A Modest Proposal: Customized Currency

Ever since the U.S. government's $700 billion bailout, politicians and the public have been entangled in debates about the best way to solve the national component of the global financial crisis and the consequent economic impact. Some people are in favor of helping those hardest hit by the downturn: the home-mortgage payers, the poor, the jobless. Others want to assist key government, financial, corporate and other institutions, which are deemed necessary—some of which helped us get into this mess. One thing is certain: the cost to the government, and ultimately the taxpayers, is a fortune. Some estimate the total cost to be more than $1 trillion. And currently the public debt is well over $12 trillion and climbing.

Latest designs of the $5, $10, $20 and $50 dollar bills (U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing).

Latest designs of the $5, $10, $20 and $50 dollar bills. (U.S. Department of the Treasury)

I have a solution to raising funds to offset the bailout.

I suggest that the federal government follow in the tradition of recent highways, sports stadiums, buildings and other physical monuments. I propose that the U.S. Treasury Department make a simple change in the graphic design of our currency, permitting U.S. notes to feature the portraits, names and logos or insignia of those persons and organizations willing to pay the price for a most ubiquitous of public relations/advertising venues.

One small step for graphic design, one giant step for the U.S. financial system.

The evolution of our currency design-from the staid, symmetric, formal iterations so easily mastered by counterfeiters to the more recent asymmetrical, airy, almost playful (even funny-money-like) polychrome designs in circulation—has been glacially slow. Yet our currency, in addition to its use at home, is one of America's greatest exports. Just as other commodities adapt to meet consumer demand, why not exploit this export's imagery? In making this change, the United States would capture again the world's attention as a center of individualism, progress and opportunity—not to mention a culture of narcissism, hedonism and capitalism. We might even see a rise in the value (or at least the desirability) of the U.S. dollar.

As for the cost—well, if rich entrepreneurs like Richard Garriott are willing to pay $30 million dollars for a 10-day space-ride, I would estimate that personalities and organizations with enough ego and excess cash would be willing to pay $100 million dollars apiece for the satisfaction, public relations, brand-building and/or advertising value of seeing their portraits and logos in the hands of almost every U.S. citizen as well as numerous people around the globe. I estimate that it would take only 7,000 wealthy individuals or organizations (worldwide) to raise $700 billion. Surely they would be eager to step up to the (printing) plate.

Think about it: wouldn't Donald Trump, Oprah Winfrey, Paris Hilton and Tom Cruise literally leap at the chance? Wouldn't fans of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson or even President Obama fervently campaign to raise funds in order to feature their favorite media/political megastars? If Matt Groening's entire Simpson family can be featured on our stamps, why not create the circumstances for them to be featured on our currency, too? Bart bucks, anyone?

Proposed 100 dollar bill with President Obama replacing Benjamin Franklin (design by Aaron Marcus).

Why wait for history to catch up? A proposed 100 dollar bill replaces Benjamin Franklin with President Barack Obama. (composite image by Aaron Marcus)

Stephen Colbert, the Comedy Central figurehead, might mobilize each of his 1.3 million Colbert Nation “citizens” to donate $100 to come up with the cash, not to send him into orbit, but to immortalize his face on our national currency, especially since his portrait is already in the National Portrait Gallery. In his typically modest way, Colbert could announce the “Stephen Colbert Saves America, and So Can You!” initiative.

Consider Apple, Microsoft, Nike, Oracle or Target, eager to see their names emblazoned continuously on greenbacks. In fact, just the 400 richest Americans worth $1 billion or more might wish to underwrite part of this historic opportunity at, say, a modest $200 million per portrait.

What about wealthy grandparents, eager to see their gorgeous grandchildren visually canonized and/or apotheosized, well beyond the dreams of even the most powerful rulers of the past? The IRS might even offer the donors special tax deductions.

Versions of customized currency featuring the author (left) and his grandaughter (right).

Under the author's proposed plan, bills could be customized to feature an adored grandchild (left) or a company's branding. (composite images by Aaron Marcus)

Let's not leave out wealthy foreign individuals, companies, organizations and even other countries that might welcome portraits of other world leaders or political/economic potentates, perhaps even with flags of their countries on the back. Several hundred million Chinese citizens, or the Chinese government itself, might contribute the necessary funds, thereby helping to remind us that China owns 20 percent of our total foreign debt. If you think it would be a little odd to see people and symbols of other countries on our currency, consider that an Egyptian pyramid already adorns the back of our one-dollar bill, thanks to the interest of past presidents in Masonic symbolism.

Customized currency would also allow many possible firsts: women and Asian nation-leaders might be featured on our own currency, if only for a limited time. Our three billion one-dollar bills last about 21 months in circulation, while 500 million one-hundred-dollar bills last five years in circulation. Therefore, there might be trade-offs in the image price and duration vs. currency value. There are no doubt some technical issues related to counterfeiting protection, but because most of the design would remain the same, I think these can be overcome. (I leave it to the U.S. Treasury Department to work out the design/implementation details.)

We might even begin to call our currency by the names of the individuals pictured (“That'll cost you three Obamas and a Putin!”). We could celebrate living leaders of the world, instead of only dead, white, male presidents. Imagine what we might accomplish through the transfiguration of imagery in our American culture.

We have a propitious moment for a break-through graphic-design solution to our financial crisis that will not require the expense and time of drawn-out congressional debates or national elections. Write your leaders! Let's get started!

  • This idea, in an altered form, and without illustrations, first appeared as an editorial in the San Jose Mercury News on January 4, 2009.
  • All images are published with permission of the copyright owners and/or are in the public domain.
  • The author developed this idea in November 2008. Although not known to him at the time, he acknowledges the work of Elisheva Biernoff, a graduate graphic design student at the California College of Arts, San Francisco, whose 2008 exhibit of work included portraits of famous people applied to U.S. currency; and the artist Thomas Winkler, who assigned his students the task of redesigning the euro with advertisements included, with the thought in mind to generate about $500 billion, as reported in Der Spiegel.
  • The author sent President Obama and Stephen Colbert letters on January 20, 2009, urging them individually to take action in arranging with the U.S. Treasury Department to begin this bold innovation in fundraising via the redesign of the U.S. currency. However, no reply or acknowledgment has been received.