May 19, 2013
The Trillion Dollar Coin: Joke or Game-Changer?
Posted on Jan 18, 2013
By Ellen Brown, Web of Debt
Fourscore and six years later, President Abraham Lincoln boldly took back the money power during the Civil War. To avoid exorbitant interest rates of 24% to 36%, he decided to print money directly from the US Treasury as US Notes or “greenbacks.” The issuance of $450 million in greenbacks was key to funding not only the North’s victory in the war but an array of pivotal infrastructure projects, including a transcontinental railway system.
Lincoln was assassinated, however and, the greenback program was quickly discontinued. Repeated popular attempts to revive it failed. In 1872, according to Lynn Wheeler in Triumphant Plutocracy: The Story of American Public Life from 1870 to 1920, New York bankers sent a letter to every bank in the United States, urging them to fund newspapers that opposed government-issued money. The letter read in part:
Dear Sir: It is advisable to do all in your power to sustain such prominent daily and weekly newspapers . . . as will oppose the issuing of greenback paper money, and that you also withhold patronage or favors from all applicants who are not willing to oppose the Government issue of money. Let the Government issue the coin and the banks issue the paper money of the country. . . . [T]o restore to circulation the Government issue of money, will be to provide the people with money, and will therefore seriously affect your individual profit as bankers and lenders.
Bank-created money (which now includes electronic money) could be rented at a profit to the people. The “people’s money” was limited to coin, which today composes less than one ten-thousandth of M3, the broadest measure of the money supply.
Gimmick or Game-Changer?
That is the real context and backstory of the trillion-dollar coin. The stakes are much higher today than just fending off the debt ceiling. We the people need to take back the power to issue our own money, and coins are the only means left to us to do it.
The idea of minting large denomination coins to solve economic problems was evidently first suggested by a chairman of the Coinage Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives in the early 1980s. He pointed out that the government could pay off its entire debt with some billion-dollar coins. The Constitution gives Congress the power to coin money and regulate its value, and no limit is put on the value of the coins it creates. In Web of Debt (2007), I suggested that to solve the government’s debt problems today these would need to be trillion dollar coins.
In legislation initiated in 1982, however, Congress chose to impose limits on the amounts and denominations of most coins. The one exception was the platinum coin, which a special provision allowed to be minted in any amount for commemorative purposes.
An attorney named Carlos Mucha, blogging under the pseudonym Beowulf, proposed issuing a platinum coin to capitalize on this loophole, after hearing me mention the trillion-dollar coin in a Thom Hartmann interview. At first it was just an amusing exercise. But with the endless gridlock in Congress over the debt ceiling, it got picked up by serious economists as a way to checkmate the deficit hawks.
Philip Diehl, former head of the US Mint and co-author of the platinum coin law, confirmed that the coin would be legal tender:
In minting the $1 trillion platinum coin, the Treasury Secretary would be exercising authority which Congress has granted routinely for more than 220 years . . . under power expressly granted to Congress in the Constitution (Article 1, Section 8).
Warren Mosler, one of the founders of Modern Monetary Theory, reviewed the idea and concluded it would work operationally. The funds would simply be new reserve balances at the Fed rather than new Treasury securities.
Joe Firestone pointed out that the trillion-dollar coin could solve the government’s debt problems once and for all, putting was in its grasp the power to replace austerity with the abundance enjoyed by our forefathers.
The trillion-dollar coin can raise cries of “hyperinflation!” It evokes images of million-mark notes filling wheelbarrows. But as economist Michael Hudson observes:
“Every hyperinflation in history has been caused by foreign debt service collapsing the exchange rate. The problem almost always has resulted from wartime foreign currency strains, not domestic spending.”
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