Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

All change. Now coins challenge the greenback

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Representative

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To promote and sell the Company...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Project Manager - Civil Engineering

£35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Business: This company is going thro...

Tradewind Recruitment: KS1 & KS2 Teachers Required

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Tradewind Recruitment are currently working...

Day In a Page

Read Next
John Rentoul outside the Houses of Parliament  

If I were Prime Minister...I would be like a free-market version of Natalie Bennett

John Rentoul
 

Letter from the Political Editor: With 100 days still to go how will Cameron, Miliband and Co. keep us all engaged?

Andrew Grice
Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea