The Game Theory of the Post-Platinum Coin Debt Ceiling

By Mike Konczal |

In a statement given to wonkblog over the weekend, the Treasury department announced that “Neither the Treasury Department nor the Federal Reserve believes that the law can or should be used to facilitate the production of platinum coins for the purpose of avoiding an increase in the debt limit.” Jay Carney followed up with the statement that there “are only two options to deal with the debt limit: Congress can pay its bills or they can fail to act and put the nation into default.”

The administration decided against negotiating with the GOP over potential terms for raising the debt ceiling, even though they could have tried for the Grand Bargain they’ve been trying to get for the past several years. They’ve asked for a clean increase of the debt limit instead, threatening default. They’ve also now decided to commit to not sidestepping around the debt ceiling using legal measures, either by minting the platinum coin or declaring the debt ceiling unconstitutional via the 14th amendment.

The administration thinks that this move will strengthen their position. In general, having more choices makes you better off. But in strategic situations, removing some of your options can strengthen other options, by committing to following them through. Every game theory class has a reference to an army burning bridges and ships and otherwise removing their own escape routes, to tell their soldiers–and their opponents–that they’ll fight to the bitter end.

Since the platinum coin decision and subsequent statements seem compatible with game theory dynamics, it might be useful to diagram out the debt ceiling debate via an extensive-form game:

Removing the “avoid debt ceiling” option, in red above, is the administration’s way of saying that they want a “clean increase,” in green above, over anything else.

What are some ideas that can be drawn from viewing the debate as a game?

What Does a Clean Increase Give the Administration? For the White House, both the strategy of sidestepping the debt ceiling or the strategy of not negotiating and then having the GOP give up a clean increase would end the game. However, going for the clean increase has greater risks, as there’s a possibility of default.

So why try and force the game down this path? One reason could be that the administration is more worried about the costs of a defusing strategy than the pundits are. Maybe the Obama administration believes that the public will see this as a gross overreach of executive power.

A more likely explanation is that the administration thinks it is important to its own longer-term strategies for the GOP to play the ending move. Say Treasury had used the coin in the first round. This might have emboldened the more reactionary elements of the GOP. Taking the coin off the table forces the more sensible members of the GOP to take power back from those willing to default and move for a clean increase. This was basically Ezra Klein’s argument for not using the platinum coin.

Most liberal commentary is split over the second level of the diagram, the branches leading from the “don’t negotiate” option. There are those that think that this will force the more extreme conservatives to fold, further weakening them in the aftermath of the 2012 election and fiscal cliff. And there are those that think that breaching the debt ceiling has such a potential high cost for our economy, and don’t see any reason to think the GOP will moderate to the center by February 15th, that it is not worth the risks.

The Administration Should Emphasize Default Pains… The stated strategy behind abandoning the platinum coin option is to use the threat of the “full default” to force a clean increase. One of the interesting things about the platinum coin and the 14th amendment in this game is that they have a dual strategic value. They could be used to shut down the debt ceiling in advance of having to stare down the House GOP, and they could also be kept as a last-minute option to prevent a default if the GOP doesn’t go for an increase. If the administration wants to commit to a “clean increase” strategy, then they have to remove it in both cases.

The leverage here for the administration is to emphasize the pain of default and the lack of other ways of mitigating them. The State of the Union speech is February 12th, or three days before the first day we could possibly breach the debt ceiling. There is significant opportunity there to emphasize to the public how bad the outcomes would be if there isn’t an increase, as well as to explain how impossible prioritization and workarounds are.

In the meantime, expect to see conservatives argue that the various workarounds available for the administration are sufficient and going through the debt ceiling wouldn’t be that bad, contrary to the available evidence, to push back against the administration’s strategy (and force them into “negotiate”).

…While Downplaying IOUs and Other Shadow Currency. Several people are putting out the idea that instead of minting a platinum coin, the administration should begin to prepare IOUs, scrips, or other forms of shadow currency promising future payments once the debt ceiling is raised.

As NYC Southpaw notes, this is the equivalent of saying we will “postpone paying back our debts with a no maturity, zero coupon, federal IOU that President Obama creates by executive order” that are almost certainly “a whole new fiat currency. They would be perpetual obligations of the government that are freely transferable and earn no interest—just like the bills in your wallet.”

This is a weaker option than the platinum coin on every angle, inviting more legal challenges, uncertainty and constitutional issues while also inviting blowback for the administration in the form of how they are prioritized and the likely bank profits. (To use game theory terms, the platinum coin strictly dominated the IOU shadow currency strategy.)

Since it is weaker across the board, and the administration is trying to downplay both points at which this strategy could be deployed (under “avoid” as well as “workarounds”) expect little play on this topic in the weeks ahead.

Sequestration Complicates This. As many have noted, the debt ceiling will occur at the same time as the large spending cuts in the sequestration come into play. One doesn’t have to be cynical to think that the debt ceiling will be in the background of any sequestration negotiations. Removing the platinum coin tells us little about this will play out, though throwing in the debt ceiling might make a bad deal look better for the administration and Democrats.

Finally if the administration gets the better of the GOP on sequestration, it could make the GOP more likely to threaten default to compensate for what see as a loss of power. In theory, the payouts of one game shouldn’t affect a completely different game, but life is often more complicated than what game theory can tell us.


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Mike Konczal is a Fellow with the Roosevelt Institute, where he works on financial reform, unemployment, inequality, and a progressive vision of the economy. His blog, Rortybomb, was named one of the 25 Best Financial Blogs by Time magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rortybomb.