The birth, and the apparent death, of the trillion dollar platinum coin idea may one day be recalled as a mere footnote in the current debt crisis drama. The ultimate rejection of the idea (which was to use a loophole in commemorative coinage law to mint a platinum coin of any denomination) by both the the President and the Federal Reserve seems to offer some relief that our economic policy is not being run by out-of-touch academics and irresponsible congressmen.
In reality, our government has been creating more than one trillion dollars out of thin air every year for the past five. The only difference is that the blatant dishonesty of a trillion-dollar platinum coin is so easy to understand that the public simply couldn't be expected to swallow it. The American people are more than willing to be fooled, but they won't tolerate so simple a ruse.
People have a long and intimate history with coins. Some of us collected them as kids, and we all touch and see them every day. Unlike currency bills, we know intuitively that a coin's value is supposed to come from its metal content. That's why quarters are bigger than dimes. As a result, most people have viscerally rejected the platinum coin idea. To assign an arbitrary, sky high, valuation to a small piece of metal strikes most people as a deceitful, desperate act. They are right.
However, the same people have no problem with images of thousands of crisp paper notes flying off the printing presses. The acceptance is not impacted by how many zeroes the bills contain. People simply believe that paper money derives value from the numbers, not the paper. This was not always so. Paper money originally entered the public awareness as promissory notes to pay different amounts of gold. Once people got used to the paper, few really cared when the gold backing was finally removed. As a result, the public would likely have been much more accepting of the Fed printing a trillion dollar bill than the government minting a trillion dollar coin. But there was no legal pathway for the Fed to simply give that money to the government.
The government, not the Fed, mints coins, so they did not have to rely on the Fed to create value out of thin air. That is why the platinum coin idea was so seductive, if ultimately unsellable.