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I’ve been thinking about money lately.  No, not just because I need more of it, but that haunts all of us from time to time.  I’ve been thinking about how the various attempts at making our US currency more colorful and difficult to slap into a copier and come up with a decent counterfeit have only highlighted how incredibly lame our currency is compared with other nations.


200 Mexican Pesos

Mexico, our North American sibling, is celebrating its bicentennial with a fabulous 200 Peso note, pictured here.  Not only does it feature Father Hidalgo proclaiming independence, it does it with an audacity that hopefully can make the whole nation proud.  My guess is that they had the dramatic and beautiful image they wanted to use, but realized that it was too vertical to plunk in the middle of an ordinary bill without it becoming pathetic and lost.  The solution was to orient the whole bill vertically to the picture, letting Father Hidalgo take up half of the note in all his glory.

It’s dramatic, it’s gorgeous, and if it doesn’t arouse patriotic pride in Mexicans, nothing will.

From just over the Río Grande are notes often considered more desirable.  Our small portraits of Jackson are worth about as much as the 200 Peso note at purchasing power parity, but you wouldn’t know it to look at them.  Where Mexico and other nations have featured Poets and Revolutionaries, we have Presidents.  Tired, old, sometimes unknown people who are supposed to represent stability but often look simply worn.  Who are these guys?

The truth is, the use of the people on our bills was an act of political compromise dating to 1919.  The decision was to put the founders of the Democratic Party, Jefferson and Jackson, on the $2 and $20, with the first Republicans, Lincoln and Grant, on the $5 and $50.  The $1, $10, and $100 were given to non-partisans and Federalists Washington, Hamilton, and Franklin.  Once again, the American spirit of compromise got everyone past a difficult decision – and straight into major boredom.

No other nation has this problem.  Poets often feature well on currencies alongside founding revolutionaries.  I remember fondly the 10 Deutschemark note with Karl Friedrich Gauss, a mathematician, or the 20 Austrian Schilling note with Sigmund Freund.  These said something about the people that crafted and used them in a way that mere Presidents only hope to.

How do we ditch the bills we have?  It starts by setting up an outline of all the security strips, magnetic ink, and other details that make them secure and countable in big piles by machines.  After that, the faces we use can be changed out with one gorgeous portrait after another, teaching a bit about our culture and encouraging people to collect them the way they do measly state quarters.  This is the USofA, after all, so it’d never sell without some kind of windfall to the issuers.

I suggest that we consider forgetting the $1 and $2 and issuing the $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100.  We can have series based on different kinds of heroes that define who we are as a people.  For artists, I would suggest Mark Twain, Scott Joplin, Emily Dickinson, Ansel Adams, and Georgia O’Keefe – but your mileage may vary.  I only ask that we have a bill with a portrait of Scott Joplin on the front with the first eight bars of “Maple Leaf Rag” on the back, ready to be pounded out on the piano by anyone willing to try.

After that, a series of scientists would be just glorious.  Imagine a bill with Edison on the front and the patent for the light bulb on the back, or Einstein (a naturalized US citizen!) and an illustration of relativity on the back.  We could also have a series of important activists, such as Alice Paul, César Chávez, Dr. Martin Luther King and, if we can get it past the Republicans, Harvey Milk (it’s worth a try).  The possibilities become endless.

This may seem unimportant, but it’s not.  Money is, no matter what, a statement of values and faith.  Are we a people characterized by who we elected or by the people that inspire us?  Dead presidents may have been a decent compromise, but they aren’t who we are.  Let’s have money that says more about the people of this great land than the politicians – if we really want to say it’s ours and not theirs, that is.

10 thoughts on “Currency

  1. I love the colorful bills from other nations, and wish we had them, too. But we would fight forever about who to put on them. I can see people demanding Tupac be put on a bill or something, and then the Republicans going ape over it.

    We can’t agree on anything anymore. I’m afraid that as good as it would be it’s just one more thing to fight about that we don’t need.

  2. I really thought this would be a fun topic (for a change) and you guys are getting all practical on me. I’m disappointed, really. Harumph!

    True story I didn’t wind up using in this piece: When I was a kid, I was near Tallulah (sp?) Gorge in Georgia at a small store. There was a sign up that read, “We do not accept $50 Bills. Please respect our Southern Heritage.” Oh-Kaaaay …

  3. We used to have many colorful currencies in Europe, but now there is only the Euro. It was designed by committees. They wanted it to be free of national symbols, and so it is boring. I miss the old way.

  4. The 200 Peso is a beautiful bill, but I have to tell you that I like the US 20 better just because I trust it more. I read here that I may be fooling myself for thinking that, which may be true. But what I want from my money is that it is really worth something. It takes years or maybe generations to get that feeling of trust, and I know it’s a lot better in Mexico than it used to be. But that’s the real way to celebrate 200 years on the Peso to me — to have more justified faith. That is getting better but it’s still not there.

  5. I think it would be a bit much to have a national hissy fit over whether or not it’s appropriate to have, say, a Jimi Hendrick $10 bill. It is true that we love diversions like this which are otherwise meaningless. But … I can’t help but think that we have so many people that deserve to be immortalized in our wallets at least as much as Jackson, for example. George Washington Carver, anyone?

  6. I like the idea of a total redesign. One thing I’ve really liked about Canada is their money. Each denomination a different base color (think about the visually impaired who can’t read text very well but can still see colors). And why not rotate different image themes through every few years? We’ve gotten used to design changes: the $5, $10, $20 and $50 have been each been changed twice in the last 15 years. There are three different versions of each of those bills in circulation right now and nobody even thinks about it.

  7. Pingback: Cinco de Mayo « Barataria – the work of Erik Hare

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