The trillion dollar coin is an utterly idiotic idea

Following US political debate these days is like following a bad parody of a third world banana republic and even though I the deepest respect for Americans and US in general I must say it is hard not to agree with those Europeans that shake their heads these days and say “they are stupid those Americans”. Well, it is not the Americans – it is their politicians and you could say a similar thing about Europe.

The latest banana republic gimmick is the suggestion that the US Treasury should use a legal loophole to print a trillion dollar coin in the event that the US congressional majority – that’s the Republicans – would refuse to increase the so-called debt celling.

The idea in my view is completely ludicrous and it is incredible that anybody seriously would even contemplate such an idea. Anyway, is Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman:

“It’s easy to make sententious remarks to the effect that we shouldn’t look for gimmicks, we should sit down like serious people and deal with our problems realistically. That may sound reasonable — if you’ve been living in a cave for the past four years.Given the realities of our political situation, and in particular the mixture of ruthlessness and craziness that now characterizes House Republicans, it’s just ridiculous — far more ridiculous than the notion of the coin.

So if the 14th amendment solution — simply declaring that the debt ceiling is unconstitutional — isn’t workable, go with the coin.”

Nobel Prize or not Krugman is wrong – as he so often is.

First, of all there is no reason to think that the US government would have to default on it’s public debt just because the debt ceiling is not increased. The monthly debt servicing costs in the US is significantly smaller than the US government’s total monthly tax revenues. It might be that the US Treasury would have to stop paying out salaries to US Congressmen and stop buying new military hardware for a while – neither would be a major lose – but the tax revenues would easily cover  the debt servicing costs. That of course do not mean that I suggest that the debt ceiling should not be increased – that is US party political shenanigans that I simply don’t even want to comment on. However, it is wrong to suggest that the US government would automatically default if the debt ceiling is not increased.

Lars, wouldn’t a 1 trillion dollar coin be monetary easing? So it most be good?

What I really want to discuss is the Market Monetarist perspective on this discussion. Yes, Market Monetarists have for the past four years argued that US monetary policy has been overly tight and the reason the US recovery has been so relatively weak is the that Federal Reserve has had too tight monetary policy. That has led Market Monetarists like myself and other to call for monetary easing from the Federal Reserve.

However, at the core of Market Monetarist thinking is not the call for monetary easing and no Market Monetarist has ever said that monetary easing is the cure of all evils. Rather at the centre of Market Monetarist thinking is the call for a rule based monetary policy. An easing of monetary policy based on a trillion dollar coin is probably the most discretionary and least rule based monetary (and fiscal) idea anybody have come up with over the past four years.

Yes, Market Monetarists are certainly skeptical about central bankers ability to conduct monetary policy in a proper fashion, but that certainly do not mean that we think US politicians and bureaucrats in the US Treasury would do a better job. Far from it!

I would even go further – I don’t necessarily think that the US economy needs more quantitative easing IF the Federal Reserve started conducting monetary policy based on a transparent monetary rule like NGDP level targeting. Furthermore, if I would have to chose between an NGDP level target or a massive ramping up of quantitative easing within a discretionary framework then there is no doubt that I would choose the rule based framework. Market Monetarists are not the monetary version of discretionary Krugmanian fiscal policy.

Concluding, the trillion dollar coin idea is stupid. It is stupid because it banana republic “economic” policy based on the worst political motives without any foundation in the rule of law and a general rules based framework.

The fact is that the US government faces serious fiscal challenges. The US public debt level needs to be reduced and even if the Federal Reserve pushed back NGDP to its pre-crisis trend level I believe there would be a significant need for fiscal consolidation. There is no getting around it – debt ceiling or not, trillion dollar coin or not – fiscal policy will have to be tightened sooner or later. And if you need idea about what to cut I have some ideas about that as well (see here).

It is simple mamanomics – you can’t continue spending more money than you have. It might be that certain US policy makers would be happy if their mom raised their weekly allowances, but would they also be happy if their mom prostituted herself to do that?

PS there is no party politics in what I am saying – I have the same lack of respect for both main political parties in the US as do most Americans.

PPS Scott Sumner and Tyler Cowen also comment on the trillion dollar coin – for some reason the two gentlemen are slightly more diplomatic than I am. Josh Hendrickson, however, is as clear on the issue as I am – Josh has two posts on the trillion dollar coin. See here and here.

PPPS If you think there is a lot of James Buchanan and Friedrich Hayek in this post then I have achieved what I want to achieve. After all Friedman and Schwartz’s “Monetary History” is not the only book I read.

Update: Both Steve Horwitz and George Selgin comment on the trillion dollar coin – not surprisingly I have no reason to disagree with the two gentlemen.

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