January 7, 2013

I doubt we’ll ever find out whether “mint the coin” will pass muster with the courts, because I don’t believe Obama will avail himself of this option. Putting this aside, though, what’s deeply puzzling is the seemingly ubiquitous argument that the “mint the coin” idea is somehow so absurd and juvenile as to be beneath even thinking about.

Of course “mint the coin” is absurd. It’s a response to a situation which is itself already absurd. Indeed, the GOP’s debt ceiling hostage taking is far more ridiculous — and destructive — than “mint the coin” musings are. By far.

Paul Krugman and Josh Barro both lay out the substantive cases for “mint the coin,” while both allowing that it’s basically a gimmick. Yes, it is — because the entire debt ceiling crisis is itself a gimmick.

This shouldn’t need to be stated, but the GOP’s threat not to raise the debt ceiling is creating an entirely manufactured crisis, one that has been concocted for the sole purpose of creating the appearance of Republican leverage in service of getting the spending cuts Republicans want. It is not a real threat. Republican leaders don’t actually see going into default as a viable option. John Boehner is on record in 2011 allowing that letting the country go into default will cause “financial disaster.” Boehner today again confirmed the essential gimmickry of the GOP’s debt ceiling posture, claiming that Republicans may allow the debt ceiling to go up monthly. Translation: We know we have to hike the debt ceiling, so we’ll drag our feet — and pretend to resist — while allowing the inevitable to happen.

Meanwhile, in 2011, Mitch McConnell described the debt ceiling as a “hostage that’s worth ransoming” for the explicit purpose of getting Congress to “focus” on more spending cuts. This is an open acknowledgment, on the record, that the GOP’s debt ceiling is a tactic designed to concoct leverage, and nothing more.

This may be gimmickry, but it’s genuinely dangerous. Even if GOP leaders themselves know they can’t let the country go into default, their public flirtation with this outcome seems to be persuading a lot of Republicans that perhaps default wouldn’t be all that bad, and that perhaps it would be better to let that happen to force spending cuts and prevent the country’s slow slide into fiscal Armageddon. That’s nonsense, of course. Read Ezra Klein on what default would actually look like, and get very, very afraid. And by the way, even the threat of default can be destructive; in 2011 Standard and Poors downgraded U.S. debt partly because brinksmanship was underway, before any default happened.

I don’t claim to know whether “mint the coin” is really viable. But as Barro notes, the idea’s superficial appearance of “silliness” is really irrelevant — the goal is to avert default and allow Obama to pressure Congress to nix the debt ceiling altogether, ending a massively destructive practice that has itself been trumped out of nothing for purely partisan ends.

The preoccupation with the “silliness” of the “platinum coin” is striking when viewed alongside the business-as-usual acceptance of the Republicans’ willingness to threaten to destroy the country’s economy to create an entirely fake crisis, for the sole purpose of getting their way on spending cuts after voters rejected the GOP’s fiscal vision and priorities. It underscores, again, the refusal in many quarters to reckon with the fact that Republicans are not engaging in an ordinary Washington standoff — their debt ceiling brinksmanship is extraordinary and far outside long-accepted political norms. Let’s focus on the real problem here.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.