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Framing Platinum Coin Seigniorage: Part Two, Legal Objections

4:30 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

There are three classes of opponents of High Value Platinum Coin Seigniorage (HVPCS, $30 T and above). The first and largest group opposes all PCS of whatever type. The second, opposes HVPCS, but favors using the Trillion Dollar Coin (TDC) for the limited purpose of avoiding the debt ceiling. The third, opposes HVPCS, and doesn’t really favor using the TDC either, except, perhaps, as a last resort.

It favors an incremental approach to PCS beginning perhaps in the millions or billions in face value, and over a long period of time eventually building up to a TDC. The remaining posts in this series consider the many objections brought forward by people in one or more of these categories, and my replies to them. As you will see, the opponents of HVPCS have already thrown everything but the proverbial kitchen sink at it. In this post, I’ll consider some legal objections.

PCS violates the intent of the 1996 legislation, and is an unconstitutional exercise of executive authority, or is an unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority to the executive.

The Courts generally don’t try to interpret laws based on theories about Congressional intent, in the face of the plain language of a law. The language of section (k) of the 1996 legislation is particularly plain in providing for platinum coin seigniorage and leaving face values and other coin attributes up to the Secretary. It is not just that section (k) is plain its meaning; but also that other sections of the law constrain what the secretary can do in various ways. The plain implication of the section (k) textual context is that Congress intended to delegate broad powers of platinum coin seigniorage to the Secretary. There is no contrary evidence to the plain meaning of the text of section (k) in the law.

Some have contended that the purpose of the statute was to legislate about commemorative coins, rather than coins intended as a a source of revenue for the Treasury. Philip Diehl, Director of the US Mint at the time of the legislation drafted the language of the law. He flatly denies that the intent of the law was to authorize more commemorative coins, and says it was to provide new coins that would produce profits for the US Mint. Such coins are unambiguously legal tender. There’s no further evidence that Congress intended anything else in passing the law he drafted.

The Justices aren’t collective psychologists who are expert at divining the intent of the Congress. They are expert, however, at interpreting what the text of a law says, and so that is what they stick to almost all the time. A challenge to PCS based on intent isn’t something any Court is likely to take up, in the face of the language of the 1996 legislation, and Congress’s plain ability to repeal one or more of countless laws that allow unintended consequences.

What if a $60 trillion dollar coin is used to avoid the debt ceiling, and this saves the United States from defaulting on its debts, and the world financial system from collapsing? Is it then likely that the Supreme Court will entertain any challenges to the plain language of the law based on an interpretation of intent, unsupported in the text of the law, which would then place the Treasury in the position of having to return that trillion dollars in Fed credits, and again look default in the face? Can you see John Roberts ever voting for this?

John Carney, a CNBC blogger, has suggested that the 1996 legislation is unconstitutional because it specified an impermissible delegation of the Congressional authority to coin money to the Executive Branch. He argues that there’s no “intelligible principle” behind the language in section (k) limiting the Secretary’s powers.

However, Congress delegated to the Treasury the power to mint platinum bullion and proof coins having a variety of properties to be specified by the Secretary; but it did not delegate to the Secretary that power with respect to coins made out of other materials; or even with respect to platinum coins that are neither bullion or proof coins. So, Congress did limit the authority of the Treasury to mint platinum coins according to intelligible principles. Just not the intelligible principle that the coins involved had to be limited to a specific face value. Or, to put it another way, in the area of platinum coins what Congress has done is to delegate its authority according to “the intelligible principle” that the Secretary is to mint such coins with face values he/she deems necessary and proper.

PCS really doesn’t avoid breaching the debt ceiling

It’s also been suggested that PCS doesn’t solve the debt ceiling problem, because in substance, if not in form, using the platinum coin is just a way of Treasury getting a loan from the Fed until the debt ceiling can be raised and it can go back to issuing debt. This argument assumes, however, that Treasury would have an obligation, at some point, to redeem the coin from the Fed with revenue raised from taxes or debt issuance. However, none of the proponents of using PCS, until very recently, when this idea crept into the writing of Paul Krugman, ever proposed restoring the status quo by buying the coin back from the Fed.

Instead, our main idea has always been that any platinum coins deposited at the Fed would remain in its vault as a Fed asset in perpetuity, and that the Fed would credit the US Mint’s account with the face values of the coins. In our view the Fed would have the legal duty to provide such credits in response to a deposit of a platinum coin or coins because the coins are legal tender, and the NY Fed, as the fiduciary banking agent of the Treasury Department, cannot refuse to accept and credit a legal tender coin. The Treasury would incur no obligation to the Fed in using PCS, any more than any one of us would incur any obligation to our bank in giving them a coin with $100 in total face value, and expecting the bank to credit our account with that $100.

The Fed can’t be forced by Treasury to accept and credit an HVPC it mints

Oh, yes it can. Treasury may choose not to force the Fed to do this, as it just did, but one of the powers vested in the Secretary of the Treasury before creation of the Federal Reserve system was certainly to spend its legal tender into the economy. To do that under an arrangement where the Fed is its fiduciary bank/agent, requires that the Fed deposit and credit its legal tender into its spending account, the TGA. So, I think it follows that under 12 USC 246, the Secretary has the authority to order the Federal Reserve to credit that coin so Federal spending can proceed. If the Fed Chair still refuses, then the President can remove the Fed Chair for cause (12 USC 242). See this more detailed argument for further development. In Part Three, I’ll consider political objections to using HVPCS.

(Author’s Note: h/t to Jack Foster for proposing a framing document for HVPCS. This is it; but divided into 6 parts for blogging convenience. The rest of the series will continue with objections made to HVPCS and my answers to them.)

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

Can the Federal Reserve Really Refuse To Accept and To Credit A Platinum Coin Deposited By the US Mint?

10:42 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

The issue of whether the Fed can really refuse to accept and credit a deposit of a platinum coin with its face value, is being raised frequently on blog posts about Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PCS) and the Trillion Dollar Coin (TDC). In the past, I’ve argued that the Fed cannot; and the final decision on taking the TDC off the table was actually made by the President, and not by Chairman Bernanke.

Ellen Brown, the well-known author of The Web of Debt, and also of this recent post on fiat money, direct financing of federal spending, and using platinum coin seigniorage made this comment in a discussion thread at Monetary Realism:

Per the Fed’s website (or maybe it was the Treasury’s), a gas station can reject a $100 bill before the gas has been pumped. You only have to accept legal tender after the service has been rendered or good delivered. The Van Nuys Flyaway won’t take dollar bills. Apparently then the Fed can reject a tender before it has rendered the banking services involved. It’s a privately-owned bank, after all!

Here’s my reply to this comment.

The coin being presented to the Fed isn’t tendered as payment for services, or for a product. It’s a coin being tendered as a deposit into the Treasury General Account (TGA). Also, note these three considerations.

First, the Treasury Department is mandated to deposit its money into Fed accounts if it wants to enter the banking system. So unlike the gas station; the Treasury can’t find another bank; and it needs a bank to spend and implement Congressional appropriations. A Fed regiional bank, such as the New York Fed, in turning down a coin, would be refusing to perform a duty it contracted for to serve as the depository of the funds of the Treasury Department and the US Mint. I don’t think it can do that and remain a regional Fed bank.

Second, even though the regional Feds are privately owned banks; they cannot behave in ways that contravene the policy of the Board of Governors, a Federal Agency, and they are very tightly regulated by that Board. So, the regional NY Fed, the bank that has the Treasury General Account (TGA) will not be making any such decisions on its own authority. Additionally, in agreeing to house the TGA, the New York Fed has contracted to serve as the sole banking agent of the Treasury Department with respect to its spending account.

Somehow I don’t think the sole banking agent of the United States Treasury Department has the legal right to turn down a deposit of legal tender, and refuse to credit its face value in the Treasury’s own checking account. Imagine what the liability of that “private” bank would be to the US Government, if as a result of any such action, the US would be forced into defaulting on some of its payments and decided to sue the NY Fed for consequential damages. Not a pretty picture, and not a risk that the NY Fed would want to take w/o an explicit and specific instruction from the Board of Governors.

And third, consider the Board of Governors and the Chairperson of the Fed. What would they do? Well, they’ll tell the Secretary that they don’t want to do it. But if they say no; and the Treasury Secretary orders them to accept and credit the coin; then what? Then this:

12 USC § 246 – Powers of Secretary of the Treasury as affected by chapter
Nothing in this chapter contained shall be construed as taking away any powers heretofore vested by law in the Secretary of the Treasury which relate to the supervision, management, and control of the Treasury Department and bureaus under such department, and wherever any power vested by this Act in the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System or the Federal reserve agent appears to conflict with the powers of the Secretary of the Treasury, such powers shall be exercised subject to the supervision and control of the Secretary.”

So, one of the powers vested in the Secretary of the Treasury before creation of the Federal Reserve system was certainly to spend its legal tender into the economy. But to do that under an arrangement where the Fed is its bank, requires that the Fed deposit and credit its legal tender into its spending account, the TGA. So, I think it follows that under 12 USC 246 the Secretary has the authority to order the Federal Reserve to credit that coin so Federal spending can proceed. If the Fed Chair still refuses, then the President can remove the Fed Chair for cause (12 USC 242)

And as beowulf has pointed out, the Fed really doesn’t want to go to Court over this because they risk a Supreme Court finding of unconstitutionality due to the Unitary Executive theory, which, in this case, may well have the support of some of the most conservative justices. My own view here, is that the Fed would not even make it to the Court because they’d be denied standing under 12 USC 246, if the Treasury Secretary also ordered them not to contest his order legally.

If you read through the discussion thread where Ellen Brown left her comment, you’ll see that both Philip Diehl, former Director of the US Mint under President Clinton, and Carlos Mucha (beowulf, or beo), the lawyer who first proposed the use of PCS and the TDC, and the author of the blog post, believe that no Secretary would treat the Fed this way. But what if the Secretary were ordered by the President to do it? And what if the President were somebody like FDR or LBJ? Then I think it could happen; and depending on how tough things get in the next few years who knows what Obama will do?

After all he’s the guy with the drones. And the guy who throws people under the bus when he thinks he has to. So, why wouldn’t he throw Bernanke under the bus too, if he thought he needed to? Just sayin’!

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

Beowulf and Diehl Embrace Trillion Dollar Coin Incrementalism!

11:34 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

A wonderful discussion thread has been going on at Monetary Realism (MR) after a very good new post by beowulf (Carlos Mucha), who first brought forward the proposal for the Executive Branch to use the authority provided in the 1996 Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PCS) legislation to fill the public purse, on whether the Fed had a legal basis for turning down PCS in the form of the Trillion Dollar Coin (TDC). I’ll leave the legal discussion for another blog post, since I agree with beo on these, and also need to review some legal arguments against the TDC by some George Washington University Professors. Here I want to write about some of the MR discussion relating to High Value Platinum Coin Seigniorage (HVPCS) vs. incremental PCS options.

Why the $60 T Coin Is Needed

Beowulf addresses himself to my call for High Value Platinum Coin Seigniorage (HVPCS) using a $60 T coin in this way:

Once you blow past the size of the public debt is there a reason to go right to $60T? You need to ease into something that’s such a break from current practices. Even a trillion dollar coin is too big to be practical (of course, like Mike said, once you think it, you can’t un-think). IIRC it was Philip who suggested minting $25B coins would be a good place to start.

“Philip” is Philip N. Diehl, former Director of the US Mint in the Clinton Administration and Co-author with Mike Castle, (Rep. DE) of the PCS legislation. In comments of the post, Philip joined beo in advocating for an incremental process of PCS introduction.

An important reason for using a $60 T coin, isn’t because we need all that money right away. In fact, we can spend very little of it because the spending hasn’t been appropriated by Congress, and most of the outstanding debt subject to the limit, will have to be paid as it falls due rather than immediately.

Still we need the $60 T coin to be minted because:

– a) the coin legislation may be repealed at any time by people who don’t want seigniorage to be an alternative to taxing or borrowing; but once the $60 T coin is minted, the cow would be out of the barn, and the proceeds would last 15-25 years, by which time we’d have a chance to get political acceptance for reorganizing the Fed under Treasury and ending its existence as a politically unaccountable agency dominated by private banks and Wall Street;

– b) the seigniorage from a $60 T coin would serve as a potent symbol of the truth that the Federal Government can never involuntarily run out of money. This is one of the central ideas of MMT that the public needs to accept routinely to understand that the Government’s budget isn’t like their household budget;

– c) the mere presence of the $60 T in the public purse makes clear that the claim of those favoring austerity that we can’t afford to enable full employment; or to pass Medicare for All, or to rebuild our infrastructure or do 101 other things that need doing are false, and to oppose them the austerians would then have to argue on the merits of the policy proposals and not almost solely on grounds that we just can’t afford it because of all the debt we’re going to leave to our grandchildren; and

d) the presence of the $60 T in the public purse would be a positive enabler of progressive legislation creating benefits that people want now but austerians say we can’t pass because “we can’t afford it.”.

Easing Into PCS and Being Practical

Beo also says we have to ease into something that is such a break with current practices. But, I ask, why?

Are current practices so beneficial to us that we want to preserve them as much as possible? Haven’t they been a critical part of a public financing system that’s been failing us for a long time now in enabling us to do what must be done to create full employment and various other elements of public purpose that would create a better life for Americans? Haven’t they failed us in a very critical way by creating such complexity in public financing that the public can’t see that Federal “debt is not debt,” and instead are easily fooled into believing that we can “run out of money,” and can’t afford to pass progressive economic legislation?

Beo knows what the answers to these questions are. And he must also know that our current procedures for financing deficit spending are poison to progressives, to the need to fulfill public purpose and to the American people. The only people who really like them are people who directly benefit from the system of issuing debt instruments. These procedures are not something we should want to conserve for another moment; because they do not benefit the 99%.

Beo. also says that the TDC is ‘too big to be practical . . . ” But what’s “impractical” about it? Assuming it’s legal, which he and Philip both believe, it strikes me that in its $60 T version it’s both efficient and effective in ridding us of austerity politics. Beo goes on to talk about the fear of inflation:

Considering that the fear of inflation is the biggest political hurdle to “printing money” (and needs to be addressed when it comes up), a shock and awe $60 megaton coin strategy will lose more political support than it gains. Besides, there’s no point to creating a Strategic Petroleum Reserve-like buffer stock of something the govt has the ability to create at will, especially if its just going to scare the hell out of people (and that it certainly would).

I can’t see how beo can possibly know that, due to inflation fears, a $60 T coin strategy will lose more political support than it gains. Maybe, he’ll oblige me by doing a political analysis showing the transmission mechanisms involved. Here’s mine.

The $60 T in seigniorage would allow the President to pay off all the debt instruments held by the regional Federal Reserve banks and by Federal Agencies. Since the reserves used to redeem these instruments would not be spent into the economy, they can’t possibly cause inflation without a causal transmission mechanism. That’s a pay off of nearly 40% of the debt subject to the limit. If the Treasury pays that off in the week following minting and depositing of the coin, the most likely reaction on the part of the public will be very strong approval of this action.

When the Treasury then pays off $1.7 T in Treasury Bills over the next year, and the Administration points out that debt subject to the limit has been reduced by 50% overall, people will be even happier. When, next, people see that no more debt subject to the limit is issued over the first year to cover deficit spending, I think they will be happier still.

When, finally, they see that there is no inflationary impact from paying off half of the national debt, they will be ecstatic and conclude that Obama is a genius for coming up with this great new platinum coin trick that has stopped both spending cuts and further tax increases, and yet still allows the debt that their grandchildren might have inherited, to be paid off as it falls due, with NO NEW DEBT ISSUANCE needed!

The proof of the pudding is always in the eating. We, including beo, and maybe Philip too, know now that paying off that first $8.2 T in debt will not cause demand-pull inflation during the first year after minting the coin. The public will know that too when they experience it.

During that first year, inflation fears will gradually recede from the first day the money is used to pay off debt. By the end of the year those fears will be largely gone among most people, except for those for whom that fear is part of a “religious belief,” leaving inflation hysteria to “the gold bugs,” and Austrian school economists.

I would have done the $60 T coin in May of 2011; or most recently the day after the election. And, then I would have given a speech like the one in this post followed by a mobilization of Organizing For America (OFA) behind the initiative.

The Senate, then, never would pass a House bill to repeal PCS, because everything would have become so visible that sticking with the coin would be a litmus test for any Democratic candidate want to run with Party support. Then, if Obama got a high percentage of the debt paid by November 2014, I doubt there’d be any trouble in the mid-terms in either keeping control of the Senate or winning back the House. After all, what’s not to like: 1) debt rapidly disappearing; 2) the end of any need for austerity and no entitlement cuts; 3) no battles with Congress over debt ceilings or fiscal cliffs or austerity budgets; 4) Congress still controls the purse strings; and 5) attention turned to real issues about how to create good times here in America.

So, the brouhaha over the $60 T coin would pass. The Rs wouldn’t be able to repeal the coin capability until they got hold of both Houses of Congress, and if Obama played his cards right, actually doing things for people rather than the banks, and Wall Street, I don’t think we’d see Republican control of both Houses again for some time; in spite of wholesale gerrymandering. Their earliest opportunity to get the Senate again might not be until 2018, when there will probably be many more D Senate seats than R Senate seats at risk. As for the House, if the Democrats win in 2014, and don’t screw up (a big assumption I know), then they’ll win in 2016, and again the Republicans will have to wait until 2018, provided their party doesn’t split apart before then.

On beo’s buffer stock of reserves in the public purse point, of course there would be no point in creating one if the Treasury always had the power to create Trillions to pay off that national debt; or to deficit spend Congressional Appropriations; but the authority to do that is dependent on a Congress that has little understanding of fiat currency, and that may repeal that authority at any time. So, the “buffer stock” of reserves in the public purse is needed for that reason and the other three reasons I gave earlier.

The Incremental Approach

Philip Diehl, and beo joined together in an exchange advocating an incremental approach to introducing PCS which would feature a step-by-step approach to gradually increasing the amount of PCS annually. Beo suggested starting out with a $25 B coin, and said this:

On first day of fiscal year, Tsy deposits coinage equal to net interest paid the previous year. I like plays that end in the first act. . .

If you’re looking for a more incremental strategy, perhaps the way to ride the TDC wave while also defusing opposition is to propose a “responsible alternative.” Say, Tsy and the Fed should cooperate on a pilot program using $25 billion coins to see what effects positive or negative the use of debt-free money would have on our financial system, which is swimming in debt. If it’s negative, that should quiet critics who are pushing for a trillion dollar coin. If it’s positive, then it will be worthwhile to slowly expand the program, to gauge its impact in larger amounts. The only time we should ever mint a trillion dollar coin is sometime after the evidence is clear to everyone the $500 billion coin, the $100 billion coin and the $25 billion coin worked just fine (a red herring of course, the Mint can strike 40 $25 billion coins almost as easily as a single $1 trillion).

I guess it’d be worth stressing that it’s not a transfer of power from Tsy to the Fed since it is the Fed who orders coins from the Mint. You could call the article, “Beating trillion dollar coins into plowshares: Can a political weapon be converted into a useful monetary policy tool?”

I think beo meant to say a transfer of power from the Fed to the Treasury, just above.

Philip Diehl added this to the case for the incremental approach:

Beo, I like the step by step approach but I’d go faster and with a specific target in mind–like increments of at least $50 billion a year to reach the goal of covering the annual carrying cost of the debt. I figure that with the debt continuing to rise and interest rates also rising, it would take, say, ten years before HVCS is covering the full annual interest on the debt. Let’s say that’s $500 billion a year. At that point, we’d be minting a half trillion dollar coin every year to continue covering the annual interest on the debt, is that correct?

A slow ramp up like this would not only alleviate fears over the inflationary effect of HVCS (assuming we’re right that there won’t be any), it would also make plain its significance as a way of relieving the zero sum game of budgetary politics. A constituency will form inside and outside Congress to continue or even accelerate the pace HVCS is ramped up in order to ease the squeeze on the rest of the budget as entitlement and other spending increases.

Also, wouldn’t we expect interest rates to fall from what they would otherwise have been if Treasury was no longer longer competing in credit markets? And wouldn’t we expect tax revenue to rise if there were fewer tax free bonds in the marketplace? If I’m correct on this, it seems like HVCS would develop a powerful public constituency for the lower interest rates it would bring.

What’s wrong with this picture? It seems to good to be true. Where’s the downside, the tradeoffs?

The HVCS acronym means High Value Coin Seigniorage, and is intended to refer to all coins with face values in the millions, billions, or trillions. Here’s another contribution from beo, supporting the incremental approach in the context of a comparison with HVPCS (which refers to platinum coins with face values of $30 Trillion or more), using this scenario:

. . . Philip was once Chief of Staff to Tsy Sec. Lloyd Bentsen, imagine if Philip presented him as policy options:

1. a trillion dollar coin (against the Fed’s wishes)
2. a $60 trillion coin (against the Fed’s wishes)
3. a joint Tsy-Fed pilot program beginning with a $25 billion coin ( or whatever face value the Secretary was comfortable with, maybe it starts with a $1 billion coin).

Does anyone really think Lloyd Bentsen (or any Tsy Secretary) would take a “screw the flight simulator, lets see us try this in a real plane” attitude?”

So, that’s the case for the incremental approach, which I’ve tried to present fairly, and in its strongest possible light. So, now we can get to answering Philip’s question about the downside.

The Downside of the Incremental Approach

First, if an upside of the $60 T option is that its implementation through a “lightening strike,” to quote Philip, eliminates the chance for its opponents to mobilize against it until after it’s a fait accompli, and also removes the efficacy of any move towards repeal, before repeal no longer matters; then the opposite is true of the incremental option. Beo and Philip envision years, perhaps a decade, of ramping up until coin seigniorage is making an appreciable impact on the conditions underlying the drive towards austerity.

During that time, surely a very well-funded and powerful opposition to deficit spending and debt instrument payoff will form and do everything it can to repeal the platinum coin. And they will be able to mobilize and work against the coin before it has had a chance to solve any problems, or do any good; before, in other words, the coin can get enough love from the broader public, to ensure that the capability won’t be repealed.

Philip points out, correctly I think, that during the PCS rampup, the coin, if left in place as a capability, would develop a powerful constituency of its own, both in an out of Congress. This is true. But at $25 or $50 B per year in PCS value, can enough people grow to love its impact to counter-balance an all-out propaganda and political campaign by Wall Street, the Fed, and right-wing austerians like the Koch brothers? I seriously doubt it.

They will see the threat from the coin, probably have already seen it, judging from the reaction to it at AEI. And they will try to get rid of it soon; at the very first opportunity. I’m sorry to say that I think an incremental strategy is not just impractical, but even feckless, given that they are now, or shortly will, come after the coin with everything they have, in much the same way that the health insurance has come after any serious health care reform. So, incrementalism in applying coin seigniorage, will only lead to its repeal before its own constituency is powerful enough to protect it.

And what do beo and Philip hope to accomplish by this incrementalism? They hope a) their proposal will be viewed as “reasonable,” compared to HVPCS options like the $60 T or even the TDC; b) to calm inflation fears by minting coins with values low enough that they cannot possibly trigger inflation, and then increase face values gradually until over a period of years the fear of inflation is calmed and people are ready to consider really serious uses of PCS; and 3) to show people more and more positive impacts of the coin, so that they build a more and more powerful constituency as time goes on.

So, when it comes down to it, they want incrementalism to mollify people against the coin enough that they will be allowed “a seat at the table” and taken seriously by their opponents. They also want it because they care a lot about calming inflation fears, and they also care about having a general consensus about using it, before they “go big” with the coin.

The problem with this approach is that people who want the FIRE sector defended from the coin, and its lessons about fiat money, will never give them a seat at the table, have no incentive to do anything but discredit and ridicule them, and won’t be convinced about the low likelihood of inflation from PCS because they have a vested interest in continuing to claim and/or believe that the coin is inflationary. Even those among them who come to believe it isn’t inflationary will still oppose it on grounds that it is, because they won’t consider the advantages and disadvantages of the coin in good faith.

But in addition to these problems, there is the still more serious problem that an incremental approach taking a decade to implement has very serious likely costs. Apart from the possibility of losing the capability for PCS, there are also unemployed, partly employed, uninsured sick people, ill-educated young people, and people whose careers and social mobility are heavily impacted by the refusal to use the full power and potential of HVPCS when it is available for use.

Beo and Philip are, in effect, suggesting that the underlying condition supporting austerity politics remain out there for perhaps a decade or more, when the President has the power to eliminate it now, because they want to calm fears, get a seat at the table, and have consensus before they go ahead with PCS in a big way. Is this really a serious proposal when we look at the full political context we face? Is it actually “practical,” or does it just avoid facing the most important problem we need PCS to solve for more than a decade?

“First, Do No Harm,” is a great maxim; but when excessive caution and waiting have the very high costs just mentioned; then we have to weigh those already experienced and continuing costs of not minting a $60 T coin, against the potential cost and very low likelihood of inflation resulting from it filling the public purse, and getting used only to pay down debt and cover Congressional deficit appropriations. I’ve done the inflation analysis, and I’ve been unable to find any causal transmission mechanism directly from PCS to demand-pull inflation. I invite beo, Philip or anyone else to critique my analysis and show me where I’ve made a mistake.

Of course, demand-pull inflation can result if Congress appropriates too much deficit spending; but that would happen whether seigniorage, or Treasury Securities or both, are used alongside deficit spending. So, before we so easily propose and decide to follow an incremental PCS strategy, perhaps its proponents ought to make clear the causal mechanisms they see that are at least minimally likely to cause inflation, beyond the inflation from deficit spending accompanied by debt issuance? Until that’s done, I don’t think the incremental PCS proposal can be considered a serious one.

Second, let’s look at beo’s three options in the Lloyd Bentsen type of scenario. I think the President does 1) or 2) if he wants to start a long political struggle that he may very well lose, or if he wants to engage in kabuki. But if he wants to destroy the foundation of austerity politics, then he will select 3) or maybe a $100 T coin (because it’s more powerful as a meme), because those alternatives will actually do the job.

So, what coin seigniorage option should be pursued depends on what the goals of the President are, and his/her perception of the problem. Beo, Philip, and other incrementalists seem to think that the problem is how to get everyone used to fiat money, so it can be introduced on a large scale, fairly non-controversially, and with a good deal of consensus support. They think we can afford to wait for that result for a decade, and that it will be worth waiting for.

I, on the other hand, think the problem is how to destroy the political power of the austerians, now, so we can build a more equal and prosperous economy and society. The incremental approach could well leave us with austerity, a stagnant economy, and growing inequality, for a decade or more.

I don’t think we have that much time left, before our society sees its democracy extinguished by a soft, but, nevertheless, totalitarian plutocracy. That is much too high a price to pay for the benefits of the patient, careful, and experimental introduction of platinum coin seigniorage that beowulf, Philip Diehl, and others who like the incremental approach have in mind. Incrementalism is always favored by the Very Serious People (VSP), as the “practical” alternative; but all too often it is “impractical” in the highest sense of the term, because it simply will not work!

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

Ezra Klein Chooses Fear Mongering the Big Coin, I Choose Ending Austerity!

4:40 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Ezra Klein

(H/T to Lambert Strether for the title!)

Here’s a commentary on Ezra Klein’s recent diatribe against Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PCS).

But there’s nothing benign about the platinum coin. It is a breakdown in the American system of governance, a symbol that we have become a banana republic. And perhaps we have. But the platinum coin is not the first cousin of cleanly raising the debt ceiling. It is the first cousin of defaulting on our debts. As with true default, it proves to the financial markets that we can no longer be trusted to manage our economic affairs predictably and rationally. It’s evidence that American politics has transitioned from dysfunctional to broken and that all manner of once-ludicrous outcomes have muscled their way into the realm of possibility. As with default, it will mean our borrowing costs rise and financial markets gradually lose trust in our system, though perhaps not with the disruptive panic that default would bring.

Name calling, labeling, and fear mongering aside, does Ezra understand the first thing about PCS? Does he know that if a $60 T coin were minted, and the Treasury General Account (TGA) filled with $60 T in electronic credits, the US would be able to just say goodbye to the international markets? If we were paying off the national debt as it fell due, we would not only not be defaulting, but would be paying all our creditors on time and in full, and without benefit of further debt instrument issuance. Nor would we care whether the markets trusted us or not; since we would not be borrowing money from them for the foreseeable future. So, how could our borrowing costs rise?

And, as far as predictability is concerned, what would then be predictable is that we would be paying all our obligations to everyone whether Wall Streeters, denizens of the global markets, pensioners, Medicare, and Medicaid recipients, and everyone else we have obligations too without anyone getting the short end of the stick. Now, I’d like to see that kind of predictability from this Government, without any drama, histrionics, deficit terrorism, or whining about how our moral character is too weak to endure the Washington Post’s favorite meme, “shared sacrifice.”

The argument against minting the platinum coin is simply this: It makes it harder to solve the actual problem facing our country. That problem is not the debt ceiling, per se, though it manifests itself most dangerously through the debt ceiling. It’s a Republican Party that has grown extreme enough to persuade itself that stratagems like threatening default are reasonable. It’s that our two-party political system breaks down when one of the two parties comes unmoored. Minting the coin doesn’t so much solve that problem as surrender to it.

Well, Ezra, that’s your notion of the worst problem we face. My notion of a problem is that our national debt is hopelessly misconstrued by people, and that its existence is being used by radical “free market” extremists who want to sharply cut the social safety net, and who also want to block the passage of other Government programs that would benefit most Americans. So, I want to get rid of “the national debt” as a political issue. The best way to do that is to get rid of that national debt. That can be done by using PCS, and in a way that will not drive the economy into depression, or working people into even deeper poverty.

The platinum coin is an attempt to delay a reckoning that we unfortunately need to have. It takes a debate that will properly focus on the GOP’s reckless threat to force the United States into default and refocuses it on a seemingly absurd power grab by the executive branch. It is of no solace that many of the intuitive arguments against the platinum coin can be calmly rebutted. It’s the wrong debate to be having.

Only your version of the platinum coin. You clearly have in mind the Trillion Dollar Coin (TDC) PCS option. I agree that it would only delay a reckoning, and that a debate over its legality is not the debate to have. But a $60 T coin, would eliminate the debt ceiling as a factor, make the debate about getting rid of austerity irrelevant, and also make it impossible to use any of following to oppose progressive legislation:

– “The Government is running out of money.” (Not with a $60 T coin in the bank.)

– “The Government can only raise money to spend by taxing and borrowing” (Not with PCS)

– “We can’t keep adding debt to our national credit card.” (We won’t be using any of the money on the credit card.)

– “We need to cut Government spending and make do with no more money.” (Only if more spending would definitely cause inflation.)

– “if the Government borrows more money, then the bond markets will raise our interest rates.” (The Government won’t be borrowing anymore.)

– “If we continue to issue more debt, our main creditors: the Chinese, the Japanese, and our oil suppliers, may cease to buy our debt, making it impossible for us to raise money through borrowing which, in turn, would force us into radical austerity, or perhaps even into insolvency, which would then be followed by radical austerity and repudiation of our national obligations.” (Again, the Government won’t be borrowing anymore, so who cares if they no longer want to buy our debt)

– “Our grandchildren must have the burden of repaying our national debt.” (There won’t be any debt or any burden.)

– “Now, the final step – a critical step – in winning the future is to make sure we aren’t buried under a mountain of debt.” (Again, no debt; either mountain or molehill.)

– “Our government spends more than it takes in. That is not sustainable. Every day, families sacrifice to live within their means. They deserve a government that does the same.” (But it is sustainable. If we use PCS, then we can have gaps between taxes and spending every year.)

– “We need to cut entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, because we are running out of money and they are not fiscally sustainable.” (But they are with PCS, because we won’t be running out of money!)

– “If we make the hard choices now to rein in our deficits, we can make the investments we need to win the future.” (Given PCS, what we do now about deficits has nothing to do with our capability to make the investments we will need)

– “We need to reduce our deficits to be fiscally sustainable.” (Deficits have nothing to do with fiscal sustainability in the sense of continued capability to spend, which will be very plain to people if $60 Trillion is sitting in the TGA.)

– “We face a crushing burden of debt. The debt will soon eclipse our entire economy, and grow to catastrophic levels in the years ahead.“ (Can’t say that if most of the debt is about to be paid off.)

– “Our debt is out of control. What was a fiscal challenge is now a fiscal crisis. We cannot deny it; instead we must, as Americans, confront it responsibly.” (PCS can confront it responsibly, but the bipartisan horror just enacted can’t.)

– “We believe the days of business as usual must come to an end. We hold to a couple of simple convictions: Endless borrowing is not a strategy; spending cuts have to come first.” (Right! So let’s stop borrowing and use PCS.)

– “Everyone knows that the U.S. budget is being devoured by entitlements. Everyone also knows that of the Big Three – Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security – Social Security is the most solvable. . . . “ (The budget can be as big as we need it to be with PCS.)

– “The Social Security Trust fund is a fiction, a mere bookkeeping device.. . . There is no free lunch. There is nothing in the lockbox.” (There will be if we pay back the trust fund through PPCS.)

– “There is a deficit/debt reduction problem for the Federal Government that is not self-imposed.” (What’s the problem? We can’t run out of money with PCS!)

– “The Federal Government is like a household and that since households sacrifice to live within their means, Government ought to do that too.” (What nonsense! As PPCS shows very well; the Government is not like a household. Households can’t create unlimited funds through PCS; but the Federal Government can.)

– “The only way to tackle our deficit is to cut excessive spending wherever we find it.” (It’s always good to cut spending that’s not in the public interest. But if spending is having good results, and we’re using PCS, then there’s no reason to cut it, whether taxes cover the spending or not.)

– “We should also find a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations.” (With PCS, we can easily strengthen SS by extending benefits, and we don’t need to do it through a bipartisan Rube Goldberg contraption.

– “The United States is in danger of becoming the next Greece or Ireland.” (Even without PCS it can’t become Greece or Ireland, only the next Japan. But with PCS it can become the United States again.)

– “Fiscal Responsibility means stabilizing and then reducing the debt-to-GDP ratio and achieving a Federal Government surplus” (With PCS, the debt-to-GDP ratio will be stabilized and reduced, but no “surplus,” in the sense of more tax revenue than spending, will ever be necessary for revenue purposes.)

Ezra goes on to say that using the Platinum Coin will trigger a debate within the Republican Party, that will strengthen its worst factions, because its extremists will be able to argue against:

. . . a wild, unprecedented, inflationary power grab by an overreaching president. Making matters more difficult, it will become impossible for more cautious Republicans to break ranks. It’s one thing to argue, as many are already doing, that inducing default risks destroying the Republican Party for a generation. It’s another to abet such a blatantly unconstitutional, dangerous move from the executive branch.

Well, it’s not blatantly unconstitutional at all Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe thinks it’s legal. Yale Law Professor Jack Balkin thinks it’s legal. The lawyer who came up with the idea, beowulf (Carlos Mucha), thinks it’s legal. Philip Diehl, former Director of the US Mint thinks it’s legal. And, I, a Ph.D. political scientist with some background in Constitutional Law, also think it’s legal.

Even Ezra says it’s legal earlier in this very column. So, who are the Republicans to label it “blatantly unconstitutional”? What evidence would they have that it’s “blatantly illegal? If the President uses it he will have legal opinions supporting its legality. In addition, the plain language of the law says it’s legal. Arguments that it’s not are more complex and detailed than the plain language of the law. So, how will this play in the court of public opinion?

Ezra goes on to suggest that using the coin won’t end the conflict; but will cause the Republicans to work even harder and in a united fashion to get what they want. Well, isn’t that too bad, they’re just going to work harder at being even more nasty, so the rest of us shouldn’t do anything that will get them really ticked off. What kind of advice is that, the advice of a columnist who works for a newspaper with a deficit hawk editorial director, and a financial deal with the world’s most prominent deficit hawk: Peter G. Peterson?

Can’t you just picture it? Ezra gets called into a meeting with Fred Hiatt who asks him whether he can’t do anything to dampen this platinum coin wave that everyone is riding, and Ezra replying says: well, maybe I can write something that will make people very, very afraid of the tea partiers fomenting a new American Revolution.

Of course, Ezra may be right about a big coin making Republicans even more determined to destroy the US economy than they are now. Things could happen that way; but if a very high face value coin, like a $60 T coin, is minted; then the mere presence of the $60 T in the Treasury General Account (TGA), and its use to pay down debt, will change the political context, and make Republican propaganda look much more fanciful, than it does in an imagination that assumes the political context and the future won’t be changed by minting a big enough coin and using it to fill the public purse.

So, Ezra, notice what happens to the memes Iisted above. They’re just not going to work anymore, if a $60 T coin gets used. If the Republicans remain stiff-necked, what justification would they then have for austerity? Now, they have the debt, and no apparent means of paying it off except lowering spending and raising taxes. But what would they have after that coined filled the public purse? The answer is ZIP!

It is likelier that the platinum coin would drive the Republican Party towards a much more dangerous and enduring standoff. If Republicans never permitted another debt increase, would we just keep minting platinum coins? Would the Federal Reserve abet the strategy and work to hold down inflation, effectively putting itself in the middle of a titanic political fight? Would the market eventually begin to panic because American governance has entered into unknown territory?

If the Administration minted a $60 T coin, then it would probably never have to mint one again, since the first one would lead people to understand that the world won’t come to an end if Treasury can print money to fill the public purse to spend Congressional appropriations. Would the Fed help hold down inflation? Of course, it’s their mandate. It’s not about politics. They’d have to act that way. If they didn’t; there’d be immediate talk of folding them into Treasury! Finally, minting and using a $60 T coin to pay for debt and deficit spending won’t be inflationary.

There are two ways to truly resolve the debt-ceiling standoff. One is that the Republican Party needs to break, proving to itself and to the country that the adults remain in charge. The other is that America is pushed into default and voters — and the world — reckon with what we’ve become, and what needs to be done about it. Sadly, there’s no easy way out. It’s heads America wins, tails America loses.

Well, rule out the platinum coin, and sure, these may be one’s only two choices. But Ezra hasn’t shown that using a really BIG coin would elicit real problems, other than getting the Republicans and the right wing really, really, mad (maybe they won’t have lunch with him anymore), and there are compelling arguments suggesting the contrary. So, I think that Ezra’s gone off the deep end in this column, especially when you consider the cost of default to people, and also the cost of the austerity alternative. Both default-induced austerity; and major party-induced austerity by compromise are both utterly unacceptable.

We must find a third way! Ezra can’t just assume that there is no way out of his Hobson’s choice. He and we need to consider game-changing PCS before condemning the nation to default.

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

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