Boston — Five dollars will buy you some fun at your local banks. Just ask any teller for two $2 bills and one Susan B. Anthony $1 coin, shift tongue into cheek, and see what happens.
"Oh, wow!" was the answer I got, followed by a pause, and then, "OK." She left her window and walked to the far end of the teller cages. In a few minutes she returned with the offbeat currency in hand.
"The only way we get these," she says, "is that occasionally someone shoves them at us and says, 'Get rid of this! Give me real money!' Personally," she confesses, "I like the $1 coins for laughs. If I buy something for, say $1.85, I hand over two Susan B. Anthony coins. They stare at them and say, 'What's this?'"
Around the corner at a savings and loan association, I pushed one of my crisp the young man behind the glass reached for the silvery-looking coins.
"Nobody wants 'em," he commented laconically. "They look too much like quarters.People are afraid to give out one and lose 75 cents. The bank gave us 25 before Christmas in case people wanted to give them as presents. It's March and I've still got 16."
The cooperative bank down the street had neither $2 bills nor $1 coins.
At the final stop on my bank sortie, the teller grimaced and sold me two more those! The Federal Reserve Bank doesn't issue either anymore. The only ones we get are from people who turn them in. But we do have one man who comes in here twice a week and buys up all the $2 bills and $1 coins we have. I don't know why."
At the restaurant where I bought my $2.05 lunch, the cashier did a double take when I paid out two $1 coins and a nickel. "Oh!" she exclaimed, "I'm going to buy these for my grandchildren!"
On the turnpike toll booth, the Susan B. Anthony $1 coin elicited only a mock groan and, "Oh, one of those! I only see one about once a month."
So what does it prove?
* That the $2 bill, issued in 1976 during America's Bicentennial celebration, and the Susan B. Anthony $1 coin, launched with equal fanfare in 1979, are still out there -- even though the public initially gave a peremptory thumbs-down on this economy move.
* That both are available -- if you ask for them. They are negotiable, though not redeemed with wild enthusiasm. They are current, though scarce as dragons' teeth.
* That to bank tellers and commercial cashiers, they are just a bother.
* That because orders from commercial banks to the Federal Reserve System for these new demoninations peaked only two or three months after they appeared and were promptly proclaimed a monetary flop by the press, few Americans have seen more than a few, and many have never seen either.
* That banks are not ordering the $2 bill and $1 coin, because their customers don't want them. But if they don't hand them out routinely, their customers have no opportunity to become accustomed to them.
* That what sounded like a bright bureaucratic idea to save between $20 million and $24 million a year in minting and printing costs has been hard to sell to the American public, mainly because people resist changing their currency habits.
Canada's $2 bill circulates there almost as heavily as its $1 bill. But the Treasury in Washington hasn't had an order from Federal Reserve Banks for a two-spot in two years. Production of them stopped in 1978.
"by popular lack of demand," explains Harry R. Clements, director of the Treasury's Bureau of Engraving and Printing, "the Federal Reserve System is not using them for circulation."
When deuces do show up, the Fed's 25 member banks quietly retire them to their vaults. Of 500 million printed, about 250 million are now in storage. The government estimates that many of the remaining 250 million, rather than passing from hand to hand, are stashed away by serious collectors and hoarded by others just as a curiosity.
Dr. Alan J. Goldman, deputy director of the Bureau of the Mint, reports there isn't much happening with the Susan B. Anthony $1 coin, either. "We are slowly paying them out through the Federal Reserve Banks at the modest level of about $ 250,000 to $500,000 per week. But most banks are refusing to handle them. And as a result, most of the public is not seeing them.
"The only place I have seen them really moving is in Atlantic City and to a lesser extent Las Vegas. A number of slot machines in New Jersey use the Susan B. Anthony.And in various gaming parlors around the country, pinball machines are outfitted to accept the coin and give five plays for $1 instead of 25 cents apiece. But you don't see them being handled by bank tellers. And that is critical."
Of the $800 million minted, the Fed so far has paid out About $312 million. But many of these, like $2 bills, Dr. Goldman believes, have been stuck in drawers by people who think they will grow in value. "That is not the case," he insists. Production of the SBA was halted in March 1980. But in his opinion, "we have manufactured too many for them to become valuable."
Why all this fuss about replacing $1 greenback, anyway? It's the most popular form of American money, constituting about 60 percent of all currency required, with some 3.3 billion in circulation. The mint prints about 2.4 billion new $1 bills a year at a cost of slightly less than 2 cents a bill, or $ 45 million. As the population grows, demand for the $1 bill increases by about 5 percent a year. It circulates so freely that it lasts only about 18 months, compared with the Susan B. Anthony coin, which costs about 3 cents each to mint, but whose life expectancy is 15 years or more.
These factors, combined with rising printing costs, led the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to revive the $2 bill in 1976 as an economy measure, even though it had been removed from circulation 10 years before because of public indifference. Simple arithmetic tells you that it's cheaper to make one $2 bill than two $1 bills. So the bureau at that time figured that replacing half the $ 1 bills in circulation with $2 notes would save it a hefty $7 million a year in printing costs.
A marketability study concluded that the $2 bill had failed before because it was not issued in sufficient volume (only $14 million a year) to make it a familiar and useful part of the currency. Hence the decision to print 500 million of them. The study also showed that only 11 percent of people polled believed $2 bills were either lucky or unlucky. Although 51 percent said they didn't like the idea, 97 percent said they would accept them from retail store clerks.
However, a few months after the twos took their bow, they fell flat on their faces. Banks reported that public acceptance was poor. Several governors complained about the trimming of the John Trumbull picture of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on the reverse side of the bill. Fifteen signers (from their states) had been cropped. They just didn't fit the bill.
Christopher H. Lovelock, an associate professor of marketing at Harvard Business School who supervised the market survey by Harvard students, said retail establishment heads should have issued directives to clerks to hand out the twos in change. "Unless there's a reversal in the habits of bank clerks, store clerks, and the public," he says, "this latest $2 experiment is doomed to failure."
A similar unpopular early vote was cast against the Susan B. Anthony $1 coin honoring America's battler for women's rights, the first real-life woman ever to appear on United States currency. Minted to replace the pocket-drooping Ike dollar, the Anthony coin was introduced on July 2, 1979. Within days, the press was reporting that people were getting the new silver-colored alloy coin confused with the quarter. By early August the press was suggesting that the Anthony dollar was the Edsel of coins.
The Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which churns out the paper money, and the Bureau of the Mint, which produces the coinage, had hoped the combination of the $2 bill and the $1 coin would eventually have done away with the need for the $1 bill. Today the savings would amount to about $20 million a year.
Now the consensus is that the only way these denominations will ever fly is to withdraw the $1 bill. A proposal to do so met such anguished objection on Capitol Hill in 1979 that the effort was dropped. Rep. Frank Annunzio (D) of Illinois said if Congress eliminated the dollar bill in favor or the dollar coin , "the Treasury Department should be required to issue every American a pair of suspenders."
In January, Britain dismissed such congressional tom-foolery, and announced it is switching to the "round pound." Beginning in 1983, the L1 note, equivalent to about $2.40, will be gradually phased out with the introduction of a L1 coin.
"Our experience here," Dr. goldman says, "exactly duplicates the experience worldwide when a new instrument of either coinage or currency is issued. We are just proving once again that most people, given the choice, will choose that which they are used to using, namely the $1 bill. Unless at the very least we reduce the growth in $1 bill production, neither Susan B. Anthony nor the $2 bill will ever achieve widespread circulation."
In the new austere climate that blew in with the Reagan administration, is any thought being given to withdrawing the $1 bill?
"Not at the present time," Dr. Goldman replies. "With the high-items budget and tax cuts, there is no interest whatever in getting involved in any controversial currency or coinage issues. We will just leave well enough alone here for a while." Have the $2 bill and the $1 coin gotten a fair trial?
"Absolutely not," Dr. Goldman shoots back. "In 1965, when the government issued the nonsilver dime and quarter, there was a public outcry for a month or two. The press beat us to death. But when the silver quarters and dimes were withdrawn, people started using the new ones. They found out they were very satisfactory.
"But for the $1 coin and the $2 bill, there was never that kind of opportunity where really wide numbers of them were in the hands of the general public. . . . The commercial banks are the villains in this thing so far as I am concerned, because if these currencies don't get through them, if they are a resistance point, they never get to the retailers or to the public.
As for the $1 coin, Joseph S. Sims, a spokesman for the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, agrees.
"We got a lot of bad publicity right from the beginning," he laments. "Even before the coin came out, we started getting stories denigrating the coin because there was a woman on it. Even before people had a chance to make up their minds, the press was telling them that they weren't going to like the coins and were going to confuse them with the quarter. I don't think the banks ever gave it a fair chance. . . . We got so many letters from people who said they could not get the coins."
Congresswoman Mary Rose Oakar (D) of Ohio, a member of the Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs Committee, who fought hard to get a woman on the $1 coin, also feels the Susan B. Anthony was shortchanged.
Her administrative assistant, Keri Corrigan, says the banking, vending-machine, and retail industries all supported the $1 coin legislation, promising comprehensive public relations programs. Vendors, she says, promised to retrofit machines other than those in gambling centers. All those promises, she charges, were broken.
Public relations programs were not comprehensive. Many banks did not maintain an adequate inventory of the new coin, giving it out only in limited numbers. People, she says, began thinking it wasn't legal tender. And certain retail outlets refused to accept it.
"Even here in the Capitol building," she says, "our vending machines for snacks were never refitted. Our credit unions were not supplied an adequate inventory of the Anthony coin." Nothing, she says, was ever done to adapt money-changing machines in the nation's mass transit systems. (Two years ago, however, the vending machine industry was reported to have converted 250,000 machines at a cost of $25 million.)
Representative Oakar's office doesn't discount sexism as contributing to the public's rejection of the $1 coin. "We don't want to be hysterical about the issue," Ms. Corrigan says, "but we felt ridicule was easier to level and unfortunately more acceptable and cute because there was a woman on the coin. . . . I think attitudes had a lot to do with this. Criticism transcended the practicality of the coin."
Mr. Sims says the $1 coin's far greater longevity makes it "obvious that it would be much more economical to use than the bills.It was a good idea. It would have saved us a lot of money. I use the coin and find it much more convenient than a $1 note. I'd much prefer to have a shiny new coin in my pocket than a dirty old $1 bill."
You can't say Washington hasn't tried promotion. But its PR efforts to change public habits, though gallant, have so far been doomed. The government talked some supermarket chains into using the $2 bill in routine transactions for a trial period. IT touted the Susan B. Anthony as "the dollar of the future." For several months, post offices were giving out the $1 coins as change.
"We receive no complaints at all from the public," Dr. Goldman reports. "But most POs have drifted back into using the bills. They are easier to get. We got calls from some post offices that they were having difficulties getting the coins from some banks."
Last year, the Department of Defense tried saving itself the constant cost of shipping dollar bills to and from its overseas military bases by supplanting them with the $1 coin (the worn-out ones have to be returned). Service personnel had no trouble using the coin on base. But in West Germany, where the bulk of Us forces is stationed, banks discounted the coins heavily. Complaints from service members reached congressmen, and the year-long experiment ended abruptly last December.
Stella Hackel Sims, director of the Mint, a Carter appointee, and a champion of the Susan B. Anthony coin, is resigning April 1. In limbo is a proposal to change the color of the coin to a brassy bronze and to add a large numeral 1 on the reverse side.
For the present, there is no plan to encourage Americans to think twice about the $2 bill and the $1 coin. Engraving and Printing Director Clement says he, for one, sees the public's verdict as "conclusive. I would not want to recommend anything that would turn out to be a fiasco."
To trim his production costs, he has already introduced newer technology and more automation. Another cost-saving idea he is proposing is to eliminate the expensive anticounterfeiting intaglio engraving process on the reverse side of the $1 bill, replacing it with the less costly offset printing technique. The face of the bill would still retain the intaglio protection.
But as the new administration's economy drive moves into full gear, the Treasury might eventually have to use more economical ways to produce the money the US needs.
Up until now, the public's decision on the $2 bill and the $1 coin has been made mainly on the basis of personal preference. From now on the cost to the government may be seen as a new factor.