Pennies from Heaven? How ’bout a Trillion Bucks?

23 Jan

by Roger White

I’m a bit of an amateur coin collector, so you can see why I might be all aflutter these days. By no means am I a serious numis— , numith—, coin collector, but I do have my box of old favorites: mercury dimes, Indian head pennies, Franklin half-dollars, Chuck-E-Cheese commemoratives. I even have a Word War II-era French franc from occupied France I picked up at a yard sale. This beauty is signed by a platoon of U.S. GIs who stormed through the countryside chasing the Nazis back to Berlin. That tattered old bill is a keeper.

The Big CoinSo when I found out that the U.S. Treasury was seriously considering minting a platinum trillion-dollar coin, I had to find out more. Can you imagine the things you could do with a trillion-dollar coin? “Why, yes, my good man, I’ll have those twin Ferraris, this condo, that basketball team, and, yes, that little island over there. Payment? Let me reach into my pocket here…”

First off, before we get into the “why” of the trillion-dollar coin, let’s consider the “how” of the trillion-dollar coin. Now, with gold and silver, coins and bars are usually valued at whatever their weight is currently going for on the gold and silver market—except for very rare coins, of course, which is a different matter, altogether.

“Which is a different matter.”

Never mind. Anyway, going by that standard, consider that platinum coins these days are selling for roughly $1,620 an ounce. So, for a nice trillion-dollar coin to contain enough platinum to be actually worth a trillion dollars, you would need 617 million ounces—give or take an ounce. That comes out to a shiny little coin weighing approximately 19,300 tons—one hefty chunk of change.

As a matter of fact, I looked up some other things on the planet that weighed in at about 19,000 tons, and here’s what I came up with:

• One of the heaviest trains ever to roam the United States, a Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range ore train pulled by a gigantic Yellowstone steam locomotive, totaled over 19,000 tons. It was so long that the front end of the train was often in a different time zone than the back end.

• The North Carolina Department of Transportation reported that it removed more than 19,000 tons of debris from state roads following Hurricane Irene. This, the NCDOT added, was equivalent to carting off 6,300 elephants. They didn’t say whether they were African or Indian elephants. I called NCDOT for a clarification, but they kept hanging up.

• Here’s another good one: According to the Los Angeles Times, the then-Soviet Union exported around $515 million worth of military equipment to Nicaragua in the 1980s, a cache of guns and bombs and nasty stuff that somebody figured out weighed—you guessed it—19,000 tons.

So, suffice it to say, the Treasury would likely have us all go on faith that their trillion-An Even Better Coindollar baby would be worth what it says on the coin, rather than build the thing out of a trillion dollars worth of precious metal. This is one coin I would bite into and inspect very closely before I accepted it on the street.

Another thing about the $1T coin: Would it be fungible? I mean, how fungible could a $1-trillion-dollar coin be? If it’s not fungible, then what good is it? Right? This doesn’t really enter into the argument, but I just had to figure out a way to throw the word “fungible” into this column.

I know, I know. The term sounds like the coin should be soft and spongy and grow in moist, shady forests. No, fungible means, and I’m quoting here: the property of a good’s or commodity’s individual units to be mutually substituted, such as crude oil, bonds, or precious metals. Ya know, fungible.

In other words, say Henry lends Olaf five bucks. Henry really doesn’t care if Olaf pays him back with another $5 bill, five ones, or 500 pennies. Okay, maybe not the 500 pennies. But the point is, the $5 is fungible, because it can be replaced with any other $5 bill or equal amount of currency. A bicycle is not fungible because if I loan you my bike, and you try to return another bike—say, your crummy piece of junk—to me, I’m royally pissed because it’s not my exact bike. Furthermore, I’m never loaning you my bike again.

Sigh. So, you see, a $1T coin would not be feasibly fungible, because if there is no other such coin in existence and I loan you my $1T coin, then you go off and lose the darn thing, you’re not going to be able to pay me back, even with a million $1 million-dollar coins. Yes, 1 trillion dollarsBecause, for one thing, I’m not accepting a million $1 million-dollar coins from you. What do you think, I’ve got a warehouse for all that? And that’s another thing, if you use the $1T coin to get a candy bar from the vending machine, you’re going to be waiting around about 100,000 years to get all your change. And who needs that?

Okay, so now the “why” of the $1T coin. Do you really wanna know? Congress. That’s why. It involves the decided lack of grownups in Congress, and the debt ceiling and projected outlays and legal loopholes and the fact that, apparently, our little old Treasury Department can create money out of thin air as long as the cash is coins and the coins are made of platinum.

The idea was to make the magic coin, announce that it’s worth a trillion bucks, and then deposit it in Uncle Sam’s bank account. Viola! Debt crisis solved. I wonder if I could do that with my checking account. “Pay to the order of CASH, 1 trillion dollareenies, signed….”

Roger White is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas, with his lovely wife, two precocious daughters, a very fat dachshund, and a self-absorbed cat. For further adventures, visit oldspouse.wordpress.com.

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