A year ago, out of nowhere, the grotesque suggestion to “resolve” the US debt ceiling with a platinum dollar coin came, and like a bad dream, mercifully disappeared even as the debt ceiling negotiations dragged until the last minute, without this idea being remotely considered for implementation, for one simple reason: it is sheer political, monetary and financial lunacy. And yet there are those, supposedly intelligent people, who one year later, continue dragging this ridiculous farce, as a cheap parlor trick which is nothing but a transparent attempt for media trolling and exposure, which only distracts from America’s unsustainable spending problem and does nothing to address the real crisis the US welfare state finds itself in. And while numerous respected people have taken the time to explain the stupidity of the trillion dollar coin, few have done so as an integral part of the statist mainstream for one simple reason — it might provide a loophole opportunity, however tiny, to perpetuate the broken American model even for a day or two, if “everyone is in on it.” Luckily, that is no longer the case and as even Ethan Harris from Bank of America (a firm that would be significantly impaired if America was forced to suddenly live within its means), the whole idea is nothing more than “the latest bad idea” straight “from the land of fiscal make believe.” We can only hope that this finally puts this whole farce to bed.
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Taking these sorts of actions would almost certainly worsen, not ease, the coming battles over the spending — a second reason to be skeptical of the idea of the trillion dollar coin. As we have noted before, the debt ceiling is just one of three brinkmanship moments looming in the next few months. The across-the-board spending cuts that constitute the sequester have only been delayed for two months, and absent new legislation, will start in March. Even more troubling, on March 27 the latest continuing resolution ends and, absent new legislation, all nonessential government programs would have to shut down for lack of funding.
Third, throwing the trillion dollar coin into this mix would not only intensify these two other fights, it would likely poison the well even further in future budget negotiations. With split government, fiscal policy making requires bipartisan agreement. The cliff compromise earned support from both parties, marking a welcome — if brief — respite from partisan politics. The last thing Washington needs is a further escalation in gamesmanship.
Finally, there is a slippery slope from avoiding the debt limit to outright debt monetization. Although proponents see it as a technical fix to a problem that, in their view, never should occur, it means the Treasury would have established a precedent to thwart Congressional limitations on spending and the debt ceiling.
Outside of the legal questions, nothing precludes the Treasury from issuing a coin to pay down the full $16.4 trillion in debt in one fell swoop: true monetization. A trillion dollar coin also would subvert the whole budget process, undermining already fragile public confidence and spooking financial markets. And based on the criteria put forth by the rating agencies, it would represent a stunning failure to devise credible political processes to resolve the longer-term budget issues for the US. A downgrade would very likely follow, in our view.