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One-Trillion-Dollar Coin

When I was a boy, I once (or twice!) played the game “Three Wishes” with my friends. The premise of the game was that any three wishes you had would come true exactly as you stated them. The limiting rules were that you could not hurt or kill anyone, you could not wish to live forever, and you could not wish for more wishes.  Invariably, the one common wish was the wish to be rich or, more specifically, for unlimited money. Although short and simple, the game was a great way to pass time, to get lost in momentary daydreaming, and to learn how your friends thought. I wish I could say that we stayed wholesome and pure in our reasons for wanting to be rich, but that wasn’t really the case. Money seemingly was the answer for everything in our lives, for money would give us whatever we wanted with little to no consequences or thought.  

I suppose we were not the only ones to have played this game because our government seems to be filled with officials who are living out its fantasy in real life. Let me briefly explain what I mean. Each year Congress consistently spends more money than it has collected in taxes. To accomplish this magical feat, it borrows money to make up the difference and to avoid a government shutdown. Unfortunately, this has become such a common scenario that it has become necessary to put a limit on what can be borrowed to fund overspending each year. We call this the “debt limit” or “debt ceiling.”  Already in early October, our country was nearing this debt ceiling after having overspent our collected revenue and borrowed money once again. This forced Congress members to acknowledge that a government shutdown might be a possibility. Rather than make the hard decision to hold themselves accountable, however, Congress began daydreaming. A “trillion-dollar coin” entered its imagination.1  

The theory of minting a single, trillion-dollar coin is not new, as a similar idea was already proposed back in 2011 and again in 2018. Although never acted upon, the basic concept is that the president could order the treasury secretary to mint a one-trillion-dollar coin out of platinum, then immediately deposit it in the national bank we call the Federal Reserve. This deposit would make the debt ceiling disappear and provide space for the government to keep spending. Perhaps surprisingly, this strategy to avoid a government shutdown has many proponents who see the debt ceiling as an unnecessary hindrance. In very little time, they claim, the treasury secretary could order the design, minting, and deposit of such a coin to make our nation’s debt “disappear.” Sounds like unlimited money for spending to me! 

As preposterous as this scenario sounds, the reason for the theoretical daydreaming is equally troubling. Our government is at an impasse when it comes to spending. During every election cycle, candidates make promises they know they cannot keep from a financial perspective. But given the political polarization in our country, few candidates really expect to have the votes required to pass the spending bills needed to keep those promises. All that a candidate has to do is make promises to his or her constituency and, if elected, blame the other party for blocking efforts to fulfill them. It’s a simple calculus with terrible financial implications. 

The simple (and rather obvious) solution is for politicians to show restraint and spend only the money that can be raised, which is primarily through taxes. This is hard, though, when one’s political opponents seem willing to spend anything to get votes. Promises of stimulus checks, military expansion, free college education, and complimentary healthcare have made both parties wary of showing financial restraint when the opposing party clearly will not.2 It is a never-ending game of political one-upmanship to capture votes that continues to push national debt to record levels. 

The latest evidence that unrestrained spending will continue is playing out as our government considers bills that would authorize the expenditure of trillions of dollars on national infrastructure and social programs.3 Estimates of the cost of these bills run upward of 4.7 trillion dollars! Let those numbers sink in. For reference, our government collected $3.42 trillion in 2020, roughly $10,400 per person.4 This means that the increase in spending above current levels—which are already in the trillions—would be almost $4,000 per person greater than all tax revenue collected. Unless taxes are raised considerably, passing such bills would prove that Congress has no intent of spending only what it raises and even less intent of staying within the approved borrowing debt limit. Voting for such bills means Congress starts with the assumption that it has unlimited money to spend, money that does not even yet exist. In retrospect, maybe the trillion-dollar coin theory is not so preposterous after all!  

As young people living in these free-spending times, we need to be wary of learning how to steward our resources by observing the habits of our government—and really our entire country. While common sense and the patterns of creation itself (Prov. 6:6) warn us of the folly of spending beyond our means, we also have the witness of Scripture to guide us in a principled use of the material and financial gifts that have been bestowed upon us by God. Among these principles are the commands to labor diligently (Prov. 10:4–5; 2 Thess. 3:6–12) and to be wary of debt (Ps. 37:21; Prov. 22:7). Read and study God’s word on financial stewardship and look to godly examples in the church to learn how to be grounded biblically in your use of the resources God has provided.  

Understanding the financial times that we are experiencing is paramount. We need to pray that God will give us wisdom in the earning, spending, and investing of money for the greatest priorities of his kingdom. These priorities include the proper care of the church and its ministers, the spread of the gospel through mission fields, the support of good Christian schools, and the care of the poor and needy in our churches and communities. May God grant us the ability and humility to support the needs of his kingdom first (Matt. 6:33) in love for him and our neighbor, rather than living out a financial daydream of never-ending material prosperity in this world.