Dollar facelift hits the wrong note

(First Edition)

THE MOSSY old greenback is due for a facelift that will make it shimmer like a rhinestone cowboy. But the multi-million-dollar question is, will Americans ever learn to live with funny money?

A few modernists would love to see Dolly Parton, Ollie North or Oprah Winfrey replace George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin on the back of a bill - although this is not what the US Treasury has in mind - but most Americans are so serious when it comes to money that they like the greenback just as it is.

The Treasury's idea is to fool the counterfeiters with hi-tech security devices, adding iridescent ink dots and inserting coloured pieces of tissue paper into the bill's cotton fibres. A pattern of hidden wavy lines will appear as blurry as a striped shirt on a television set when reproduced on a counterfeiter's copying machine.

The portraits of the founding fathers will not only remain but be enlarged from their locket-size, and shifted a fraction to the left - hardly the way the country is going, but not exactly radical. But many Americans are unimpressed, and much as counterfeiting is talked up by the banks, it is really more an irritant than a threat, accounting for only dollars 21m (pounds 14m), compared with dollars 100bn of legitimate bills printed annually.

The greenback is a national icon. For all their devotion to glitz, Americans don't like gaudiness on their currency - no bright colours, no sea-to-shining-sea grand images. Dollar bills should be the same as they have been since 1929, small and dull in black and green.

'You screw around with the currency and you screw around with the symbols of the nation,' says Thomas Dibacco, an historian of money at the American University. He forecasts the new dollar bills will be rejected - in exactly the same way as Americans have spurned other attempts to introduce changes in the bills.

In 1976, the Treasury launched the dollars 2 bill, which Americans had always associated with the phrase 'as queer as . . .'. They refused to have anything to do with it. New Hampshire residents was especially upset. Treasury artists cropped John Trumbull's painting of the Declaration of Independence, eliminating six of the signatories, including the entire New Hampshire delegation.

Then there was the shining silver dollar of the 19th-century suffragette SusanBAnthony. The 1979 coin was cast to reduce costs: each year the Bureau of Engraving and Printing uses 5,000 tons of paper and 2,000 tons of ink, half of it on dollars 1 bills. But Americans rejected the coins, leaving 334 million locked in a vault in Washington.

The Treasury insists the counterfeiting problem is too big to ignore. Three years ago the dollars 100 bill, which is the one usualy faked, was issued with a polyester strip which read 'USA100' when held up to the light. But if the problem is so great, how about some really radical solutions?

Why not do away with Latin mottos, for example? Many Americans would undoubtedly like to rid the dollars 1 bill of the motto on the ribbon in the bald eagle's mouth - E Pluribus Unum, which refers to the one country formed from the 13 original American colonies. As everyone knows, this is not a Latin motto for civic and political unity but a phrase from an early Virgil poem giving a recipe for salad.

Besides, Latin has not been taught in America's public schools for years. So, instead of the motto that reads Novus Ordo Seclorum (a new order of the ages), how about the multi-digit phone number for calling Home Box Office on the information super highway? If the Treasury cannot make the dollar hold its value, it should at least make the bill useful.

And what about the unfinished pyramid on the back of the dollars 1 bill, symbolising the country's limitless growth and multiculturalism? Perhaps the time has come for the pyramid to be topped off: with the largest wave of immigration since the turn of the century many are saying, 'Enough already'.

Such radical ideas have been rejected by the traditionalists at the Treasury, in favour of Clintonesque mini-shifts to the left and little dots of colour. How about some broad brush-strokes? Why can't a dollar look more like a yen?

(Photograph omitted)

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