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Changing the Currency

by J. Orlin Grabbe

Lemme get this straight. You left home and went to one of them foreign places, got a handful of their money, and it felt like "play money"? But you could still use it in a restaurant, train station, or at the newsstand, right? Okay. But you say it still somehow felt "unreal", and you never were able to shake off that "monopoly money" mind set? Hmmm. Why is that?

An American in Paris who gets a 100-franc note with Eugene Delacroix's picture on it, often finds it doesn't kick ass like the US one-dollar bill with George Washington's picture. The Parisian, on the other hand, may feel that the watersnip on the 100-guilder note looks downright ridiculous, while denizens of Amsterdam might prefer the bird image to Sir Donald Sangster's ugly face on the Jamaican hundred dollar bill. The Swiss 50-franc note depicting Konrad Gessner (1516-1565) doesn't say anything about "In God We Trust," but on the other hand it doesn't display the obnoxious "Counterfeiters will be Prosecuted" found on the Russian 100-ruble note (vintage 1993).

Money is funny. That's why more than ten years ago when the Federal Reserve was thinking of changing the US currency, it formed focus groups in an attempt to guage public reaction. It had a company called Market Facts go mall-trolling for potential participants. They went to the Seaview Square Mall in Ocean, New Jersey; the Buena Park Mall in Orange County, California; the Eastland Mall in Charlotte, North Carolina; and the Fox Valley Center in Aurora, Illinois. The report is entitled "Reactions to U.S. Currency Redesign: Analysis of Focus Group Discussions," and was submitted to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System on September 21, 1983.

The discussions were recorded, and--to make sure every bit of information was properly gleaned--groups were also observed in a conference room through a one- way mirror.

In general the groups stated that while they did not care about the appearance of money, "they argued not to change it. There was considerable concern that our money would look 'fake' or 'foreign.' Participants also wanted to know why the government would want to change the appearance of the currency."

The groups were divided into two categories: "General Public" and "Heavy Currency Handlers". Someone who took orders at McDonald's would fall into the Heavy Currency Handler category. The later groups were strongly of the opinion that money was "dirty"--not in the Michael Sindona sense of turning "dirty" money into "clean" money--but rather in the "dirty," "shabby," "shoddy," and "worn" sense. Some said the US currency was the dirtiest in the world. By contrast, a person in one of the General Public groups noted that money has "the denomination on all four corners."

Some of the Heavy Currency Handlers thought it might be a neat idea to have different colors for the different denominations, to make it easier to make change. But more frequently it was remarked that "people don't like change" or "the government should leave well- enough alone."

Today we know that the real rationale for currency change is to make the currency detectable by currency- detection equipment in airports (and possibly other places)--in order to detect money launderers or anyone else carrying large amounts of currency. But the publicly- stated rationale is the misleading "prevention of counterfeiting." In this light, it is interesting that numerous questions were directed at attitudes toward counterfeiting.

Many of the group participants thought counterfeiting was a serious problem, but "the majority wanted to know how much counterfeiting actually costs the public each year before taking a position on whether or not currency should be changed."

None of the participants admitting to any inclination to actually counterfeit money themselves, even if they could do so without detection, but about half of them said they would pass along counterfeit bills if they received them. The other half thought that passing bogus bills would be morally wrong. But not all of the latter would "turn in bogus bills to the authorities. A few participants recounted stories of persons being hounded by the FBI to recall where they received the counterfeit bill--viewed as a deterrent to reporting counterfeit bills. This group opted, rather, to quietly destroy the bill and take the loss."

The report concludes that a Counterfeiting Threat should be used to sell the idea of currency changes: "The extent of counterfeiting and, thus, the importance of adopting a new form of currency must be widely publicized. Without precise knowledge of the severity of the problem the public may assume that the benefits of adopting new money do not outweight the costs."

The report doesn't mention any special information discovered by observations made through the one-way glass.

January 23, 1997
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