Magazine | January 28, 2013, Issue

Keep the Change

There are many compelling reasons to mint a trillion-dollar coin, including “plot device for Mission: Impossible 5.” The coin has been stolen, and nefarious enemies of the United States intend to make counterfeits, flooding the world with coins and wrecking our economic system with worthless money and unpayable obligations. The president, knowing that’s his job, sends Tom Cruise and his team to retrieve the coin from the only group of credible foes Hollywood can depict, namely, European members of the Tea Party.

A trillion-dollar coin sounds ridiculous, like something Scrooge McDuck would carry in case he found himself in a poker game. Call . . . and raise. No one believes Barack Obama will order the creation of a trillion-dollar platinum coin to buy back one thousand billion in federally held debt; the president is a brilliant, sober man who would prefer real-world solutions, like waterboarding small-business owners until they reveal the secret of the Alchemist’s Stone that transmutes lead into gold. Paul Krugman has already called the coin idea “silly,” which really ought to be the final word, but we’re waiting to see if the Chinese Communist Party floats the idea of minting a septillion-yuan coin the size of an imperial gong. If they did such a thing to finance a ghost town in Mongolia with 50,000 empty apartments and a bullet train capable of flying off the shoddily built tracks at a rate of speed American infrastructure wonks can only dream about, Krugman might come around.

It is an intriguing idea. It cuts to our very conception of “money” and “value.” You could make two trillion-dollar coins, one of platinum and one of that weird silvery pseudo-metal the Soviets used for their medals, and either would be accepted as legal tender because of, y’know, “the full faith and credit of the United States,” to use a phrase that’s starting to sound like “the wit and wisdom of Harry Reid.” It would have no real, intrinsic value; it’d just be a symbolic construct like the rest of our weightless dollars. But no one really wants to go down that road, particularly since it’s littered with Kicked Cans, each of which is stuffed with IOUs.

For example: It would take 66 coins to fund Social Security and Medicare (parts A, B, and D, anyway; C, which mostly covers organ harvesting for resale in the oil kingdoms, pays for itself) — so why not just stamp out a hundred?

Because the Democrats would spend them, that’s why. It might sound like a theological puzzler — can Nancy Pelosi make a coin so valuable she herself could not spend it? — but you know they would. Oh, first there would be noises about putting the coins in a lockbox in Fort Knox, sunk so deep underground it could withstand a nuclear blast or a Continuing Budget Resolution (though not simultaneously). Then we would borrow against the coins, which would technically leave them in place. Then we would declare a national emergency — say, the cost of birth control had gone up 24 percent — and Congress would authorize, with great solemnity and regret, the spending of a trillion-dollar coin.

But you know how it is when you crack a twenty; whatever’s left over just evaporates. If the emergency cost only $670 billion, somehow there would be $330 billion in additional spending on the following:

#page#Establishment of a preserve for an endangered spackled stoat, requiring the immediate resettlement of everyone living in Iowa.

High-speed rail across the Atlantic.

$32 billion on a museum to commemorate the struggle to pass the $60 billion Hurricane Sandy relief bill.

$100 billion to modernize the nation’s schools (specifically, free plastic surgery for all the teachers).

People would be delighted, especially if government money had done something for their neighborhood, like installing free electric-car chargers in front of Planned Parenthood, which is totally the reason the Founders fought for Independence. A year later one of the Democratic caucuses’ more untethered individuals would point out that there were still 29 of the coins left; justice demanded that the government use them to eliminate poverty now, preferably by cutting them up into small pieces and taping them to lottery tickets. This would set the stage for monthly mintings, which would replace budget negotiations. No longer would the Republicans attempt to negotiate over the rise in the debt ceiling; they’d wrangle over who got to be on the coin, and MSNBC hosts would eviscerate the GOP for holding the country hostage because they wanted the coin to show Ronald Reagan scowling with angry disapproval.

The GOP would cave and agree to show Reagan looking neutral, with an unspecified promise of a coin to show Calvin Coolidge somewhat unhappy, six years out.

“If putting a dead white man from an era when the Klan was powerful on our currency,” President Obama said, “is the point the Republicans want to make to the American people, I’m willing to let them make this. As long as we can do this deal that protects working families.”

Time mag cover: a trillion coin with Obama stamped in relief wearing a Lincoln beard and hat.

Actual economic impact? Pshaw! Oh, maybe hyperinflation. Forty years from now, perhaps you’ll hear ads on talk radio announcing that a stash of uncirculated trillion-dollar coins has been discovered. Mounted in Lucite with a certificate of authenticity, these reminders of our bygone times can be had for just 100 AND, or Adjusted New Dollars.

They had to revaluate the currency because there weren’t enough places on the ATM screens. People got carpal-tunnel syndrome typing in “2,000,000,000” when they just wanted something to cover lunch.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

James Lileks — James Lileks writes the Athwart column for National Review magazine and is a frequent contributor to the National Review website. He is a prominent voice on Ricochet podcasts.

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