Monday, January 7, 2013

We as a nation have reached the point where congresspeople are introducing bills specifically saying that the government can't mint magic platinum coins

Well, okay, they aren't talking about magic coins, per se.  What they are talking about is trillion dollar platinum coins which the Treasury can mint because of a loophole in an older law allowing them to make commemorative coins of whatever value.  Our government, right now, is talking about whether or not we are allowed to make a trillion dollar coin so that we can turn around and give ourselves this coin so that we have a trillion dollars.  To be clear, this isn't just people being all "oh yeah let's give ourselves a trillion bucks for shits and giggles"; the government previously passed all these bills saying it was okay for us to spend money and now we actually have to send the check.  Which: we can't right now, because somebody decided that all of a sudden it was funny to actually debate not raising the debt ceiling, because I guess it's pretty hilarious when Obama has to put on his sincere face and talk about looming financial crises so that we can do the governmental equivalent of paying our credit card bill. 

Anyway, someone came up with this idea where we avoid the entire debate over whether we can give ourselves more money to pay the bills by minting a commemorative trillion-dollar coin, since these commemorative coins are not subject to approval by Congress, and at present Congress works about as efficiently as a group discussion in a 6th-grade sex ed class.  This proposal has understandably alarmed some members of Congress who were hoping to have a big symbolic fight about the debt ceiling for approximately the 39th time this month.  Notably, Greg Walden (R-OR) has announced a bill that will specifically prohibit the government from minting "high-value platinum coins".  Per his website:

“Some people are in denial about the need to reduce spending and balance the budget. This scheme to mint trillion dollar platinum coins is absurd and dangerous, and would be laughable if the proponents weren’t so serious about it as a solution. I’m introducing a bill to stop it in its tracks,” Rep. Walden said.

Even the proponents of the coin don't seem to regard it as a "serious" solution.  As Paul Krugman said in today's column,
"Should President Obama be willing to print a $1 trillion platinum coin if Republicans try to force America into default? Yes, absolutely. 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." 
So, yes, the coin thing is silly.  However, the alternative is for us to turn around and tell all of the foreign countries and federal workers that we owe money to that we purchased goods and services from them, but actually we won't be paying.  This would understandably upset a few people.  On the plus side, pissing off foreign countries might give us a chance to use this ginormous military we've been spending so much on, so that's a plus for efficiency, I guess?

“My wife and I have owned and operated a small business since 1986. When it came time to pay the bills, we couldn’t just mint a coin to create more money out of thin air. We sat down and figured out how to balance the books. That’s what Washington needs to do as well. My bill will take the coin scheme off the table by disallowing the Treasury to mint platinum coins as a way to pay down the debt. We must reduce spending and get our fiscal house in order,” Rep. Walden said.

OK, let me explain why this argument is totally ludicrous.  You are comparing the government to a family business, which is not an inherently awful comparison.  But, you are comparing not buying something (in the case of you and your wife deciding how to balance the books) with not paying for it (which is what will happen if we don't raise the debt ceiling or, barring that, mint a silly $1,000,000,000,000 coin).  Congress has already approved all of the various things the money will be used for--in fact, most of the spending is mandated by law.  The current debate is literally about whether they will let the money (which was already committed to be spent) actually be sent to the people we owe.  To go back to your business comparison, let's have you role-play Congress, and your wife will play President Obama.

So, last month, you were all "hey Prez, we gotta get a new truck for the business," so your President-wife Obama went out and bought a truck.  Then yesterday, the bill showed up, so your wife says "welp, time to pay this," and you're like "whoa, I didn't say we could PAY for this--I just wanted to buy it!"  Because of that, you're now divorced and desperately alone, because it's hard to find people that are into roleplaying where one party is dressed up as a bilateral legislative chamber.  

"So then this goes into--where?  No, wait, that feels wrong.  Do all 535 of these people really have to be here?"
To recap: I may have some issues with staying on point.  Basically, though, raising the debt ceiling is just a way to pay for the things we already agreed to pay for.  When Walden says, "My bill will take the coin scheme off the table by disallowing the Treasury to mint platinum coins as a way to pay down the debt," he's demonstrating a fundamental misunderstanding of what this idea would do--no one's advocating that we just print up a bunch of coins and then throw them in the air while screaming "DEBT FREE!".  They just need a way to allow the government to spend the money that we have in effect already spent.  If only Harry Potter were real, we might have a magical alternative, but at present all we have is silly coins.

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