Berko: The trillion-dollar coin and a broken economy
Friday, March 15, 2013 7:00 AM
Dear Mr. Berko:
Four years ago, I lost my job, and because I used your “100-Plus Ben Franklin Savings Ideas,” we were able to keep our household spending in order. That was a lifesaver. Thanks to you, it was simple. Why can’t the government discipline its spending as we did and get its house back in order? And where did the government come up with the platinum coin idea it had in 2012? A friend of mine, who is a lawyer for the Department of the Interior, can’t find anything in the federal law that permits the Treasury to mint platinum coins. What hat was this pulled from?
F.R., Oklahoma City
My daughter, Hilary, a lawyer (one of the good ones), is an expert at finding needles in legal haystacks. She tells me that in Title 31 of the U.S. Code, it states, “The Secretary (of the Treasury) may mint and issue platinum bullion coins.” It was enacted into law in 1996 and is all the authority Tim Geithner (our man at the Treasury in 2012) needed. The treasury secretary can mint any platinum coin denomination he or she wishes. Of course, this would be disingenuous, but if the law were challenged, Hilary believes that the court would rule in favor of the coin. However, for some strange reason, the Obama administration decided against those trillion-dollar coins, which would have been deposited with Ben (our man at the Federal Reserve) so the Treasury checks wouldn’t bounce. Instead, the House Budget Committee chairman ingeniously approved a short-term increase in the debt limit so Congress has more time to work with the White House. I can’t imagine a more stupid way to solve a problem than putting it in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong.
I’m glad those Ben Franklin suggestions helped you. However, a household is not a metaphor for the economy. You can shrink a household into prosperity by using self-discipline to reduce expenditures, but that strategy doesn’t work for an entire economy. If a shrimp boat captain forgoes maintenance on his engine, the mechanic who does the maintaining can’t afford a shrimp dinner. The economy is not a household but rather an engine with a bad crankshaft, a cracked head, worn valves and a failing injection system. This engine doesn’t need a disciplinarian; it needs a mechanic. And that’s precisely how it is with our economy. Therefore, the multiple stimuli the Fed is using to fuel the economy are being consumed by a broken, inefficient engine that limps at 5 knots, as opposed to cruising at 25 knots.
Our engine needs a complete overhaul, and there isn’t a mechanic in the galaxy who can do the job. Three members of Congress whom I know well privately acknowledge they’re out of solutions, and there may be other realists in the House and Senate who have identical opinions. Even executives at our biggest companies and investment banks realize our economic engine continues to lose the horsepower it needs to drive the country forward without continued monetary stimuli. So in order to maintain a semblance of social congruity and fiscal order, Congress postures various Rube Goldberg fixes that masquerade as permanent solutions. A few members of Congress and knowledgeable citizens recognize there are no cures for the national debt, Obamacare, entitlement programs, public education, illegal drugs, public pensions or immigration.
Be a realist; recognize that these problems are beyond the pale and can’t be repaired. But you can enjoy the future with a bodacious smile if you partake of the following wisdom: Things turn out best for those who make the best of the way things turn out.
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