In early 2013, Congress entered a death struggle—or a debt struggle, if you will—over the future of the US economy. A spate of old tax cuts and spending programs were due to expire almost simultaneously, and Congress couldn’t agree on a budget, nor on how much the government could borrow to keep its engines running. Cue the predictable partisan chaos: House Republicans were staunchly opposed to raising the debt ceiling without corresponding cuts to spending, and Democrats, while plenty weary of running up debt, too, wouldn’t sign on to the Republicans’ proposed austerity.
In the absence of political consensus, and with time running out, a curious solution bubbled up from the depths of the economic blogosphere. What if the Treasury minted a $1 trillion coin, deposited it in the government’s account at the Federal Reserve, and continued on with business as usual? The workaround was technically authorized by an obscure law that applies to commemorative platinum coins, and it didn’t require congressional approval, so the GOP couldn’t get in the way. What’s more, the cash would not be circulated, so it wouldn’t cause inflation.
The thought experiment was catnip for wonks and bloggers, who described it as “ludicrous but perfectly legal” (Slate); “a monetary parlor trick” (Wired); “really thrilling” (Business Insider); “a large-scale trolling project” (The Guardian). The idea made its way onto late-night TV, political talk shows, White House press conferences, and lived on as a hashtag: #mintthecoin. At the heart of the attention was an acknowledgement that money wasn’t the problem here—politics was.
For a small but committed group of economists, academics, and activists who adhere to a doctrine called Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), though, #mintthecoin was the tip of the economic iceberg. The possibility of a $1 trillion coin represented more than mere monetary sophistry: It drove home their foundational point that fiat currency is a social construct, and that there are therefore no fiscal limits on how much a sovereign currency-issuing nation can spend.
According to this small but increasingly vocal cohort of economists, including Bernie Sanders’s former chief economic adviser, once we change the way we think about money, we can provide for everyone: We don’t have to “find” the money to “pay” for universal health care by “cutting” the budget elsewhere. In fact, our government already works that way: Spending must precede taxation, or there would be no dollars in the economy to tax. It’s the political will to spend on certain things, not the money to afford it, that’s lacking.