Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Is It Time for Benjamin to Retire?

An article on the CNN Money website the other day asked a provocative question: "Does the $100 Bill Need to Go?"

What a stupid question. Of course it needs to go! It can go right into my wallet if it wants.

But seriously, it's a valid question driven by cultural, legal, economic, diplomatic, and political considerations.

The hundred-dollar bill used to be called a "C-Note," from the Roman numeral "C," which meant one hundred. Today it's often known as a "Benjamin" because it bears the picture of Benjamin Franklin ...

The Benjamin is an important element of popular culture, frequently used as a symbol of wealth (usually gained by nefarious means). Hip-hop performer Puff Daddy had a song titled "It's All About the Benjamins," which was also the title of a forgettable 2002 movie starring Ice Cube and Mike Epps. Insecure stars like to be photographed with wads of Benjamins, as if this helps prove that they have talent.

From a legal perspective, law enforcement agencies note that criminals like $100 bills because they allow more money to be carried in less space, and the Hundred is the most widely-counterfeited American banknote today. That dubious distinction used to go to the Twenty (known sometimes as a  "Jackson" for its picture of Andrew Jackson*), which was considered the highest denomination bill that could be passed without attracting attention or scrutiny ... but what can you buy with twenty bucks any more? A Twenty isn't worth the time and effort to counterfeit.

From the viewpoint of popular economics, the Hundred is losing its appeal as well. The CNN Money article cites a paper by Ken Rogoff, former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, as stating that nearly 80% of the $1.3 trillion in currency in circulation consists of $100 bills. That's a whopping lot of hundreds, far more than Americans outside of the legendary 1% have any possible use for. Think about it: when was the last time that you took a mighty wad of Benjamins to the local supermarket to buy groceries for the week?

The Hundred is a major tool of diplomacy as well: US Special Forces troops who went into Afghanistan in the early days of the search for Osama bin Laden carried bags of hundreds to use as bribes and payoffs**, and the US government sent pallets of shrink-wrapped Benjamins*** into Iraq to provide currency after the defeat of Saddam's forces and the destruction of his economy.

And finally, from a political perspective, the Benjamin has long been the denomination of choice for the purchase of politicians. It would be positively unwieldy to pay a half-million dollars (or whatever the going rate is) for a judge, Senator, or Reprehensive in Tens or Twenties ... Hundreds make a much tidier bundle for the payee to hide in his refrigerator. If only to help make graft more difficult, getting rid of the old C-Note wouldn't be a bad thing.

I believe the good old hundred-dollar bill - the C-Note, the Benjamin - has outlived its usefulness. Today, it is much easier to move large amounts of money digitally, rather than in heavy bricks of banded paper. The hundred is useful only as a device for flaunting one's wealth and impressing those who are easily impressed. The guy in the food truck where you buy your lunch, the clerk at the convenience store, and the Girl Scout selling cookies door-to-door don't want to have to make change for a hundred-dollar bill.

Perhaps at one time it was, indeed, all about the Benjamins. In my family, though, it's all about the Georges, Hams+, sawbucks++, and the occasional Jackson. I don't think I remember the last time I saw a Benjamin that wasn't on a printed page or a movie screen.

Have a good day. Keep track of those Benjamins if you're fortunate enough to have any. More thoughts tomorrow.


* And also occasionally referred to as a "yuppie food stamp," because it's the denomination usually dispensed from ATMs.

** Read all about it in the book Ghost Wars by David Coll.

*** A depressingly large number of which seem to have vanished without trace.

+ A five-dollar bill, the nickname deriving from an abbreviation of Abra(ham) Lincoln, whose portrait graces the note.

++ A ten-dollar bill, the nickname deriving from the Roman numeral "X" (for "10"), and the X-shape of a classical sawbuck (or sawhorse).


Big Sky Heidi said...

I think the Benjamin has outlived its usefulness. We ought to phase out the penny, the 50 cent coin, and the dollar coin while we're at it.

Bilbo said...

Heidi, I agree that we should phase out the penny and the 50-cent piece, but I think the dollar coin should stay and replace the traditional greenback. It's cheaper to produce and lasts longer, and if we eliminate the half-dollar coin, dumbass self-important rapper 50 Cent could inflate himself to Dollar.

eViL pOp TaRt said...

Most of us would rather not carry large denomination bills, or much cash for that matter. It's astounding that there are so many $100 bills in circulation. Or whatever.

At one time the U.S. coined 2- and 3-cent pieces; but during the 19th century. The 50 cent piece is rarely in circulation. Maybe we vote with our purse or wallet.

Mike said...

It's always fun to go to the bank and get some $2 bills. You get some funny looks from store clerks when you hand them one.

Elvis Wearing a Bra on His Head said...

What about the $50 bill? How often do you see it in circulation? It's like the 50 cent piece.

Meredith said...

I would keep the $100s.

allenwoodhaven said...

What would happen to all the 100s out there? Would they be traded in before a deadline? That would be an amusingly chaotic scene. A lot more 50s and 20s would be needed to make up the difference. I'd keep the 100 and the penny. Both have value to me, though I see lots of the latter and extremely few of the former. A dollar coin does make sense but the public doesn't seem to want it.