March 26, 2005

Thoughts on the Dollar

LOYAL RANT READERS have long known about our aversion to “foofy money,” a term which in our peculiar lexicon can be described as “brightly-colored banknotes notable for either their meaninglessness or their supposed inability to hold value.” Examples of the former include euro notes, which are well-designed but don’t convey any historical significance in their design; while examples of the latter include pretty much everything that’s not an official reserve currency somewhere in the world.

Still, a re-examination of national currencies elsewhere have made us realize the U.S. dollar, while still the best reserve currency in existence, needs a bit of an upgrade. This is not merely because decades of inflation and innovations in banknote design require it, either. It is also because many American banknotes fail to properly convey the grandeur of the nation’s history. America’s currency isn’t only redundant at times – e.g. having Lincoln on the penny and the $5 bill – but looking at the banknotes, a learned observer could honestly believe it was a Grand Inside Joke.

Let’s look at the notes and we think you’ll see what we mean:

We mean, come on – why the hell is Ulysses Grant on the $50 bill? Oh, sure, he was a great general and he did win the Civil War. But he was a lousy President – his administration was notoriously corrupt, and noted historians have cast his legacy down with that of Nixon, Tyler and Fillmore. Therefore, he ought not be on the $50 bill.

Oh, and then there’s Andrew Jackson, on the $20 bill. Our only thinking as to why Jackson ended up on the $20 is because somebody at the Treasury Department came up with the idea at a three-martini lunch and as such, found it downright hilarious. We daresay Old Hickory is spinning in his grave at knowing he’s on the face of the most widely-issued paper money in America, because the man hated paper money and bankers the way most Americans hate cockroaches. For a brief look at Jackson’s ideas about finance matters, we’ll quote from

“Jackson's unsatisfactory experiment with the state banks helped drive his economic thinking toward more radical extremes. He renounced all banknote currency and demanded a return to the "hard money" of gold and silver. To that end, and to curb rampant speculation, he ordered the issuance of a "Specie Circular" in 1836 requiring payment in coin for western public lands. By the end of his presidency he was attacking all chartered corporations, including manufacturing concerns, turnpike and canal companies, and especially banks, as instruments of aristocratic privilege and engines of oppression. His Farewell Address in 1837, drafted largely by (Attorney General Roger) Taney, warned of an insidious "money power" that threatened to subvert American liberty.”

As such, the idea that Jackson ought appear on a $20 note which holds its value solely due to Government fiat is ridiculous.

Finally, of course, there is the $2 bill with Thomas Jefferson’s portrait. This design must have caused much mirth over at the Treasury, as Jefferson was always short of money due to inherited debts and lavish spending. Like lots of people in America today, the man lived with debt for practically all of his life. Still, we don’t think Jefferson’s picture should be stripped from the $2 bill. We think its rarity in U.S. commerce (when was the last time you saw one?) and its inability to be accepted in vending machines make the $2 bill worthy of Jefferson’s portrait.

Now thus far we think we’ve made a pretty good case for changing the portraits on the $20 and $50 bills, but we also think we need to go further. Namely, we need bills larger than the $100 note.

We had them in America once, of course, but they were silly back then. Putting Presidents McKinley and Cleveland respectively on the $500 and $1,000 notes may have made sense at the time, but today this move prompts one to ask what the guys at Treasury were thinking. The higher denominations were even sillier – the $10,000 note, for instance, had someone called Salmon P. Chase on it. We are sorry, but no one named “Salmon” ought appear on any sort of banknote anywhere.

Still, though, in doing our research for this post, we discovered that of the $539.8 billion in U.S. banknotes out there, a full $364.7 billion are $100 bills. We know inflation has worn away the value of the notes in the marketplace; in 1969, when the big notes were withdrawn, the $100 bill was worth roughly $500 in today’s money. We also know the Europeans have 200 euro and 500 euro banknotes. Well, dammit, if the freedom-hating Eurocrats in Brussels think really large banknotes are a good idea, then there’s no reason why freedom-loving Americans ought not have them. Besides, as most U.S. currency is held outside the United States, there would almost certainly be a demand for these higher notes. So we clearly need $200 and $500 notes.

We would also suggest that $1,000 notes be introduced on general principle grounds. After all, it is very much in the United States’ general interest to preserve the dollar as the world’s premier reserve currency, and creating a note with that store of value in it would again give the dollar a place of pride. No longer would American tourists have to go to London or Paris and feel as if their money was merely green-colored paper; one bill would ensure the holder was given a vast amount of currency in exchange. Although we realize such an idea is perhaps premature, we do think it’s something to consider. Nor is it all that crazy – up until a few years ago, the Canadians had a $1,000 note.

But if we hold off at the $500 note as the new maximum denomination, and we strip Jackson from the $20 and Grant from the $50, the question naturally becomes, who do we put on all these bills? Here’s our thinking.

Clearly the proposed $500 note should have Alexander Hamilton on it. Aside from being the architect of modern American life, with his vision of a nation dedicated to commercial activity, Hamilton is the archetype of the American Dream – a poor kid from Barbados who made good in America solely through hard work. As for the color inflection in the notes themselves – the new $20s and $50s have this feature already – it should be purple, a good imperial color.

Hamilton, of course, is already on the $10, so we can take him off there in exchange. This leaves four openings – on the proposed $200, the $50, the $20 and the $10. The beauty of having four slots open is that each political party can choose two of them – all they’d have to do is figure out who would go on the notes, and on which notes their selected personages would appear. But here’s our thinking of who should go on each note:

$200: President Eisenhower. Aside from overseeing U.S. victory in Europe, Ike was President during a time of peace and prosperity. Sure, no one could figure out what he was saying when he said it, but that’s not important right now – things went pretty swimmingly when the man was in charge. Therefore, it’s fitting Ike should get put on the $200 note. Color inflection: mustard or tan, similar to the 200 euro note.

$50. President Kennedy. The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in the 20th century, and our banknotes should reflect this. President Kennedy not only oversaw a time of peace and prosperity, he forced Khrushchev to blink over the Cuban Missile Crisis. And God knows what the man could have accomplished if it wasn’t for what happened in Dallas.

$20. Martin Luther King Jr. Really – isn’t it about time we had somebody other than a white guy on our banknotes? Putting Dr. King on the most widely-circulated currency would serve as a fitting tribute in recognition of what the civil rights leader accomplished.

$10. President Reagan. Lots of people want this, and under our plan, they’d be able to have it.

One benefit of these changes is that we can also attack the Redundancy Problem with our coinage. For instance, there’s no reason why Lincoln should appear on the penny AND the $5 bill. Put Grant on the penny instead. This will satisfy both those who value Grant’s historical accomplishments – he wrote some decent memoirs – and those Southerners who still hate Grant.

As for the nickel, we don’t have any ideas, but we know that Jefferson shouldn’t get to monopolize the $2 bill AND the five-cent piece. We could put President Madison on there, or Frederick Douglass, or Teddy Roosevelt, or Walt Whitman, or Booker T. Washington, or one of many other leading historical and cultural figures. All would be good on the nickel.

As for the dime, we think FDR ought stay there on general principle grounds. It just fits: brother, can you spare a –

Washington gets to keep the quarter because he was our greatest president and kicked ass. Besides, he’s stuck with the $1 bill and if we’re not going to give him a promotion, he of any American in history should get an exemption from our “no double-dipping” rule.

Lastly, if we put Kennedy over on the $50 note, there’s no reason for him to stay on the 50-cent piece. We suggest that whomever comes in second place for the nickel would get put on the 50-cent piece. Heck, we could even put Susan B. Anthony on it.

Anyway, we call for the Secretary of the Treasury and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to consider our idea and ways they could put it into practice. New bills would not only make things more convenient for Americans and other U.S. currency holders, it would increase usage of and confidence in the U.S. dollar. Plus, we’d be able to update the new bills with all the latest security features to prevent counterfeiting and such. So we hope the Government will give the idea some consideration – because it’s time.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at March 26, 2005 01:31 PM | TrackBack

First, I would point out that I have had the grace and good fortune to been bestowed with the name "Salmon" by parents clearly possessed of a superior aesthetic sense.

Second, how in the name of federalism could you have left James Madison off of your currency? Madison is worth 10 Jack Kennedys. I suggest you revise your list. And while you're at it, you might want to consider Louis Armstrong.

Posted by: Salmon Q. Diddlehinger at March 26, 2005 07:36 PM

Well, "Salmon," we'll have to discuss this on Monday morning. That said, I could see Madison -- once on the $5,000 note -- replacing Eisenhower on the list, but my thought was to propose folks the American people would fundamentally relate to in their gut. So perhaps we could throw Madison on the 50-cent piece. Or the $2 bill.

Posted by: Benjamin Kepple at March 26, 2005 08:37 PM

Or the nickel, for that matter, like I suggested in my post.

Posted by: Benjamin Kepple at March 26, 2005 08:42 PM

Kennedy? Really? Ben, Ben, Ben... *sigh*

Posted by: Geoff Brown at March 28, 2005 09:55 AM

What? Look, the man tried to free Cuber, there's something to be said for that.

Posted by: Benjamin Kepple at March 28, 2005 07:21 PM

Ben, we've had "somebody other than a white guy" on our currency - ever hear of an "Indian Head" penny?

Dr. King has his own holiday. If you insist on being PC, then let's put Fredrick Douglas. His contribution to ending slavery is all too often forgotten.

Nothing against Ike - I think he's undervalued as well - but what about Teddy Roosevelt? He led the nation as we emerged onto the word stage...

One last thing - keep JFK (or put him back) on the 50-cent piece. The Democrats probably would want Woodrow Wilson anyway. (Actually, there's something to be said for that - wasn't the federal reserve system set up under his administration?)

Enough whining. You're 100% right about Washington, by the way. I was beginning to think I was the only one who felt that way...

Posted by: Tyler at March 29, 2005 12:21 PM