Simanaitis Says

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ON BENJAMINS, JACKSONS, HAMILTONS—BUT MAYBE NOT TUBMANS

U.S. CURRENCY has been in the media a lot these days. Recently I’ve read stories about our paper money in The Christian Science Monitor, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Onion. Of course, only the last of these has fake news, purposely so and some of the best satirical writing these days. The others are serious, and also illustrative of the fine mess we’ve got ourselves into. Here are tidbits gleaned from each.

“How the Dollar Stays Dominant.” Illustration by Golden Cosmos from The New Yorker, September 4, 2017.

“How the Dollar Stays Dominant,” by Adam Davidson, in The New Yorker, September 4, 2017, begins with a description of how raw cotton, linen, and water are transformed into the paper of U.S. currency. This article is filled with fascinating tidbits about our currency’s value and its confidence held around the world.

Davidson writes about the Benjamin: “The hundred-dollar bill, for example, is embedded with a micro-optic security ribbon—a blue line, next to Benjamin Franklin’s face, patterned with alternative images of the Liberty Bell and the number “100” which, when the bill is tilted, move up and down, left and right.”

A counter-counterfeiting measure? Sort of, but as Davidson notes, “In reality, there has never been much counterfeiting in the U.S. Last year was typical: about sixty-four million dollars’ worth of counterfeit currency was seized by the Secret Service, nearly half of which came from one operation in Peru. There is more than a trillion dollars’ worth of paper currency in circulation which means that, in any given year, counterfeit bills represent five one-thousands of one percent [i.e., 0.00005] of the total.”

Even more important than anti-counterfeiting is a broader psychological aspect: “Banknotes depend on confidence,” Davidson was told by a former director of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

And what of the worldwide confidence in U.S. currency? Davidson observes, “Today, more than half of U.S. banknotes, including the vast majority of hundred-dollar bills, are held outside the country, acting as a store of value more dependable than local currencies and as an extension of American influence.”

As a example of non-confidence, Davidson cites the worst currency collapse to date: Between 1944 and 1946, the Hungarian pengö dropped from 33 to the U.S. dollar to four hundred and sixty septillion (4.6 followed by 26 zeros) to one.

The Hamilton, the $10 bill. Image by J. Scott Applewhite/AP.

Popularity in the Broadway musical may well have saved another bit of U.S. currency, the Hamilton. As reported last year, the $10 bill was up for a 2020 redesign, its image of Alexander Hamilton possibly giving way to that of a woman, honoring the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. Among women under consideration were Eleanor Roosevelt, Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks.

But then, as reported back in April 2016 in both The Christian Science Monitor and The New York Times, earlier thoughts of a woman appearing on the redesigned ten-spot were put off by a resurgence of popularity for our country’s first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton.

Instead, for awhile there, the Tubman was front runner for another U.S. paper currency. (Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea have already graced coins.)

Harriet Tubman, born Araminta Ross, c. 1822–1913, American abolitionist, humanitarian, armed scout and spy for the U.S. Army during the Civil War.

Harriet Tubman escaped slavery, was a leader of the Underground Railroad, and served as a Union Army spy and nurse during the Civil War. On April 20, 2016, the Department of the Treasury announced a plan for Tubman to replace Andrew Jackson as the image on the $20 bill.

Or at least this seemed to be the plan until August 31, 2017, when The New York Times reported “The Trump administration signaled on Thursday that the black abolitionist Harriet Tubman may not replace President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill after all.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said, “People have been on the bills for a long period of time. This is something we’ll consider. Right now we’ve got a lot more important issues to focus on.”

What can be more important than undoing a previous administration’s proposal?

This just in, from The Onion. At left, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin; at right, ardent Andrew Jackson supporter, Donald J. Trump.

The Onion, renowned for its satire, reported on September 1, 2017, “Trump Administration Announces New $20 Bill Design Honoring Harriet Tubman’s Owners.” The new $20, The Onion described, “will feature a portrait of the Brodess family on the front and a depiction of the Maryland plantation they operated on the back…. For too long, we’ve overlooked the achievements of these upstanding citizens and prosperous agriculturalists.”

In its related American Voices item, The Onion solicited opinions on the matter. Jake Theisen, Bone Appraiser (and African American) says, “To be fair, she did abscond with the legal property of a lot of American citizens.” Ben Tibesar, Unemployed, opines, “After so many years, isn’t it finally time we continue to honor whites?”

Satire is the bellwether of the body politic. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017

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