A great week for numismatists!
I have always wanted to say that, and given the massive flurry of excitement over the potential of platinum coins to save the U.S. economy, this is my chance. Numismatists and philatelists are my favorite vaguely dirty-sounding words for coin collectors and stamp collectors respectively, and I do not get to take them out as often as I would like. If I make the joke about how philatelists sound like they belong on some kind of registry one more time, most of my friends are entitled to a free coffee.
But in what CNN tactfully describes as the “punditry void” left by the fiscal cliff, the idea of a trillion-dollar platinum coin that will rise up to fix the economy suddenly has gained traction.
“You can’t be serious,” was people’s first response. “That is literally something we saw on the Simpsons earlier, and not the Bowles-Simpsons, the regular Simpsons.”
“Well,” their interlocutors pointed out, “if you take it seriously, you might get to be on television.”
As they say, there is no economic situation so bad that minting a platinum coin will not make it more embarrassing.
One of the persistent delusions that I apparently share with the people who run government, is that it is possible to make money without, well, doing anything. I understand that there is a certain echelon of the population who used to live off of the interest on their capital, but I do not mean people who have money already. I mean the rest of us, who have, in most cases, negative amounts of money. There must be some way. Maybe on Craigslist. All you need to do is forward that e-mail from Bill Gates, or win the lottery, or maybe sell your hair to a creepy old woman by the docks. Or, heck, create a platinum coin.
If this sounds like a silly idea, that’s because it is a silly idea. But we are operating these days on the Emperor’s New Discussion principle that if enough serious people talk about something frivolous, it becomes serious by default. That’s what the “punditry void” leads to.
I am not saying that there is no news, or even that the ratio of news to commentary is more out of whack than usual, but consider. Here is what people have opinions about this week: Whether Brent Musburger needed to apologize to Miss Alabama Katherine Webb for describing her as “a beautiful woman.” Honey Boo Boo. “Les Miserables.” Bringing back the Greek gods.
Now we are debating the merits of a platinum coin — or a large series of platinum coins. Naturally we are. If we weren’t talking about this we would have to opine about how yesterday was Elvis’s 78th birthday, and that would not comport at all well with our self-images.
We have a punditry supply-demand problem that a coin will not solve. If you have a lot of Serious People trying to talk about the Issues of the Day, but there are not enough Buzzy Issues and they already got all their remarks about gun control out of their systems, it is possible to have a serious discussion about almost anything. Remember when theologians were ardently debating the number of angels who could dance on the head of a pin?
The platinum coin has at least the advantage of being a real, even viable solution to the nation’s fiscal problem, but that does not stop it from sounding intensely silly. When Congress cranked out the law that enables the Treasury secretary to mint collectible coins, to numismatists’ delight, they hardly envisioned this, but it’s technically legal. So if Congress doesn’t raise the debt ceiling, the president can print more coin money instead of borrowing it. You say, inflation, Josh Barro at Bloomberg says that the president can promise to melt down the coin as soon as this national nightmare is over. It does not even have to be made of 1 trillion dollars’ worth of platinum. It can be small and portable. People have thought this through.
In fact, I am frankly disappointed with how serious this idea has become. We ought to embrace the inherent bizarreness of this solution, insisting that the coin be at least eighteen yards in diameter and that we should get to suspend it over the Capitol by a tiny thread, with a soothsayer standing next to it muttering ominous things. It should have a giant portrait of Honey Boo Boo on it. The president should mint it, and then he should stand in front of this embarrassing large platinum coin and say, “Seriously, America? Seriously, Congress? Surely this has gone far enough.”
Just because it might work doesn’t mean it’s the way we ought to do things. So we should do as much as possible to point out how embarrassing this is. It’s silly. It’s mortifying. Like most things you do instead of your job to make money.