Monday, March 24, 2014

Dead precedents

I say it is. And not just the incremental anti-counterfeiting measures that have been evolving since the mid-1990s — our money is overdue for a complete overhaul.

Yes, I realize that this is a logistical and political dead end. Americans hold our currency dear! Its look is deeply rooted in tradition and its representative figures call back our earliest roots!

But that's precisely the problem.

As the CBS Sunday Morning report above notes, U.S. currency used to change every few years, depicting a multitude of figures and dynamic scenes that impress even today. But from 1929 to 1996, only the signatures and serial numbers changed. (And since 1996, changes have been all about the security.) That might have cemented the greenback image in the mind of the world, but it didn't do much to reflect our foundational spirit.

The men and women who adorn our currency earned it by being pioneers, not by adhering to decades-old conventions. So much has changed in America in the past century, including in our transactional documents, and yet our money barely reflects that change at all. 

What are we afraid of? That the money will look silly? It looks silly now! You can mesh 21st-century microtechnology with a 1920s template only so much before it resembles a GPS on a Model T. At some point, you've got to get a new car. The roads are different. And so is the population.

We've done well collectively over the past few years to acknowledge the diversity that has made this country great. And yet, it's still a big deal when a woman is on a coin. Never mind different races — Sacagawea is the only nonwhite person, and one of only two women, on American currency. Seriously? 

Even beyond the whiteness of our greenbacks, the U.S. has some of the world's dullest dollars today. They have served us well, but it's time to move on. For the most part, our bills and coins still reflect a staid, somber, Anglocentric view of America — and we revere this because we've been immersed in it our whole lives. Meanwhile, most of the world's other countries have colorful, dynamic, evolving money that acknowledges that things have happened in the past 50 years.

I'm not sure how I'd redo the currency, though I like some of the ideas bandied about in the CBS article. Martin Luther King Jr. absolutely belongs on a bill, and Neil Armstrong and Rosa Parks could merit it as well. Barack Obama could be a good choice a century from now. Anyone who blazed a trail that we'll remember just as we now remember the Founding Fathers and other icons. (I'd say leave entertainers for stamps.)

But if latter-day political figures are too polarizing, then maybe take faces off altogether. One redesign has the Statue of Liberty on the one. We could do this with numerous landmarks, perhaps even rotating them every few years. Best of all, we could integrate 21st-century security technology without continuing to clobber classic art.

Another point, and a delicate one, is this: take off "In God we trust." That would come off as political, but its inclusion (in 1864 on the coins, and 1957 on the paper) was itself a political move — in both cases, to declare that God favored America during conflicts (Civil War, Red Scare). It's not only not religious, it's arrogant. God is explicitly not in the Constitution, the idea being that faith is a personal thing. It's a divisive issue these days. If we're rebooting, leave it off. E pluribus unum.

I guess what I'm saying is, let's at least talk about changing our change. Let's not be afraid to embrace progress. The people on our money weren't.

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