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Barely Green Greenback

October 15, 2003

The federal treasury is now spending 1,500,000 $20 bills -- that's $30 million, twice the cost of the Louisiana Purchase -- just on advertising to teach Americans about its new $20 bill. Hey, twenties are good but with the federal and state deficits and all, we'd listen up for a couple of fives. And come to think about it, what's to learn about $20 bills after you see the 2 and the 0? Except maybe that none of us ever feel as if we have enough of them.

For employed people, the $20 bill has become the currency workhorse of the United States -- standard issue at all ATMs, widely used and accepted abroad, even in place of local currencies, and, naturally, most often counterfeited. Officials deemed a new bill, even one that costs 7.5 cents each to print, as useful and an expensive education effort as necessary to prevent misunderstandings. Last time the U.S. altered bills, in 1996, many cashiers, foreign businesses and domestic vending machines didn't get the message about new and old both being good.

This new bill -- $19 billion worth -- has started pouring into the economy in recent days. It will appear in paid ads this time, not the "public service" ones broadcast free by TV stations at 2 a.m. so no one will see them. Goldfish snack crackers will have a $20 promotion. The prize? Twenty trips to Washington, not Tennessee. And you'll see the bill show up on "Wheel of Fortune" and football games.

The new twenty is a little different. Jackson still doesn't look like the first president born in a log cabin, the first to marry a divorcee or the first nominated at a national convention. But his portrait is no longer framed in an oval. And the bills are multihued to help foreigners who've previously handed out twenties as $1 tips. Oops. Officials explain that the U.S. is joining the world in having different-colored money for different denominations. Next thing you know they'll be selling soft drinks in two-liter bottles.

The new twenty still shows the seventh president with that familiar "Lion King" mane of hair -- the "before" part of a Supercuts ad. Or maybe the general born in South Carolina ran out of gel on a 19th century bad hair day and the steam-powered hair dryer stuck on the hot hurricane setting.

What's most different on the new $20 bill is pretty much hidden -- a new watermark and security thread secreted in the paper. Which makes you wonder why we need to spend 1,500,000 of them announcing all this. Who needs to know the counterfeit countermeasures unless you're a genuine counterfeiter, in which case an expensive alert about what needs careful copying is most thoughtful and helpful? How many twenties will that cost?

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