An obscure law aimed at coin collectors is now all the rage in DC. It allows the Treasury to make a platinum coin in any denomination it wants, thus giving President Obama a possible, if somewhat sketchy, way around the GOP’s debt-ceiling hostage taking (“We passed a law requiring you to spend the money, now we’re going to make it legally impossible for you to actually do so! Haha! Impeachable offense no matter what!”) See here and here for some details.
That is NOT the topic of this post.
The topic instead is a tweet sent out by the National Republican Congressional Committee about the platinum coin: “The amount of platinum needed to mint a coin worth $1 trillion would sink the Titanic” along with the picture to the right.
We will ignore for a moment the complete ignorance of the concept of “fiat currency,” which suggests that the GOP last took an economics course in the 1920s, and check to see if this is true.
Platinum is currently selling for $1581/ounce on the open market, so a trillion dollars worth of platinum would be (MATH NOT GUARANTEED! I WAS A HISTORY MAJOR!) 632,511,069 ounces of platinum, or 39,531,941 pounds, or 19,765 tons. That’s quite a lot. Would it be enough to sink the Titanic?
Well, that’s an interesting question. The Titanic was quite a large ship, and could carry cargo (here’s its manifest). It’s been a bit difficult finding out what, in fact, that cargo capacity was, but according to here, the Titanic had a “deadweight tonnage at regular displacement” of about 13,000 tons. I’m going to use this as a substitute for cargo capacity.* Those are “long tons,” however, which are slightly larger than regular tons. So, converting them to regular tons, the Titanic could carry about 14,300 tons. The weight of the platinum for the coin is substantially larger than that, but would it sink the Titanic? Well, it would certainly drive it beyond its regular displacement, but it might not cause it to go under. Ships can carry a lot of weight beyond their design capacities. Still, it’s not the kind of thing that I’d be really eager to try.
But perhaps (despite the picture), the NRCC meant that an iceberg the size of the platinum could sink the Titanic (a plat-berg)? Maybe. The iceberg that did sink the Titanic measured roughly 75 feet by 300 feet by 75 feet (these measurements are extremely approximate). That would be 1,687,000 cubic feet of ice. Each of those cubic feet weighed 64 pounds, which meant that the iceberg weighed roughly 108,000,000 pounds, or 54,000 tons. That’s roughly three times the weight of the platinum, but they’re in a similar range. Again, as with the cargo, the Titanic might not have sunk after hitting such an iceberg, but if I were a passenger, it’s not an experiment I’d like to try.
So, props to the NRCC. Despite their seeming utter ignorance of how currency actually has value, they did manage to come up with a historically-plausible way to snark about the platinum coin. Well done.
*Yes, I know that deadweight tonnage has to accommodate everything that the Titanic needed to carry, like crew, engines, fresh water, supplies, etc. It couldn’t all be platinum. But I’m ignoring that for the purposes of this post. I’m also ignoring that the Titanic has, in fact, already been sunk. Silly Republicans.