Illustration by Charles Barsotti
Illustration by Charles Barsotti

The busiest subway stop in downtown Washington was until recently festooned with green banners and billboards warning of a terrible danger. One of America’s great national symbols is under attack: the dollar bill.

A few unpatriotic senators want to phase out the dollar bill and replace it with a dollar coin. Several previous attempts to do this have foundered on people’s fondness for paper money.

In the subway ad campaign, riders are importuned to sign an online petition and go to a website for more information, which of course I do, because I always follow orders from billboards. Even on the website, information is scarce. There is a new poll result: 97 percent of Americans find paper bills more convenient than metal coins. This, if true, is an astonishing figure -- not only because it reflects near-unanimity, but also because I find it hard to develop any opinion at all about the relative convenience of paper money versus coinage. (And opinions are how I make my living.) I would say “It all depends,” which is a choice pollsters never give you.

Under “About Us,” the website says it is just a group of “like-minded individuals, businesses, and organizations seeking to ensure that the citizens of the United States maintain the ability to choose their preferred currency.” A sample list of members is not enlightening: It includes the Auto Dealers Association of Alabama, Muddy’s Laundromat and Sophia’s House of Pancakes.

A Stirring Defense

What moved this disparate group to take up the cause of saving the dollar bill? Tom Ferguson, “a currency expert and spokesman for Americans for George,” wrote in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call that “America has faced great challenges in recent years” and therefore “we must strive to maintain the principles and practices that make us Americans.” So “it is exactly for this reason we must defend one of the most enduring American symbols -- the dollar bill.”

Despite this completely nonsensical explanation, questions remain. When did the dollar bill become a great patriotic symbol? Who is paying for this patriotic campaign to save it (because I doubt that Muddy’s Laundromat can foot the bill)? What is their real motive, whoever they are? What is the likelihood that Congress -- Congress! Which cannot agree about anything -- will take up an issue that is on no one’s front burner and vote against the supposed wishes of 97 percent of the American people? If you correctly answer, “slight,” why the urgency?

What’s going on here is very familiar in Washington. Some lobbying or public-relations firm convinces some fool of a client that action on some issue is urgent urgent urgent. The client panics and starts writing checks.

We often deplore the deplorable influence of corporate money in Washington. But often the corporations that pay former high officials and other big shots to con politicians and the public are themselves being conned. It’s less like bribery and more like a protection racket. This one is especially bizarre because electronic payments are quickly replacing both coins and bills. Talk about fighting the last war.

Usually the name of a group gives you a hint about its purpose, if not its identity. If it calls itself Americans United for Responsible Tiddlywinks Regulation, it is against Tiddlywinks regulation. If it’s the National Coalition of Mothers for Broccoli, the “mothers” are probably mothers of broccoli farmers.

And so on. But “Americans for George” could be anyone. It turns out, however, that the answer is refreshingly straightforward.

Fancy Stationery

Mother Jones reports that the main backer of Americans for George is Crane, the fancy stationery company, which also makes the paper used for dollar bills. The main backers of the dollar coin are copper mining companies.

The pro-coin lobby has its own front group, sensibly called the Dollar Coin Alliance, which touts the billions of dollars to be saved by switching to coins from bills. The Obama administration has canceled a program to do just that. The Dollar Coin Alliance says, “This decision makes no cents!” Har-de-har-har.

So how does a patriotic American decide which lobby to believe? You might start by asking, Which one is more obviously trying to buffalo me? Clearly that is the Billsters (let’s call them) with their ludicrous attempt to create patriotic sentiment around the dollar bill. Then you might ask, Which side has hired Frank Luntz? Once again, it’s the dollar bill people.

If Luntz is on one side, you probably want to be on the other. Luntz’s specialty is to determine which specific words resonate most negatively on any issue, then to promote use of them. His biggest triumph was rechristening the estate tax as the “death tax.” His eerie slogan -- actually printed on his firm’s stationery -- is, “It’s not what you say. It’s what they hear.”

“The results are clear and definitive,” Luntz tells the paper money lobby. “Americans prefer paper money to coins.” Some “key takeaways”: “The dollar bill represents ‘America’ to 47% of voters; 66% believe eliminating the dollar bill erodes our national character; 49% of Americans associate dollar coins with Europeans, not Americans.”

Sixty-four percent of Americans oppose switching to a dollar coin and gradually phasing out the paper dollar. “The federal government shouldn’t tell me what money I can and cannot use. This is about personal freedom and personal choice. Americans should have the right to use the kind of money they want to use. Period.” This man is still fuming about the office vending machine because it won’t accept euros. According to Luntz, 68 percent of Americans agree with this bit of ignorant confusion.

If I thought Americans were as gullible as Luntz apparently does, I would be very depressed. But I suspect these ridiculous poll results -- dollar coins are European? The dollar bill “represents America,” whatever that means? -- are more the result of Americans’ willingness to express an opinion about anything, when asked by a pollster.

The dollar bill people may be right about public opinion, but the coin people are right about coins. Americans don’t want to admit to themselves how much our currency has eroded. A dollar today buys what a quarter would have bought in 1976.

Yet again, we learn that while Americans claim to yearn for change, change is actually the last thing they want.

(Michael Kinsley is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Read more opinion online from Bloomberg View.

Today’s highlights: The editors on the latest job numbers and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s trial; Jonathan Alter on the auto bailout; Luigi Zingales on Fed nominees; Amity Shlaes on tax policy and “The Hunger Games”; Alex Marshall on improving U.S. roads.

To contact the writer of this article: Michael Kinsley at mkinsley@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net.