MAYBE FUTURISTS ARE correct, and we won't be using coins and paper money much longer. Look at the warning signs: many banks refuse to accept loose change from piggy banks; and pennies and even dollar coins apparently are so worthless that the Mint is stuffing them inside boxes of Cheerios® cereal.
But here's the biggest omen. Ecuador, a Latin American country with a 60-percent inflation rate and only 279 internet sites (compared to 338 for Elvis) wants to make the United States dollar its official currency. To paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield, greenbacks don't get no respect.
Some news reporters, including a few former CBS colleagues, mistakenly believe that by Memorial Day we'll all be using E-cash, smart Cards, or some other form of plastic or cyberspace currency. In early 1998, a reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press newspaper called to interview me about the 50 State Quarters™ scheduled to enter circulation the following year.
Now, I thought this would be an easy topic, since I had testified in 1996 before the U.S. House Banking Subcommittee regarding the creation of this outstanding coinage program. I figured that if I can "BS" a congressional committee, I certainly could manipulate the Minnesota media. However, I wasn't ready for the reporter's first question.
"Why is the government bothering to change designs? We're going to stop using coins and bills in a year or two anyway and just use smart cards," he flatly stated. Whoa! Not exactly the softball question I expected. The reporter persisted: "Everyone says we won't be using money soon, so why change designs now?"
"Coins have been around for 2,700 years...they're not going to disappear next week," I responded hesitantly. Then I came up with the best analogy I could on such short notice: "Do you really think a 5-year-old child will be delighted to find that the Tooth Fairy has left a shiny, new Visa card under the pillow?"
Ultimately, the reporter wrote a well-balanced story about the future of money, and even gave a nice plug for ANA-member/dealer Gary Adkins of Edina, Minnesota. But it prompted me to think about the "anti-cash" PR tactics of some banks and credit-card companies. They want you to use smart cards, debit cards and credit cards so they can charge transaction fees, not to mention interest on your purchases.
So, thanks to the Professional Numismatists Guild, here are some arguments you can use when friends, colleagues or complete strangers make outlandish statements about the demise of coins and bank notes:
1) The United States, as well as other countries, plans to strike literally billions of coins in the coming years because of consumer demand, especially for the wildly popular State Quarters. (The new euro coins and notes go into circulation in 11 countries in 2002. It took years for Europeans to agree on the designs. Halting the project could start another Hundred Years War.)
2) Do you really, truly, honestly want to get rid of all cash? How would you stash away a few dollars for a rainy day or hide a few bucks from your spouse so you can go to the track?
3) Finally, do merchants really, truly, honestly want to get rid of cash? Do you think wise guys names "Lefty" and "Boom-Boom" want to halt the flow of moolah at gaming tables and slot machines in Vegas and Atlantic City? Instead of currency piled high, the counting rooms would have only credit-card slips. Can you hear it now? "Hey, youz Citibank guys, how 'bouts we go fer a little ride?"
As I was writing this column (on the back of an old telephone bill envelope while sitting in congested, rush-hour traffic), Ecuador's largest bank note in circulation was the 50,000 sucre, worth roughly US$2. Imagine paying 75,000 sucres for a cup of Starbucks' cheapest coffee or 150,000 to buy a dozen Dunkin' Donuts® in Quito or anywhere else in Ecuador. Besides, it's too embarrassing to have cash register signs reading "Please, no bills larger than 25,000."