A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Coins versus Bills:The Egyptian Case

The US has tried for years to persuade Americans to use a one dollar coin, which lasts much longer than a paper bill, with little success. Not since silver dollars made of real silver went out of circulation have Americans wanted to use a dollar coin. In my own day I can remember the Eisenhower dollar, the Susan B. Anthony dollar, the Sacagawea dollar, and currently, the Presidential series of dollar coins, of which in the two or three years it's been coming out, I've encountered three.

The only way Americans will accept dollar coins is if they stop printing dollar bills, and in a democracy where people vote for all sorts of niche issues, banning the bills — as our Canadian and British cousins did when they introduced dollar and pound coins — just isn't in the cards. (The first time I went to the UK after the pound coin came in, I think I was tipping with them for days thinking they were 50p coins. The establishments presumably thought I was a big tipper.)

Well, here's an article at Bikya Masr on the same phenomenon in Egypt. One pound and one-and-a-half pound coins were not only rejected by customers in favor of paper, but also by shopkeepers, taxi drivers, etc. (Change has always been a problem in Egypt: ma fish fakka — there's no change — is the plea of many a taxi driver.) When I first went to Egypt in 1972, the smallest coin was the ta‘rifa, or half a piaster, but in those days the pound was a fair amount of money. Today, half a piaster would make no sense, as it wouldn't buy anything at all.

Now, they're minting the coins but not printing the bills. An authoritarian government like Egypt or even a rather paternalistic state like the UK or Canada can pull that off, but I still doubt that you'll see Americans do it any time soon. We're too contrarian, and the politician who stops printing dollar bills is dissing George Washington, of all people. Americans like their dollar bills.

Anybody want a Sacagawea dollar?


Anonymous said...

The first phrase in Arabic I learned was "ma feesh fakka." My Father taught it to me at the airport in Cairo as we were accosted by beggers exiting the terminal. The next three phrases/ words were In Shah Allah, Bukrah,and Malesh(the Egyptian IBM). It was a great repretoire to start a 15 year old's cultural orientation to the ME. 25 years later I still seem to use these terms a great deal.
As to 1 dollar coins... ugh. I am American enough to resent the two pounds of change that accumulates in my pocket after an afternoon of shopping in the euro-zone. Why would I want that experience to come to America. We are more likely to get rid of cash altogether in favor of plastic, before we accept dollar coins. That's not prudent, but it is American.

John said...

"That's not prudent, but it is American."

Good contender for a national motto.

Wide applicability. Foreign policy. Domestic policy. Personal life styles.