Funny Money: Pundits float $1 trillion coin as answer to debt-ceiling standoff

Imagine sitting around the kitchen table, trying to figure out how you're going to pay off that next-generation HDTV you just bought.

Then someone has an idea. Brush off one of the old checker pieces in the attic, assign it a value of, say, $2,000 -- and use that newly minted "coin" to pay the credit card.

Such an absurd idea is, pun intended, gaining currency as a technically legal way for Washington to avert a looming fight over the debt ceiling. A Democratic congressman, a Nobel-winning economist and several prominent writers are now floating the idea that the Treasury Department should use obscure powers to mint a $1 trillion coin if Congress does not permit an increase in the debt ceiling.

That coin, then, could be used to pay America's debts.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., told Capital New York that the "out of the ordinary" idea could actually work.

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"I'm being absolutely serious," he said. "It sounds silly, but it's absolutely legal."

Folks like Nadler point to a tiny section in the U.S. code that allows the Treasury secretary to "mint and issue platinum bullion coins and proof platinum coins" of a size and denomination of "the secretary's discretion." This is mainly for commemorative coins, but the idea that the provision could be exploited as an ace-up-the-sleeve for the administration was first explored during the 2011 debt ceiling fight. Now, it's back.

The trillion-dollar coin idea has attracted more than 4,500 signatures on a White House petition, and, crossing social media's first threshold of acceptance, has earned its own #mintthecoin hashtag on Twitter.

The likelihood of this happening is about as likely as the checkers scenario. But the argument in its favor is that minting a trillion-dollar coin is a commensurately ridiculous response to Congress refusing to pay debts it has already accumulated.

"While this may seem like an unnecessarily extreme measure," the White House petition reads, "it is no more absurd than playing political football with the U.S. -- and global -- economy at stake."

Economist Paul Krugman called it a "gimmick," but wrote that "since the debt ceiling itself is crazy ... there's a pretty good case for using whatever gimmicks come to hand."

Aside from the obvious questions this campaign raises -- whose face would adorn such a high-value coin, and what happens if it's lost in the laundry -- are some more troublesome questions, like what a freewheeling Treasury secretary minting coins of any denomination would do to the markets and inflation.

Bloomberg's Josh Barro tries to dispatch with these concerns by arguing that President Obama could avert the inflation fear by pledging to buy back the new currency as soon as the Treasury Department can borrow again. And then, Barro offers, Obama could revoke the platinum coin authority in exchange for abolishing the debt ceiling.

Joe Weisenthal of Business Insider also claims the coin wouldn't cause "massive inflation" anyway, "because we wouldn't have a gigantic injection of new money" -- just money Congress has already allocated.

But other analysts warn the idea of skirting the debt ceiling by producing astronomically valuable coins is a recipe for market chaos.

"It's just a disguised new form of debt," former Congressional Budget Office director Douglas Holtz-Eakin told "This would say (to the markets) they cannot manage their finances as a nation, they're down to gimmicky coins."

He added: "It would have all the implications of near-default."

Mark Calabria, director of financial regulation studies at the Cato Institute, said it's legally do-able but "extremely unlikely." He called the proposal a "combination of desperation and silliness." A column in Britain's The Guardian also panned the idea as one that doesn't work "even as satire," arguing that it could indeed "create a nonsensical level of inflation."

The administration may not dignify the trillion-dollar coin idea with a response. The related petition is still about 20,000 signatures short of the number necessary to elicit a response from the White House.

Still, another debt ceiling fight is looming. The country technically bumped up against the borrowing cap on Dec. 31, but Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner took emergency measures to stave off a crisis. Lawmakers have a matter of weeks to determine what, if any, spending cuts will be mandated in order to win approval from Congress for another debt-ceiling hike.