psychological game of chicken, with Obama and Republicans accelerating toward the other, each convinced they cannot swerve, and when they meet in the middle, they'll set off the mother of all global market crashes.
Passengers on a domestic flight deplaning in New York were asked to present ID by Customs and Border Protection agents—a likely unenforceable demand that nevertheless diminishes freedom.
American citizens had their introduction to the Trump-era immigration machine Wednesday, when Customs and Border Protection agents met an airliner that had just landed at New York’s JFK airport after a flight from San Francisco. According to passenger accounts, a flight attendant announced that all passengers would have to show their “documents” as they deplaned, and they did. The reason for the search, Homeland Security officials said, was to assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement in a search for a specific immigrant who had received a deportation order after multiple criminal convictions. The target was not on the flight.
After days of research, I can find no legal authority for ICE or CBP to require passengers to show identification on an entirely domestic fight. The ICE authorizing statute, 8 U.S.C. § 1357, provides that agents can conduct warrantless searches of “any person seeking admission to the United States”—if, that is, the officer has “reasonable cause to suspect” that the individual searched may be deportable. CBP’s statute, 19 U.S.C. § 1467, grants search authority “whenever a vessel from a foreign port or place or from a port or place in any Territory or possession of the United States arrives at a port or place in the United States.” CBP regulations, set out at 19 C.F.R. § 162.6, allow agents to search “persons, baggage, and merchandise arriving in the Customs territory of the United States from places outside thereof.”
The president has long toyed with the media, but the stakes are much higher now.
American presidents have often clashed with the press. But for a long time, the chief executive had little choice but to interact with journalists anyway.
This was as much a logistical matter as it was a begrudging commitment to the underpinnings of Democracy: News organizations were the nation’s watchdogs, yes, but also stewards of the complex editorial and technological infrastructure necessary to reach the rest of the people. They had the printing presses, then the steel-latticed radio towers, and, eventually, the satellite TV trucks. The internet changed everything. Now, when Donald Trump wants to say something to the masses, he types a few lines onto his pocket-sized computer-phone and broadcasts it to an audience of 26 million people (and bots) with the tap of a button.
When President Obama left, I stayed on at the National Security Council in order to serve my country. I lasted eight days.
In 2011, I was hired, straight out of college, to work at the White House and eventually the National Security Council. My job there was to promote and protect the best of what my country stands for. I am a hijab-wearing Muslim woman––I was the only hijabi in the West Wing––and the Obama administration always made me feel welcome and included.
Like most of my fellow American Muslims, I spent much of 2016 watching with consternation as Donald Trump vilified our community. Despite this––or because of it––I thought I should try to stay on the NSC staff during the Trump Administration, in order to give the new president and his aides a more nuanced view of Islam, and of America's Muslim citizens.
Long after research contradicts common medical practices, patients continue to demand them and physicians continue to deliver. The result is an epidemic of unnecessary and unhelpful treatments.
First, listen to the story with the happy ending: At 61, the executive was in excellent health. His blood pressure was a bit high, but everything else looked good, and he exercised regularly. Then he had a scare. He went for a brisk post-lunch walk on a cool winter day, and his chest began to hurt. Back inside his office, he sat down, and the pain disappeared as quickly as it had come.
That night, he thought more about it: middle-aged man, high blood pressure, stressful job, chest discomfort. The next day, he went to a local emergency department. Doctors determined that the man had not suffered a heart attack and that the electrical activity of his heart was completely normal. All signs suggested that the executive had stable angina—chest pain that occurs when the heart muscle is getting less blood-borne oxygen than it needs, often because an artery is partially blocked.
John Krakaeur, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins Hospital, has been asked to BRAIN Initiative meetings before, and describes it like “Maleficent being invited to Sleeping Beauty’s birthday.” That’s because he and four like-minded friends have become increasingly disenchanted by their colleagues’ obsession with their toys. And in a new paper that’s part philosophical treatise and part shot across the bow, they argue that this technological fetish is leading the field astray. “People think technology + big data + machine learning = science,” says Krakauer. “And it’s not.”
Two of the world’s three richest people extol the virtue, and relevance, of optimism in the age of Trump—and predict a comeback for fact-based discourse.
Bill Gates, the world’s richest man, and Warren Buffett, the third richest, are—not entirely coincidentally—two of the most unremittingly optimistic men on the planet. So when I met the two of them in New York recently to talk about the state of humankind, and about the future of American democracy, I had a clear understanding of my mission, which was to pressure-test their sanguinity at every turn.
I tried, and failed, though not completely. Both men appear to doubt some of President Trump’s innovations in rhetoric and policy. Both men have warm feelings about immigrants, and also about facts, and so are predisposed to react skeptically to recent developments in the capital. When I asked whether they believed America needed to be made great again, Buffett nearly jumped out of his chair: “We are great! We are great!” And when I asked about the Trump Administration’s problematic relationship with empiricism, Gates said, “I predict a comeback for the truth.” He went on to say, “To the degree that certain solutions are created not based on facts, I believe these won’t be as successful as those that are based on facts. Democracy is a self-correcting thing.”
Some data gathered from travelers going through customs can stay in a Homeland Security database for 75 years.
When you cross into or out of the United States, whether in a car or at an airport, you enter a special zone where federal agents have unusual powers to search your belongings—powers they don’t have elsewhere in the country. The high standard set by the Fourth Amendment, which protects people against unreasonable searches, is lowered, and the Fifth Amendment, which guards against self-incrimination and prevents the government from demanding computer passwords or smartphone PINs, is rendered less effective.
These special rules allowed a customs officer at the Houston airport to ask a NASA engineer to give up the passcode to his smartphone last month. The engineer, Sidd Bikkannavar, was reentering the U.S. after a two-week vacation in Chile, but the device he had on him belonged to his employer, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He routinely used the smartphone for sensitive work, so losing sight of it for a half hour was a “huge, huge violation of work policy,” Bikkannavar told me.
In an era when audiences are so sure about so much, the mistake—simple, dramatic, human—can be a wonderful thing.
Last year, the comedian Marc Maron brought the author Chuck Klosterman on as a guest on his WTF podcast. The two discussed many things (including Klosterman’s then-new book, But What If We’re Wrong?, which he was there to promote), but one of them was sports—and the particular thrill that they offer to audiences. Sporting events, Klosterman argued, promise that most dramatic of things: an unknown outcome. Unlike other widely watched events—the Super Bowl halftime show, the Grammys, the Oscars—the primary selling point of sporting events is that their endings are, by definition, unpredictable. Within them, anything can happen.
Well. While you can say a lot about the Oscars on Sunday, you can’t say that the glitzy awards show was boringly predictable. The 89th Annual Academy Awards ceremony, right at its conclusion, brought a mixture of confusion and shock and full, deep delight to its viewers as Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway teamed up to announce the Best Picture winner and proceeded to, because of a backstage flub, announce the wrong movie. Chaos—and really, really good TV—ensued. Tired East Coasters were summoned back to their living rooms from their bedrooms, on the grounds that “ohmyGodyou’veGOTtoseethis.” Twitter erupted with jokes—about Bonnie and Clyde being at it again, about Schrödinger’s envelope, about “Dewey Defeats Truman” getting an Oscars-friendly update. It was late on a Sunday evening, and the unexpected had happened in the most unexpected of ways, and the whole thing was, as my colleague Adam Serwer perfectly summed it up, Moon-lit.
Did the prank with “Gary from Chicago” and his band of tourists humble Hollywood—or just condescend?
If the last-minute twist at the Oscars was seen to echo all the last-minute twists in American culture lately—the Super Bowl, the election—a silly five-minute segment earlier in the night should be noted for what it captured about the country’s ongoing tensions and tastes in iPhone peripherals.
Host Jimmy Kimmel’s team arranged for a sightseeing bus of supposedly “real” tourists to walk into the room, expecting a museum exhibit about the Oscars but instead finding themselves in the middle of the actual thing. “Welcome to the Dolby Theater,” Kimmel announced. “This is the home of the Academy Awards, which are, in fact, happening right now.”