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The buck stops here

EVERY TIME YOU’RE handed a dollar bill, that sound you hear is our government saying, “You’re not smart enough.” It’s also saying, “I can’t believe you’re going to touch that and not wash your hands afterward.”

Seriously, think about who gets tipped in dollar bills and with what part of their body they receive those tips. It’s not Ben Bernanke who’s rubbing our bills with glitter and vanilla scent. Not unless Alan Greenspan dumps Andrea Mitchell and does his next bachelor party right.

Last Thursday, our government insulted us yet again by issuing another new dollar coin while failing to muster the courage to take away our dollar bills. You will reject this dollar coin just like you rejected the Eisenhower debacle (1971-78), the Susan B. Anthony disaster (1979-81) and the Sacagawea fiasco (2000-about three weeks later). That’s because buying things with gold-colored coins makes you feel like you’re a dork at a Renaissance fair.

But it saves us money. A bill costs 4 cents to make but only lasts about 18 months; a coin costs 20 cents but lasts more than 30 years. That means -- not factoring for inflation or compound interest because I don’t know how -- dollar bills cost four times as much to produce. The Government Accountability Office estimates that’s a savings of $500 million a year. With that kind of money, we could start a small war.

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Other countries’ smallest bills are way higher than the dollar: The 5-euro note ($6.60), 1,000 yen ($8.28), Britain’s 5-pound note ($9.75), 10 Swiss francs ($8.18), $5 Canadian ($4.30) and $5 Australian ($3.93). Even Mexico’s smallest bill, at 20 pesos, is worth $1.82. And for those of you who don’t keep up with the news, Mexicans are poor.

It’s not as if I even like the new coins. They feature a different president, in order, at four a year, much like the state quarters that have gripped the nation’s socially awkward 8-year-old boys. The Treasury loves these quarters, because it got $12.50 for printing 50 pieces of metal that were then placed in a book and never used as money.

I suppose the dollar coins might spur some children to learn about history (“Why are there two Grover Cleveland coins? He must have been a great, great man”), but all these ploys make us look like a cheese-ball country trying to make a cheap buck off souvenirs. Plus, because the Constitution specifies that only dead people can be on money, I worry that these coins will lead to a very lame 15th season of “24,” in which the secretary of the Treasury plots to assassinate President Jack Bauer “to save the seigniorage of the country I love.”

But, I will embrace the Millard Fillmore coin because I’m disgusted that such a simple piece of public policy has been stymied by our political system. That’s right, there are lobbies fighting to keep our dollar bill around. Lobbies that, undoubtedly, get beaten up at lunchtime by other lobbies.

The Coin Coalition, which supports killing both the dollar bill and the penny (which costs more than a penny to produce and is reused so infrequently we have to mint 8 billion new ones a year), is funded by the vending-machine and soft-drink industries, which are even more frustrated by trying to slip dollars into soda machines than you are.

They are battled by Save the Greenback, paid for by the paper and ink suppliers. Save the Greenback ultimately prevented a phaseout of the dollar bill thanks in part to Trent Lott (Mississippi’s cotton industry makes the dollar’s fabric) and Ted Kennedy (Massachusetts’ Crane Paper Co. produces the dollar’s paper). If dollar bill lobbies can bring Lott and Kennedy together, I’ll bet we can get them to make out for a midsized military contract.

Sure, these are just coins and, yes, by the time the Gerald Ford dollar comes out, we’ll be using our cellphones to pay for everything anyway. But if we can’t pass legislation this obvious, I worry about all the decisions Congress makes when we aren’t paying incredibly close attention: doling out sugar subsidies that impoverish African farmers, outlawing online poker, invading Iraq.

I used to think that such inefficiencies were a fair trade-off for not having to pay attention to our government. I was wrong. Sometimes, it takes currency redundancy to wake a nation from its stupor.

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So now I have hope. So much so that I’m working on a solution to the only major problem with eliminating the dollar bill. Starting soon, get ready to experience the world’s sexiest stripper fanny pack. You don’t even want to know.

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jstein@latimescolumnists.com


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