Update: Two days after this story was published, shortly after the Treasury Department announced it would not mint a trillion-dollar coin, the anonymous commenter Beowulf agreed to having his real name used. He is Carlos Mucha.
The Atlantic has already dubbed it “the single most important comment in the history of Internet comments. Probably.”
In the midst of the debt-ceiling negotiations in the summer of 2011, a commenter on the blog Pragmatic Capitalism offered a simple suggestion to end the debate over the debt ceiling once and for all: “Geithner could sidestep the debt ceiling this afternoon by ordering the West Point Mint to coin a 1 oz. $ 1 trillion coin.” For months, it suffered the fate of the vast majority of Internet comments lingering in the ash heap of history. And yet, somehow, this one comment was plucked from obscurity and has become the talk of the nation.
Although hopes were dashed by a weekend announcement that the Treasury Department would not mint a trillion-dollar platinum coin, for the last few weeks the idea has commanded a small media obsession. It resurfaced largely thanks to Joe Weisenthal of Business Insider and Josh Barro of Bloomberg View, and it has now become a favorite topic for journalists around the country (including Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman) and was even brought up in a White House press briefing this week. But it all started with someone going by the name of “Beowulf.”
I found the handle to be strangely fitting. In Beowulf, the hero needs the help of a magical sword in order to be able to slay Grendel’s mother. What’s a trillion-dollar coin if not some sort of deus ex machina, a kind of magical weapon from nowhere? And what’s our national debt if not a terrifying monster?
"Beowulf," it turns out, is just a lawyer from Georgia with no economic training whatsoever. For him, this is just a fun side hobby, or “fantasy football” as he calls it. Beowulf has kept a low profile about all this, and hadn’t spoken on the record about his thoughts on sparking something of a national phenomenon. I was able to track down the guy after seeing his name mentioned on a blog tracing the whole history of the platinum coin idea, but he would only speak under the condition that I refer to him by his online moniker.
“I’ve never taken an economics class,” he told National Journal in a phone interview. “Everything I’ve learned about this is from what I’ve learned on the Internet. It might be an example of the guy who doesn’t know the rules. The guy who doesn’t know you aren’t supposed to look there. If I had economics training, I wouldn’t have even had this thought.”
The idea came to him initially after reading a 2009 Wall Street Journal article about frequent-flier point collectors taking advantage of an offer from the U.S. Mint. When the Mint offered free shipping for purchases of $1 legal-tender Native American coins, entrepreneurial citizens bought them with their credit cards, collected the points, and then deposited the coins into their bank accounts. It amounted to free frequent flier miles.
This story was so intriguing to Beowulf that he began looking into monetary law and found this: “The Secretary may mint and issue platinum bullion coins and proof platinum coins in accordance with such specifications, designs, varieties, quantities, denominations, and inscriptions as the Secretary, in the Secretary’s discretion, may prescribe from time to time.”
When he posted the idea on the blog in July of 2011, he could have no way of knowing it would spiral into such a big story. And yet, he didn’t seem all that surprised by the attention it’s getting.
“It’s funny,” he said. “It’s been years since that happened. It’s been like a two-mile-an-hour steamroller, so I’m not as surprised as I would have thought. I figured we’d end up here sooner or later.”
To be honest, it seemed in my conversation with Beowulf that I was more excited about the fact he had come up with the idea than he was. For me, if I came up with an idea that Krugman would spend a column writing about or could be implemented by the president, I’d pretty much feel set for life. He didn’t seem so self-impressed.
It was cool, he said, but he maintained that his role in the story really wasn’t that consequential.
He drew an analogy to the 2002 movie the Time Machine, in which Guy Pearce’s wife is murdered and he travels back in time to try to save her life.
“He goes back in time, and brings her somewhere so she doesn’t get robbed, but she gets hit by a horse,” he told me. “If he were to do it again, maybe she would be hit by piano. I’m just the horse that hit the fiancé. If it weren’t for me there would have been another suggestion. There’s always another gimmick.”