A group of congressmen are (again) opposing raising the US debt ceiling, which (again) threatens to put the US government into default on a portion of the US debt. There is some uncertainty about the magnitude of the consequences of a US default, varying between very bad and globally catastrophic. Phrases like “taking hostage” and “political extortion” are thrown around too casually in the discourse when opportunities for politically leverage are taken advantage of, but in this case I think the scale of consequences makes it completely appropriate. A threat to force a US debt default through the mechanics of a mistake made when legislating bond issuance rules during World War I is an act of political extortion that holds the global economy hostage.
The obvious solution is to eliminate the debt ceiling, but we have failed to do so because of the same political incentives underpinning our problems today. Some economists and economics-adjacent folks have suggested a policy solution, itself similarly born of an unintended legislative loophole: the trillion dollar coin.
As far as specialty areas go, I’m about as far from a monetary specialist as an economist can get, so I’m not going to litigate here whether putting the coin on the balance sheets of the Federal Reserve would be inflation neutral or compromise the independence of the Fed. What I want to consider is the Lucas Critique.
Specifically, the Lucas Critique applied to political economy after minting a trillion dollar coin. In briefest of terms, the Lucas Critique says a model of the world generated from past data to forecast a policy’s effects is wrong as soon as that policy changes the rules. We (rightfully) do not like the status quo as created by the current rules, but it is extremely difficult to predict the consequences of a big rule change, via loophole exploitation, made to fix the status quo because the underlying data generating process has been fundamentally altered.
I don’t know if minting a trillion dollar coin is a good idea or a bad idea. What I do know it is that we should be humble when trying to forecast the consequences of shifting the power to radically impact the balance sheets of the Federal Reserve from a elected body of 435 congressmen and 100 senators to a cabinet member appointed by a singular elected President.
Let’s ask two questions. I like to ask myself a version of these two questions when evaluating change in political options or rules:
- Why is the opposition reacting the way it is?
- What would Trump have done ?
The first is because it forces me to consider what the underlying incentives and strategies really are. The Republicans, as it stands, do not seem to view the trillion dollar coin as a policy outcome to be avoided. They’re, historically, the anti-inflation party. They represent a lot of bond holders. Hyper inflation should terrify them, so maybe they agree with the prediction of inflation neutrality. On the other hand, they also know that electoral college favors them and, with the growing aspiration within the party to win over Latino voters for the next few decades, maybe they like the idea of shifting more power away into the executive branch.
The second question is important because it forces me to acknowledge when I’m relying on norms to produce the outcome I prefer. Say what you will about Trump, the man was never concerned with norms, traditions, or the consequences for anyone but himself. This question also allows me to consider obviously ludicrous things that no one could get away because he got away with exactly such things. So, let me ask you this: if the Secretary of the Treasury can order the minting of a trillion dollar commemorative coin and deposit it in the Federal Reserve balance sheet, what other ways could the Treasury reallocate funds on US balance sheets? What if we stopped assuming it would only be used in the most benign, inflation neutral way possible? Why can’t they use it to loan money to Russia or pay for the balance of global debt held by a small country that specializes in off-shore banking? Or, stepping back from the brink of “The President stole a trillion dollars”, what are the ways in which a President could trigger an economic or constitutional crisis by appropriating the power to significantly increase M1? What are the ways this new option would be internalized in the political marketplace and equilibrium of power?
The point is this: political norms, especially those constraining power at the highest level, are more fragile than we sometimes appreciate. Nothing exposes this more than big changes to the rules of governance. Game theory and mediocre movie plots now considered, let’s return to the Lucas Critique. A political compromise made to expedite bond issuance under the pressures of The Great War produced an political lever that has been exploited for decades. This was an unintended consequence. As a current wing of the Republican party has put more and more weight on this lever, the opposition is now considering exploiting a loophole, itself an unintended consequence of the otherwise innocuous coinage act. It’s hard to forecast the effect of such a fundamental shift in the rules and distribution of power because it immediately renders obsolete the model currently informing our expectations.
Cards on the table, if we’re at the zero hour and it’s either a) mint the coin or b) default on US debt, I think we should mint the coin. Defaulting on the debt of the country that provides what is without question the currency tying together the global economy scares me enough that some sort of workaround gambit becomes a necessary risk. But what will be the unintended consequences of minting a trillion dollar coin? I don’t know.
And neither do you.