Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

All change. Now coins challenge the greenback

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Is a great and long overdue American revolution at hand? As of next year, new dollar coins will be issued here - and it may be the beginning of the end for the dear old dollar bill.

Let me start with a warning. More than almost any other people, Americans take change in their stride. But not when it comes to their money. Take the infuriating one cent coin. A "penny" costs the US Mint more than its value to make. Unloved and unwanted, cents pile up in pockets, at the bottom of drawers, or in the proverbial cookie jars. But for whatever reason - be it the strenuous efforts of the zinc industry lobby or plain old national cussedness - efforts to get rid of them have gone nowhere. Such is the futility of the cent that shops often round out a price to the nearest 5c.

An opposite fate has befallen the dollar coin. Single dollar bills account for over a third of all US notes in circulation. They last only 18 months, compared with an average 30 years for a coin. A month ago I found a penny dating back to 1945. To replace bills with coins would save the Treasury at least $500m (£263m) a year. Yet Americans just won't wear it.

The last $1 coin in wide circulation here was the post-First World War silver Peace Dollar, before its demise in 1935. More recently there have been a couple of attempts to revive one - the nondescript Susan B Anthony coin, featuring a 19th-century women's rights campaigner, that was virtually indistinguishable from a quarter, and the even more forgettable Sacagawea dollar (named after an Indian guide on the great Lewis and Clark transcontinental expedition of 1804-6). The latter, first issued in 2000, bombed, even though the government spent $70m promoting it. These days you only get them as change from vending machines at the post office or Metro stations. A couple of Sacagaweas have mouldered on the dresser in my bedroom for months. Even though everyone accepts them (albeit after a close peer), they look like a token you buy to play the Treasure Island game at an amusement park.

But I suspect the new dollar coin they announced last week will finally do the trick. For one thing, it's about time. The paper bill, with its portrait of George Washington, may be the world's best-known banknote, symbol of brand America. But it is also far and away the lowest value banknote in any industrial country. The British fiver is worth over $9, the Swiss 10 franc note about $8. The €5 note is worth over $6, while the smallest Japanese note, for 1,000 yen, is worth almost $9. Even the Canadians have C$1 and C$2 coins. The American greenback comes in at a paltry 52p.

More important, the new coin is much classier. It is about the same size and colour as the Sacagawea. But like current paper banknotes, it will bear the portraits of dead presidents. The first batch next year will feature George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison; thereafter they will be issued at the rate of four annually. Given that Gerald Ford is still going strong at 93, the last presently scheduled will bear the image of Richard Nixon in early 2016. Incidentally, whoever would have thought the old rogue would feature on the currency? But that's another story.

The presidential connection alone virtually guarantees the new coins will be collectors' items, like the current, nearly complete issue of quarters, each featuring one of the 50 states. They have been a huge success, with up to 130 million people collecting them, it is said. The latest dollar coins will also look the part, with the Statue of Liberty on the obverse, and date and letters along the edge, like British £1 coins.

Yet the new dollar coins somehow don't convey value as well as the pound coin, with its chunky thickness and slightly corrugated edge. They also lack the distinctive two-metal feature of euro coins, and the £2 coin in Britain. But the real question is, will the US dare phase out the existing dollar bill? The lesson of currency makeovers, like the introduction of the euro or British decimalisation, is that you have to go the whole hog.

If Americans are given a choice between a weird new coin and a familiar bit of paper, paper will win every time.

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