The irony shouldn’t be lost on feminists. The U.S. Treasury finally has decided to put portraits of women on its currency again just as the dollar becomes almost worthless and certainly useless.
To be clear, it’s not quite totally worthless, but it’s getting close to the range where this is debatable. Using a simple inflation calculator, a dollar today is the equivalent of 12 cents in 1959, the year I was born. It equates to 7 cents in 1945 dollars, the year the United States triumphed in World War II. To people of a certain age, it’s clear that folks today treat dollar bills the way we once did the smallest coins in our pockets.
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Except that we no longer carry many coins in our pockets, or bills in our billfolds, which is why dollars have become useless. Two years ago, bankrate.com published a survey from Princeton Survey Research Associates International that found about 10 percent of American adults no longer carry any cash at all.
As reported by CNBC, the survey found that, of those who do carry cash, 78 percent carry $50 or less, and 49 percent $20 or less.
The report said men were more likely than women to carry cash. But in a quick, and entirely unscientific, survey among my colleagues at the newspaper, I found there also appears to be an age difference. Millennials appear to be far less likely to carry cash than do baby-boomers.
That means the trend may be inevitable toward a cashless society. Inflation may not lead people to change cultural references, as in asking people, “A dollar for your thoughts?” or telling children that a “dollar saved is a dollar earned.” But the shift away from cash probably already has begun making things hard for panhandlers, who typically do not have a way to accept credit cards.
It also raises another, more important concern. Without tangible bills in our hands, we may lose an appreciation for the value of money, as well as for how much of it the government regularly extracts from our earnings in the form of taxes.
Years ago, a businesswoman by the name of Vivien Kellems made a name for herself trying to drive home this idea. For years, she resisted collecting withholding taxes from her employees at Kellems Cable Grips, Inc. She said the government had no right to turn her into a tax collector, especially without compensating her, and so she stopped deducting the money from paychecks.
She wanted nothing more than for the government to press charges so that she could challenge the constitutionality of mandatory withholdings in court, but she never got her chance. Instead, as economist Murray Rothbard wrote in “For a New Liberty,” the government seized her bank account, something a jury later reversed.
Kellems is referenced in this week’s Time magazine cover story by James Grant. The magazine cleverly personalizes each copy with the name of the subscriber on the cover, followed by the fact that each of us owes $42,998.12 for our share of the national debt.
Grant argues compellingly that the size of the debt matters, and that the nation’s overspending must stop eventually, either by our own decision to cut spending or by market forces, which will cause the world to lose confidence in the nation’s ability to pay its debts.
He also argues that if Kellems had her way, if each of us got to hold our untaxed earnings before Uncle Sam came and took them, we finally would see the public pressure necessary to enact tax reform and fix the debt.
This is the world in which the likeness of escaped slave and noted abolitionist Harriet Tubman will appear on the $20 bill, and an array of noted women will adorn the backs of $10 bills. Martha Washington was the only other woman to appear on currency, and that was about 130 years ago.
It’s a fabulous decision, and long overdue. A nation emphasizes what it values by whom it decides to place on its currency.
It’s just too bad a lot of Americans won’t carry these bills, or any others, in their pockets.