Commonplace

www.common-place.org · vol. 4 · no. 4 · July 2004

Stephen Mihm
Accept No Imitations
The campaign against counterfeits, past and present
Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

I.

Don’t look now, but the country’s money is changing. Really changing. After decades of consistency, the greenback has begun a startling metamorphosis in its appearance. It all began in 1996. Out went the modest busts of the dead, replaced by enormous heads with impossibly high foreheads and hair straight out of an advertisement for Rogaine. The new notes made a fetish of asymmetry. The presidential portraits sidled leftward, and strange and shiny numbers made their appearance on the lower right-hand side of several of the high-denomination bills, printed in a green—or is it black?—ink. And no sooner had we come to terms with the fresh look than the Bureau of Engraving and Printing let loose a new twenty-dollar bill that featured, of all things, a light-blue eagle floating to the left of Andrew Jackson’s head. A pale peach stripe now runs through the center of the bill, and the little iridescent "20" has changed from green to gold. Even the back of the note, which had up until then been left unchanged, was given a sprinkle of tiny yellow "20s," making the White House look as though it has been encircled by a swarm of angry bees. Any user of the once-staid United States currency would be entitled to ask: What’s going on here?

But if history is any guide, the Treasury Department has an uphill fight ahead of it; counterfeiters have a knack for circumventing almost any obstacle put in their way.

While it is tempting to ascribe our money’s makeover to American envy about the new Euro notes, the threat of counterfeiting was the real impetus for the change. After some seventy years in which the look of the greenback changed very little if at all, the country is adopting a novel look for its currency in the hopes it will deter a new and technologically savvy generation of criminals. But if history is any guide, the Treasury Department has an uphill fight ahead of it; counterfeiters have a knack for circumventing almost any obstacle put in their way. That said, the challenges the government now faces pale in comparison to the monetary misery of an earlier epoch, when counterfeiting assumed epidemic proportions, eventually becoming symbolic of a crisis of confidence in the nation’s currency, and perhaps in its emerging economic culture as well.

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