Recently, I received a press release from the U.S. Treasury Department. Naturally my first move was to verify, via chemical analysis, that it was genuine. There has been a sharp increase in the number of counterfeit Treasury Department press releases, as an embarrassed CNN found out last month when it reported, incorrectly, that Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan does all the voices on the popular cartoon show "South Park." (In fact, he does only Kenny and Mr. Hankey.)
But this particular press release turned out to be authentic; it announced that, this fall, we'll be seeing a new, redesigned $20 bill. This is part of an anti-counterfeiting program to redesign all of our old currency, which has become too easy to duplicate with modern color photocopiers - a fact that was made all too clear when the Xerox Corp., in its 1997 annual report, reported profits of "$850 trillion, mostly in 50s."Why does counterfeit money represent a threat to the nation? And how can we, as consumers, be sure that we have spelled "counterfeit" correctly? To answer these questions, we need to understand exactly what money is and what makes it valuable.
Back in ancient times, when people were much stupider than they are today, there was no such thing as money. People transacted business by trading actual, physical things. For example, if you sold a cow, the buyer would pay for it by giving you, say, 14 physical ducks. Even in those days, that was a lot of ducks to be carrying around, and the bank wouldn't let you deposit them because they fought with the chickens. Also, the automatic teller machines were disgusting.
Finally, the ancient Egyptians got sick of this and invented the first unit of paper currency, called the "simoleon." The way the Egyptians explained the concept to their trading partners was: "For your convenience, we're going to start paying you with these pieces of paper, which are valuable because they have a picture of Ulysses Grant." The trading partners were not crazy about this concept, but they went along with it, because the Egyptians had also invented spears.
Today, the basic principle remains the same: We trust money because our government stands behind it. A counterfeit $20 bill is a worthless piece of paper backed by nothing; whereas a real $20 bill, issued by the Treasury Department, has value, because any time you want, you can take it to Fort Knox, site of the federal gold bullion depository, and exchange it, no questions asked, for a duck. Try it yourself! If they give you any trouble, mention my name, Art Buchwald.
But the point is that, starting this fall, you're going to start seeing a drastically redesigned $20 bill. Among the major changes are:
- To thwart would-be photocopiers, instead of saying "TWENTY DOLLARS," the new $20 bills say "FIFTEEN DOLLARS."
- The Nike swoosh has been enlarged.
- The engraved portrait of Andrew Jackson has been given a new, up-to-date hairstyle, patterned, according to the Treasury Department press release, "after Barry Manilow." The nation's seventh president also has been given a vivacious new facial expression that seems to say: "I am looking good, and I am READY TO PARTY with the engraved portraits on other currency denominations!"
- On the back of the bill, in the engraving of the White House, on the far right-hand side, in the engraved shrubbery, is a tiny crouching engraving of Kenneth Starr.
- For verification purposes, the new bill is impregnated with plutonium particles that emit a distinctive pattern of atomic radiation. "This poses absolutely no health danger whatsoever to humans," notes the Treasury Department press release, which adds: "Do not ever put the bill in your pocket."
These improvements, plus the top-secret "auto-detonate" feature that I am not allowed to mention in this column, will make the new $20 bill - which is costing the government $348.50 per unit to manufacture - the most advanced anti-counterfeit currency in the world.
But the whole effort will be wasted unless you, the consumer, do your part by keeping a sharp eye out for "funny money." The Treasury Department is asking that you regularly inspect all of your bills, of all denominations.
If you notice anything suspicious - according to the press release, this especially means "foreign words, men in wigs, strings of numbers, a greenish coloring or some kind of weird eyeball floating over a pyramid" - you should immediately put the suspect bills into an envelope and mail them to: The U.S. Treasury Department Anti-Counterfeit Task Force, c/o Dave Barry, The Miami Herald, Miami, FL 33132.
Please help. Only by joining together to fight this thing can we, as a nation, buy me a giant mansion with servants and a lake. It will have ducks. Thank you.