Jon Stewart Faceplants on #MintTheCoin

Jon Stewart took a look at the platinum coin option on his show last night, and it really sucked:

Let’s review. The Republican House has passed a budget legally obliging the executive to spend a certain amount, but they are threatening to withhold borrowing authority to pay for the spending they themselves passed into law unless they get what they want. Since this would probably lead to the government missing an interest payment and thus threatening the status of US Treasury securities, the bedrock of the entire financial system, Republicans are literally taking the world economy hostage to extract unrelated policy concessions. The platinum coin option is an emergency proposal to use the government’s seigniorage power to continue to fund the government’s operations without issuing additional debt.

Stewart, in quite possibly the laziest and most irresponsible segment I’ve ever seen on the Daily Show, doesn’t mention any of that background; in fact he gives a grossly misleading context. “America’s got a bit of a cash flow problem these days,” he says. “We’ve have a 16 trillion dollar debt, our credit rating was downgraded for the first time last year. I think we can all agree it’s time to get serious and figure out a way to restore the world’s respect for the soundness of our currency.” This is just utterly wrong. There is no worry whatsoever in the markets about the soundness of the dollar. Again, demand for US debt is so strong that people are literally paying us to take their money—inflation-adjusted yields for 10-year Treasury bonds are below zero.

Then he quotes a news segment saying “a $1 trillion platinum coin could be minted, and the government could use that to pay the debt.” Again wrong. This is about paying the government’s current financial obligations, not paying down the debt.

Stewart continues: “I’m not an economist, but I say go big or go home. How about a $20 trillion coin?” He later quotes a slightly better explanation of the actual mechanics of the coin option, but only to make fun of the guy’s name. After some more jokes, he wraps up with “we don’t need a trillion-dollar coin gimmick, we need a way to make the world take the US dollar seriously again.”

Not once during the segment does he mention the actual reason for the coin proposal—the debt ceiling—neither does he correctly explain how it would work or why. It would have been okay for Stewart to dismiss the proposal, but to be blithely scornful of it while providing a terribly inaccurate explanation is infuriating.

I won’t say that Stewart has the same obligation to be accurate the journalists have—in fact, if he had brought up the coin only to make a lot of silly jokes about whose face would be on it, that would have been okay. (A missed opportunity, but nothing more.) But instead he grossly misled his audience.

At its best the Daily Show is about satirizing the actual reality of American governance in an honest way. Stewart has built up a lot of credibility over the years. A great many people trust him implicitly, believing that while his main objective is to be funny, he also won’t under any circumstances BS them. Yesterday, he betrayed that trust.

Shame on you, Jon Stewart. You’re better than this.


Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.