The Jumbo Coin

Jack Balkin, a constitutional law specialist at Yale, has written a very interesting article about President Obama's options to raise funds for the government and avoid a default if congress does not raise the debt ceiling. Balkin says that the Treasury cannot simply print more paper to create the money to pay the bills, since there are statutory limitations on how much currency is allowed to circulate at once. However there is no limit on coinage, and there is an arcane provision allowing Treasury to issue platinum coins in any denomination. Therefore "some commentators," according to Balkin, have pointed out that the Treasury could print two platinum coins worth $1 trillion each, put them in a deposit at the Federal Reserve and write checks on the deposit.

Another possible solution features the president selling the Fed a financial option to buy US government property for $2 trillion, which would give the money he needs to meet US government obligations, but with the option later expiring. Balkin says the "jumbo coin" and "exploding option" possibilities haven't been discussed openly because there may be unknown legal reasons they wouldn't work, and at any rate they could prove politically unpalatable -- meaning, in short, that these ideas sound absurd and even a public that is astoundingly credulous at times would have trouble accepting their actual implementation. Notably Balkin mentioned that investors could be terrified since "these devices could be used over and over again," and that degree of uncertainty could trigger a crisis of confidence that the tools are intended to avoid.

Ah, the word "device." The truth now becomes radiantly clear -- the old Shakespearean wisdom blazes before us -- that politics is at its very essence a form of drama. Drama includes farce, and we have now entered the land of cartoons. Congress erupts in a cloud of dust with fists and boots poking out of the storm, and congressmen attempting to smash each other with mallets. Obama, perturbed, picks up his red telephone and calls Geithner and Bernanke into his office. He orders them to procure the sacred platinum coins. Geithner is dispatched to speak to the US Mint, which begins the metallurgic process. The coins, hot off the press, are stamped, wrapped in a velvet cloth and placed in a special indestructible black box. Fifty black SUVs accompany Geithner to the Fed, where Bernanke opens the vault and carefully nestles the box in between the tin-man's heart and the scarecrow's brain. Obama begins writing checks. The US government is saved.

But then something terrible happens. Bernanke awakes in a cold sweat from a nightmare. He dreamed that a turkey stole his scone. He throws a jacket on over his pajamas while rushing downstairs, into his car and off to the Fed. He peeps into the vault to check on the precious coins and Lo! His greatest fear has come true, they are gone! Tripping over himself as he scampers to the red phone, he calls Obama.

"What's the meaning of this?"

"They're gone, Sir. I don't know what happened. They're gone."

"What? What're you talking about? Calm down, damn it, you sound like a madman. What happened?"

"The jumbo coins have disappeared."


"Well, we'll have to make a couple more."

Meanwhile a mysterious seaplane takes off from Chesapeake Bay. The propeller whirs in the night air. A man dressed in black hands over a box of moon cakes to his partner, smiling and nodding.

Et cetera, et cetera.

The debt ceiling debate was foreseeable, in a fairly definable form, immediately after the Tea Party victories of the 2010 midterms. The directors of the republican factions revamped the script of the 1990s "Republican Revolution," which led to a budget crisis and government shutdown before Republicans gained a victory. The twist today is that the opposition party is in a much weaker position, and is attempting to make a much bigger gamble, since the credit of the US is ostensibly at stake. The controversy has intensified over the months under careful orchestration, and it has reached its climax according to a political schedule imposed by the actors themselves. The deadline is artificial, the default threat is mostly artificial, the scaremongering about a new global financial crisis is artificial. As in all stunts, stage tricks and special effects, someone could actually get hurt, but it is unlikely. If the Tea Party attacks too aggressively, and accidentally flings mud into the audience, then the audience will hiss it off stage. Better to compromise at the last minute, having played their craziness convincingly, without actually doing anything crazy.

What is clear from the jumbo coin scenario is that the executive branch is not without extraordinary powers. The real threat to the country may reside here. The plot: a president who resorts to an arcane and unprecedented stratagem -- producing magic tokens from within the cloak of his prerogative -- in order to deliver a nation whose credit is imperiled by the schemes of a monomaniacal faction. The alternate version: the ruling elite conspires across party lines to suppress the attempts of a small, inexperienced group of elected representatives to force the elite to adhere to their own rules and restrain their profligacy that is depleting the nation's coffers and adding tax burdens on the people.

Audiences in general seem to prefer the hero with a magic token to the rebel lawmakers with reformist zeal. A larger and larger share of the American public appears to be adopting this inclination toward the mythical, and in doing so joining the rest of the world. This is conspicuous because the United States was founded upon the latter plot, the plot of representative politics, division of powers and checks and balances. But the country has changed, and audiences now may not even recognize nominal obeisance to forgotten ideals.

In the final days, the rebels must act with utmost tact. If they push their bluff too far and cause damage, they appear as villainous saboteurs, losing the public's support. They also provide the occasion for the executive to set new precedents and create new tools to overrule them, counteracting their aims of limited government. There is at least some risk that they are inferior tacticians, and know not the law of unintended consequences. The danger of the jumbo platinum coin is that it can be produced ad infinitum. Better not to dare the Leviathan.


Miro at the Tate Modern

Not time to explain fully everything I saw at the Miro exhibition at London's Tate Modern, which you can read about here. The exhibit is masterful and well worth the price. But an unfortunate preoccupation of the exhibit's textual commentary was to condense the idiosyncrasy and immense variety of his work, surprising and again surprising in every room, into a single narrative about Miro's political affiliations and commentary on topical events. This was in the typical post-modern art curator's fashion, in which the art is not allowed to say anything for itself but made to speak for conceptual frameworks, -isms, and context, and occluded in the process.

It would be difficult to understate the importance of the Spanish Civil War on any Spanish or European or even any Western artist at the time, and Miro's Catalonian loyalty added another dimension to the story of his artistic response to the conflict. Nevertheless the exhibit somehow managed to overstate the war by neglecting the fact that the surrealists in general and Miro in particular were obsessed with depicting psychological phenomena (as understood through contemporary psychoanalysis) that they believed to be definitive of human existence and prior to, determining of, topical events, however momentous.

If anything the paintings, in consistent contrast to the placards that insisted on a coherent political-military narrative, showed Miro's descent into the subconscious and exploration of dark, often sexual, and certainly internal, forces. The horrible symbols he developed for these forces -- especially the ferocious elephantiasic human forms -- rarely resembled contemporary European conflicts and their images (the woman fleeing a burning house being a poignant exception). They rather appeared as symbols of subconscious drives that must have been supposed to lead to the phenomenon of war itself, even -- especially -- in the atrocious forms of civil war (national self-mutilation), technologically-advanced total war, and genocide. The museum text failed to notice that as its chronology progressed into the Spanish war, the paintings began showing more, and more monstrous, reproductive organs.

Miro's failure is that he has no Guernica. The work he exhibited alongside Picasso's masterpiece-of-masterpieces is not extant, as the exhibit explained. Its survival would not have guaranteed equivalent status to Picasso's masterpiece, which, even if it alone survived, would ensure Picasso's immortality. Miro's achievement seems to have been the cumulative effect of his many works, rather than a single work that says it all -- continual invention of peculiar styles and an elaborate personal symbolism that expanded throughout his life and connected each new technical phase to its predecessors. But the work of Miro's among those in the Tate exhibit that comes closest to Guernica-like sweep is the one that depicts the "tragedy of the old shoe." And here Miro's deliberate avoidance of specific war imagery is clear. The real story of Miro's art is not its involvement in barbarous current events, but detachment from them and obsession with images of the nightmarish psychology at the root of them.

The exhibition commentary erred even in its mission of foregrounding the political and military context by diminishing the impact of World War II relative to the Spanish civil war. The exhibit raised the term "Phoney War," referring to the period of Allied inactivity between Hitler's invasion of Poland in fall 1939 and the eruption of hostilities with France in spring 1940, yet adopted the term subsequently in the exhibit to refer to World War II itself -- a grave error of judgment in an attempt at historical contextualization. This can probably be attributed to the post-modern curator's sense of his own cleverness in implanting a hidden critique of the "myth" of WWII. (This hidden critique was confirmed when later placards referred to most WWII monuments as "bombastic" compared to Miro's unimpressive blobs of un-sculpted clay and found objects.)

Miro's nationality and his whereabouts at different times may be cited by way of explanation for the heavier emphasis on Spain's war, but his work within the exhibit speaks otherwise. The Barcelona Series, 50 terrifying lithographs of black ink on white paper, which consumes a lengthy wall in the heart of the Tate exhibit, showed the most direct artistic response to war, and it was produced in 1944.

This series brings me to the connection with satire. Miro's entire artistic response to the human disasters of the 1930s and 1940s could be viewed as satirical, with the anguished, toothed faces and worn-out ordinary objects and looming gigantic penises all standing in a satirical position toward the horrors and atrocities. But the Barcelona Series specifically grew from Miro's reading of Ubu Roi, the satirical play by Alfred Jarry, which ridiculed bad kings and bad professors alike. The play, written in the 1890s, depicts a tyrannical protagonist who exhibits the worst of infantile emotions and animalistic desires.

The historical background to Miro's work is unavoidable. But the psychological is essential. As usual our post-modernists, in converting Miro's work into just another political protest, have failed to grasp the depth of his terror and his condemnation. Like Cervantes, whose bones will bear the mark, Miro had witnessed war himself. For both Spaniards, however different in other respects, war was not only a matter of acting on bad ideas but also a symptom of an incurable corruption at the heart of humankind.