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Cold, hard cash: Utah brings back the silver dollar

Guy Adams reports from Salt Lake City on why America is turning away from bills and back to an era when currency had real value

Over dinner Larry Hilton shows off a swanky iPhone app that allows him to buy and sell gold at the click of a button.

Then he talks about the portion of his life savings that he has invested in precious ingots, which are locked away deep inside a bank vault in the City of London.

But when it's time to pay the bill, Hilton, an attorney from a small town just outside Salt Lake City, is forced to settle his debt in the bog-standard way: by either handing over a plastic credit card, or digging into the stack of bank-notes which is shoehorned into his wallet. Not for much longer, though. Because this week, Utah passed a law allowing gold and silver coins to be used as legal tender.

The move makes Utah the first US state to attempt to resurrect a monetary era which ended roughly a century ago. But it may not be the last: similar bills are being considered by lawmakers in Minnesota, Carolina, Idaho and roughly nine other states.

"It's all about creating an option," says Hilton, who helped write the Utah Sound Money Act. "By allowing people to pay with gold and silver, you give them a currency they can fall back on that isn't dollars and cents. They can rely on the fact that, as the old saying goes, their money will always be as good as gold."

No one knows quite how Utah's new system will work in practice. Participation is strictly voluntary, for both consumers and retailers, and Hilton admits there's little chance of seeing customers at McDonald's choosing to cross the cashier's palm with silver when they need to pay for their next Big Mac.

There is, however, talk of creating debit card accounts allowing consumers to store coins in a depository, which are then used as collateral against everyday purchases. If, for example, someone had used such a card to purchase a $100 pair of shoes yesterday (when the silver price was around $38 an ounce) the owner of the depository might remove just under three ounces of silver coins from their supply.

For the time being, the architects of Utah's new law are more concerned with making a political point than with dreary practicality. By turning gold and silver into a rival currency, Mr Hilton says they hope to strong-arm the Federal Reserve into altering US monetary policy.

For years, right-leaning thinkers, led by the libertarian Republican Ron Paul, have held that the current Federal Reserve practice of printing banknotes which are not backed by any form of concrete asset devalues the dollar and could eventually make it worthless.

Pointing to case studies such as modern-day Zimbabwe, and Weimar-era Germany, they say that currencies that are not asset-backed (known as fiat currencies) are vulnerable to inflation, which devalues people's savings. Gold and silver, by contrast, always retain an intrinsic value as a precious metal.

"Ron Paul has an expression for what happens under the current system. He calls it inflation tax," says Mr Hilton. "What he means is that when the federal reserve prints new money to stimulate the economy, that makes the money which is already out there less valuable. It's basic economics."

He points out that the purchasing power of a dollar has declined dramatically since the First World War, when the US and other developed nations began abandoning gold-backed money (the "gold standard") to help pay for the conflict. The purchasing power of gold, by contrast, has remained fairly stable. During the 1849 gold rush, prospectors who returned from the Sierra Nevada to San Francisco with an ounce of gold in their pocket could expect to afford a newly tailored suit and a good steak dinner. Today, the same amount of gold is worth around $1,500 – enough to do more or less the same thing.

William Still, a filmmaker behind The Money Masters, a documentary critical of modern monetary policy, says that simply giving people the option to use gold and silver may dissuade the Federal Reserve from allowing inflation to happen as a result of efforts to stimulate the economy. "It's going to be very interesting to see how it pans out," he says.

Critics, for their part, have called the move unnecessarily drastic, saying that abandoning dollars and cents in favour of gold and silver is the economic equivalent of shoving a gun under your pillow and filling the larder with tinned food in preparation for the apocalypse.

With gold and silver prices approaching record highs, financial experts add that this may not be the most opportune moment for the public to invest in precious metal.