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Krugman Goes Platinum!

Another platinum coin surge in the Second Wave rippled through the mainstream media yesterday and this time hit the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Domenico Mantanaro of MSNBC kicked things off on one of the morning shows by mentioning the Trillion Dollar Coin (TDC) as a possible solution to the debt ceiling problem. Then, in the afternoon, on MSNBC’s the cycle, Krystal Ball, and Steve Kornacke, in discussing the coming debt ceiling conflict talked rather matter-of-factly, I thought, about minting some TDCs to get around the debt ceiling.

Then Paul Krugman blogged about platinum coins. In the context of answering a question about whether we can “print money,” to get around the debt ceiling, he answers no, and then says:

The peculiar exception is that clause allowing the Treasury to mint platinum coins in any denomination it chooses. Of course this was intended as a way to issue commemorative coins and stuff, not as a fiscal measure; but at least as I understand it, the letter of the law would allow Treasury to stamp out a platinum coin, say it’s worth a trillion dollars, and deposit it at the Fed — thereby avoiding the need to issue debt.

An admirably brief statement of the basic idea, but followed then by this puzzler:

In reality, to pursue the thought further, the coin really would be as much a Federal debt as the T-bills the Fed owns, since eventually Treasury would want to buy it back. So this is all a gimmick — but since the debt ceiling itself is crazy, allowing Congress to tell the president to spend money then tell him that he can’t raise the money he’s supposed to spend, there’s a pretty good case for using whatever gimmicks come to hand.

So, it’s gimmicks for gimmicks to get around the debt ceiling, and no notion on Paul Krugman’s part that Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PCS) might have a much broader use than simply countering a gimmick the Republicans are using to try to trash the social safety net and drown the Government in a bathtub.

Apart from that, however, this “. . . the coin really would be as much a Federal debt as the T-bills the Fed owns, since eventually Treasury would want to buy it back” is a bit strange. A very high value platinum coin deposited by the Mint in its account at the Fed would have its value credited to the Mint’s account in the form of electronic credits. The Fed would then keep the coin in a vault forever, as an asset on its balance sheet, and the seigniorage profits from the deposit of the coin would be swept into the Treasury General Account (TGA) where it would be used for repaying debt or other spending appropriated by Congress. So why would the Treasury ever want or need to buy that coin back from the Fed? And why would the coin be a Federal debt that the Treasury must repay?

It’s true that base money issued by the Federal Government is a Federal debt in the sense that the Government has an obligation to accept it in payment of taxes. But in this case, the Fed holds the coin and it has no taxes to pay. Also, the coin never goes into circulation, but sits in a Fed vault, so where does a debt that the Treasury must repay come into this picture and why?

Paul Krugman goes on to make a number of comments about the Fed printing money and the need for the Fed to pull that money back by selling its Treasury debt at some future time when the economy is growing rapidly to prevent inflation. But these comments aren’t directly relevant to using PCS, since using it is no more, and perhaps less, inflationary than using debt financing.

The appearance of PCS in Paul Krugman’s blog apparently had an immediate impact. Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), in an interview reported in Capital New York said:

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