Killing George Washington

There is no way around it:  It would be exceedingly difficult to tuck a one-dollar coin into a stripper’s grateful thong.

I have been racking my brain, trying to imagine the negative consequences of an America without the one-dollar bill, and that is the biggest one I have yet devised.

In testimony before a House Financial Services subcommittee last week, representatives from the Government Accountability Office made a fresh case for eliminating the republic’s smallest paper currency, estimating such a move would save the government $4.4 billion over the next three decades.  The bill would be replaced by the myriad iterations of one-dollar coins already in circulation, albeit heretofore rarely used.

Indeed, it seems the most enduring argument against a general shift from paper money to coins is the inconvenience of it all.  For men in particular, a pile of change is simply not as portable in one’s comings and goings as a stack of bills.

As it turns out, the arithmetic that produced this $4.4 billion figure depends on this very dynamic.  These supposed government “savings,” should we sack the dollar bill, are based on the presumption that a certain percentage of these suddenly-relevant dollar coins would swiftly exit the circulation—winding up in jars, under couch cushions, etc.—effectively turning a profit for the government, which pays less than one dollar to produce each piece.

It is encouraging, in a way, that the debate over currency is being conducted on economic and utilitarian grounds, for it suggests we are a serious and sober people.

All the same, as we ponder the future of the almighty dollar, my sentimental side cannot completely ignore an additional consequence of the bill’s demise:  The absence of George Washington’s face from our surviving paper money.  Somehow the prospect just feels wrong.

Before I go further, I will admit that complaining about the décor of our money is a luxury of a thriving democracy, which America presently is not, economically speaking.

I will further admit that which founder’s face adorns which denomination is, by itself, not a sufficient basis for arguing which bills to save and which to shelve.

I used to insist that we would be doing wrong to eliminate the penny from circulation—an idea that, thanks to inflation, has grown increasingly popular in recent years—because it would effectively demote Abraham Lincoln, its cover boy, in the national consciousness.  If Thomas Jefferson and Franklin Roosevelt get to stay on a coin, why not the noted lawyer from Springfield?

On this basis, then, maintaining a Washington bill becomes even more of an imperative.  However illustrious and essential the men emblazoned on our other paper denominations are—and they are—it would be simply a travesty for our nation’s foundingest of fathers—the man “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” as Henry Lee had it—to be relieved of his close-up while, say, our mere first secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, survives.

Of course, this is what happens when one grows a touch too emotional about the contents of one’s wallet, and we can note the cruel irony that (rightly) putting our most treasured leaders on the “first” denomination of their respective forms of currency made them most vulnerable to a recall.

My own view—completely paradoxical, perhaps—is that it is bad practice to put images of human beings on our money in the first place.  It is a (mild) form of deification that is unhealthy and should probably be avoided.

I quite appreciate and admire, for instance, the Treasury’s “America the Beautiful” quarter series, begun in 2010, which feature various American landmarks, such as the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, on the tails side of each coin.  It seems a noble and germane way of celebrating our grand country without indulging in unsightly hero worship.  The state quarters series, which ran from 1999 to 2008, was an attractive initiative for the same reason.

For good or ill, on our money’s face we are stuck with the adornments we have.  Should the Government Accountability Office have its way and the one-dollar bill fall by the wayside, we all will simply need to adapt accordingly.  I am confident I would eventually get over my umbrage about the unfairness to General Washington.  However, the stripper question remains thus far unresolved.


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