By Joe Firestone, Ph.D., Managing Director, CEO of the Knowledge Management Consortium International (KMCI), and Director of KMCI’s CKIM Certificate program. He has taught political science as the graduate and undergraduate level and blogs regularly at Corrente, Firedoglake and Daily Kos as letsgetitdone
Yesterday, Ezra Klein
mouthpieced for Treasury and Fed reported in the Washington Post that:
The Treasury Department will not mint a trillion-dollar platinum coin to get around the debt ceiling. If they did, the Federal Reserve would not accept it.
That’s the bottom line of the statement that Anthony Coley, a spokesman for the Treasury Department, gave me today. “Neither the Treasury Department nor the Federal Reserve believes that the law can or should be used to facilitate the production of platinum coins for the purpose of avoiding an increase in the debt limit,” he said.
The inclusion of the Federal Reserve is significant. For the platinum coin idea to work, the Federal Reserve would have to treat it as a legal way for the Treasury Department to create currency. If they don’t believe it’s legal and would not credit the Treasury Department’s deposit, the platinum coin would be worthless.
This statement from Ezra Klein would have us believe that the Federal Reserve is an independent agent in this matter, and that it can refuse to credit the deposit of a newly minted high face value proof platinum coin, if the Treasury makes such a deposit. It also assumes that if the Treasury insisted on the deposit of the coin, that the Fed would be in a position to go Court to contest that; that it has a choice in the matter.
It does not appear that either of these things are true. They are just a rationalization, so the President, who most probably decided to pretend that this isn’t his decision ; or at least can be partially blamed on the Fed. Let’s review some critical aspects of the relationship between the Fed and the Treasury.
First, here are a some quotes from the US Code and comments.
“…banks, when required by the Secretary of the Treasury, shall act as fiscal agents of the United States; and the revenues of the Government or any part thereof may be deposited in such banks, and disbursements may be made by checks drawn against such deposits.”12 USC 391
The coins are legal tender, and disbursements can’t be made unless a deposit is credited. So, both imply that all banks that receive such deposits must credit them, and that the Bank officers at the New York Fed cannot refuse to credit the face values of a deposit of coins by the US Mint in its Public Enterprise Fund (PEF) Account. As for the Board of Governors, including the Fed Chair, forbidding the New York Fed from crediting the deposit, there is this part of the USC:
“. . . wherever any power vested by this chapter 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.” 12 USC 246
The US code says that the Secretary has supervision and control, not the Fed Chair, or the bank officers at any of the banks, however exalted, within the Fed system. So, if anyone in the Fed system wants to go to Court about this, it’s hard to see that they could get standing even to file an injunction. In fact, if they attempted to get an injunction and to sue after a Treasury order prohibiting them from doing that, apparently the Treasury Secretary could fire the offending parties if “supervision and control” means what it usually means.
In short, the Platinum coin is still on the books. The legal rationalizations of the Treasury and the Fed are a smoke screen to obscure the President’s deciding not to use the authority he is granted by the Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PCS) legislation. And finally the coin certainly would work if the President decided to use it, provided he ordered the Secretary to mint and have a platinum coin deposited in the Mint’s PEF at the New York Fed; and provided the Secretary sent instructions to the New York Fed and the Board of Governors ordering that the coin be credited and no attempts be made to contest the Secretary’s action in a Court of Law.
The Wrong Kind of Coin
After a hiatus of 16 months the Trillion Dollar Coin (TDC) surfaced again in the mainstream blogging and MSM World at the beginning of December. The outbreak of posts and discussions was fairly intense as people began looking beyond the “fiscal cliff “crisis and started looking ahead to the debt ceiling fight to come. During the second half of December however, posts and commentary slowed as we got closer and closer to the “cliff,” and most commentary focused on that.
But at the beginning of the New Year, after the “cliff” was partially circumvented, new posts from mainstream bloggers on the possibility of minting a Trillion Dollar Coin (TDC) to avoid the debt ceiling appeared, including a post from Paul Krugman. In addition, Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) became the first Congressman to advocate for the TDC to get around the debt ceiling, the TDC was suddenly ubiquitous on MSNBC, and began being treated seriously on other networks as well.
The ground swell for the TDC continued through the first week of January and kept growing larger and larger facilitated by the #minthecoin twitter campaign. The hashtag #mintthecoin was originated by Stephanie Kelton of the Economics Department of the University of Missouri at Kansas City. Joe Wiesenthal, blogging at Business Insider, picked it up, used it to name a White House petition, and marketed a viral petition drive urging the President to mint a TDC and use it to pay down debt so the debt ceiling could be avoided.
The Twitter campaign became a phenomenon and a trending topic, accompanied by more and more blog posts across the political spectrum, both pro and con, about using the TDC. Signatures on the petition grew fast, finally resulting in questions at White House news conferences about the TDC, asking whether the President had considered it or was going to use it.
Increasingly, after January 5th, the platinum coin was everywhere even getting covered by the Colbert show. Finally, on June 12, as the web frenzy continued to grow and after a very notable panel discussion of Platinum Coin Seigniorage on Chris Hayes’s Up show, including both Wiesenthal and Kelton, among others, this past Saturday morning at MSNBC, the Treasury and the Fed tried to put an end to speculation by announcing that the Administration would not mint the coin.
So, now the web echos with cries that the platinum coin is dead. Some of the cries are joyful. Some of them are angry. Perhaps they’re right. Perhaps the coin is dead. But perhaps also it will come back again, in a new guise, when conditions are right. How can that be?
Well first, we need to recognize that the TDC, with its intense and frenzied web-based campaign was based on the wrong coin and the wrong cause.
The cause or the problem it was addressed to was getting past the debt ceiling by creating some head room below it with the seigniorage proceeds. After that, the TDC bloggers envisioned that deficit spending would continue to require issuing debt instruments, and that there would be no further “disruption” in the normal way of doing things, and also that the President would cope with the coming sequester, and continuing resolution (CR) conflicts separately.
So, the TDC, even if used, would really change very little. It wouldn’t stop the Republicans from pursuing spending cuts in entitlements and important discretionary programs. It wouldn’t change the fundamental drive for austerity in both parties, fueled as it is by the view that “national debt” is both frighteningly large, and also unsustainable. So, at best, the TDC was a tactic to put off the day of reckoning with the Republicans, and perhaps to use the law authorizing it as the basis for a swap with the Republicans of the PCS legislation for the debt ceiling law, a very silly and odious idea proposed by a mainstream blogger, wanting to return the system to “normal” but not change it.
Considering this background, it is easy for the President to say that we won’t use PCS. Maybe not as easy he would have liked. But still the TDC was only a tactic. The President can abandon it and talk about other tactics, or his apologists can talk about his desire to avoid default by having a government shutdown that will break Republican resistance, as President Clinton was able to do. If they and he can do that for long enough, then the President can keep Democratic Congresspeople in line for as long as it takes for him to make his “grand bargain” for austerity with enough Republicans to join with the supine Democrats to pass it. Regardless, it is undeniable that Obama has thrown away another opportunity to defang one of the big threats the Republicans have in their plan to force through spending cuts. Obama has given that up because he too favors austerity; the only comparatively minor point of difference between the Republican and Democrats is how brutal the cuts are to be, and whether the rich will be largely or entirely spared.
Even though I have blogged more frequently about PCS than anyone, I have never been for minting one TDC and returning to normal Treasury/Fed procedures for deficit spending. I have always proposed substantial and significant change in the financial system, change that would end with paying off the national debt, and with destroying the underlying political rationale for austerity based on the debt and the related idea of fiscal unsustainability.
During the whole current TDC campaign I have blogged constantly about High Value Platinum Coin Seigniorage (HVPCS) and its potential for changing the fiscal and political landscape and destroying the basis for austerity politics, while changing the game radically for progressive attempts to create greater economic and social justice. I referred to HVPCS as the big story the mainstream was missing, and also as game-changing PCS that would change the context of politics.
I believe that if the MSM bloggers hadn’t set up one of their usual “only talk to fellow villagers” echo chambers, but instead had embarked on an honest discussion of PCS options, they would have ended with a groundswell of support for HVPCS to fight austerity and that idea, since it is more strategic than tactical, would have been much harder for the President, Geithner, and Bernanke to dismiss, after a campaign that had identified it as the way out of austerity for the United States.
The President must, if he’s going to be successful in making the “grand bargain” continue to present himself as preferring not to make serious cuts to entitlement and other valued domestic programs, unless the Republicans “make him do it.” To the extent possible, the Democrats who will support him, also want to deny responsibility for the actions they will take. For the President and his Democrats to be seen as forced into the “grand bargain,” the President cannot be seen as acting to take an important way out of the austerity trap “off the table.” And that is what he would have had to do if the TDC campaign had been replaced with an HVPCS campaign sold as an answer to austerity.
The MSM and the blogosphere generally has missed the chance to generate such a campaign with the really heavy pressure it would have placed on the President and the Democratic Party. That is its failure; yet another disservice to the American people by the conventional media.