More about money

US paper currency, uniquely, does not differ by denomination in any way perceptible to the blind, and a district court judge says that’s not fair. If the decision survives appeal, we will have to find a way to distinguish bills, perhaps by embossing, perhaps by shape, perhaps by size, which is what almost every other country does (but see my last paragraph for another idea). The Treasury estimates that the last alternative would cost about $230 million. About a million people in the US are legally blind, perhaps another two million don’t see well enough to distinguish bills by sight, so this sounds like spending up to a couple of hundred dollars for each of them, once, to enable them to do what sighted people take for granted and do effortlessly and frequently. Spending and receiving money is an important part of being an autonomous, independent person.

A lot of rights assured to the disabled by law are really expensive per user, making one wonder if offering the cost of certain Americans with Disabilities Act provisions to the beneficiaries in cash wouldn’t be much preferred, but this one looks like a very easy call. In fact, one cost item in the Treasury’s estimate is $178m for “new printing presses”. I can understand new plates, but why can’t they just print fewer larger bills on the same sheet size they use now? Perhaps they would have to buy new cutting machinery, but not presses. So that part is even cheaper.

However, the cost of a change to varying sizes is much larger than the Treasury’s shopping trip. Perhaps ten million cash register drawers (about $150 each) and about six million vending machine acceptance units ($500 each, I would guess) will need to be replaced (not just adjusted); even wallets may be too small unless bills are progressively reduced in size from the C-note; are we ready for coupon-sized bills? The total cost of the change will be in the several thousands per blind person, not hundreds, with only a small part borne directly by government. In this light, the decision looks harder (still perhaps efficient) on pure utilitarian grounds, and may need to be analyzed in terms of rights that we deliberately choose not to price economically.

Here’s a cheap way out of this: how about just putting holes in the bills? We’d still need new printing plates so the holes are nicely located in the design; diecutting the holes will make the bills a little more expensive to manufacture; and even neat round holes will probably shorten the life of bills somewhat. But a row of zero (for the $100) up to six holes (in the $1), each about 3/8″ in diameter, would distinguish our seven circulating bills in a way a blind person could easily feel and allow us to do the right thing quite inexpensively. Another approach would seem to be to shorten, but not narrow, the bills progressively. I bet 3/8″ steps would work, which would make the single end just outside Washington’s picture frame, at 4″; still a practical size and still digestible to current vending machine slots. If we kill the $1 bill, all the better.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

23 thoughts on “More about money”

  1. If you just cut holes, then an old 1$ feels like a new 100$ bill. Not so good for our blind friends for avoiding scams.
    If you make the 100$ with holes & 1$ without, you could still scam a blind person by manually punching holes in the 1 to match the 100.
    (still, it's better than no way to tell at all.)
    For maximum differentiation, all new bills would have at least one hole.
    1$ one hole in the center only.
    5$ holes near top & bottom, centered in middle.
    10$ holes near left & right, centered on edge.
    20$ holes on diaganal corners.
    50$, 100$ Hmmm. Something else. (think!)
    Make it so no bill has holes in positions that allow faking other bills.
    what about wear & tear tho?

  2. Actually, there are seven denominations in circulation today ($1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100).
    However, standard Braille characters use six dots. If you substitute holes for Braille dots, a single Braille character on each banknote could easily be used to indicate the entire range of circulating currency. If durability of a banknote that contains holes is a concern, I suppose the US could switch to polymer banknotes. Australia has had success with these. Not only are they quite durable and difficult to counterfeit, but they also readily support punched holes.

  3. Remember, the holes would be located in obvious places in the printing, and lower denominations would have more. To raise a bill, you would have to fill holes, not punch extra ones, which is much harder to do imperceptibly, and the fill would be obvious to the sighted. I guess people might try to cheat blind people this way, but it would be quite an unrewarding line of work.
    Until all the money turned over, the blind would have to be as careful as they are now, but no more.

  4. The business community will kill this in its crib. The dollar costs alone will guarentee it.
    And there is a lot of resistance on the part of the business community to making accessibility modifications of the simplest sort, like providing correctly sized parking spaces. I know this to be a fact; my company consults on these issues with business and government.
    Last, I offer the example provided by the recent analysis here about the dollar coin. If the coin has not and is not being accepted, what fate do you think awaits drastically changed paper money?
    The ruling is an excellent reading of Section 504 and admirable for its intent. As a real world political issue, it's doomed.

  5. Most accommodations for people with disabilities wind up being more useful to those without disabilities as well (e.g., curb cuts, elevator signals). Adding up the millions with limited vision ignores that this will benefit everyone by reducing confusions between bills at the cash register. Because everyone benefits, the cost can be spread across the entire money-using population and will seem like much less.

  6. Although I think this judicial decision is more than a little ridiculous, this might be the opportunity for getting rid of the $1 bill and maybe even the $5 bill. I know in the UK they have 1 pound and 2 pound coins, and I believe there is a 5 Euro coin, too. Switching to coins for lower denominations won't require huge hardware adjustments for cash registers, though they prob would for vending machines (but then they would have to for newly sized bills, too). Coins are harder to counterfeit, more economical and more durable.

  7. I don't think the durability would go down too much. In my experience, dollar bills wear out along *folds*, not along edges; I've never torn one except along a much-worn fold. Michael wants the holes to be incorporated into the design; I'd want to keep them away from the heavily-used 1/2 and 1/3 creases. A two-by-three panel of holes in one corner could replace one of the current large numbers.
    You can also imagine a few benefits to business; bill sorters, for example, would be dramatically simplfied.

  8. 3/8 inch seems too big for the holes. Standard holes for three-ring binders are 1/4 inch, aren't they? That should be plenty.
    I'm skeptical about distinguishing bills by length in 3/8-inch steps. People already complain about being unable to distinguish dollar coins from quarters (though admittedly the complainers probably aren't blind). Is 6 inches that different from 5-5/8 inches?
    Alex, the proposal of color differences is for people with low vision (and those of us with normal vision, for that matter), not the completely blind, obviously. It can't be a complete answer.
    zak822, I think dollar coins would be accepted if the dollar bill were eliminated. What choice would people have? Do you imagine mass strikes demanding the return of the dollar bill? Similarly with new bill designs, if there's no choice people will accept it, just as they've already accepted the recent redesigns of bills, even if some complain about "Monopoly money".

  9. I know that bills now have a strip embedded in them that helps validate it as a non-counterfeit bill. What about modifying that embedded strip so that it's a bit stiffer (to help prevent wear) and emboss dots on it, similar to the hole-punches being proposed. Have 6 bumps along it for a $1 up to no bumps for the highest denomination. The strip could then have a dual function – counterfeit deterrence and accessibility marker.

  10. In older people the sense of touch is greatly diminished. Money should be embedded with sound-creating gimmicks as well. Squeeze the corner and it squawks if it's a single; moos if it's a five; hee-haws it it's a ten. Anyone well off enough for twenties doesn't need help.

  11. You could also put in notches, perhaps in varying patterns, to distinguish bills. This is done with sheet film used in photography, which must be handled in the dark.
    By the way, being able to identify bills by feel benefits more than just blind people. Am I the only one who's ever fumbled around in his wallet at night, looking for the right bills to pay a cab fare?

  12. I'm puzzled. Why is the Treasury Department the defendant in this suit instead of the Federal Reserve Banks? Our currency is clearly denominated as "Federal Reserve Notes" and, therefore, is issued by the several Federal Reserve Banks, which are privately owned banks, owned collectively by the national banks.

  13. yoyo is right. The blind cannot determine if a piece of paper is currency, so making genuine bills distinguishable doesn't do much to help stop fraud.
    A currency scanner is what a blind person should use.

  14. You don't have to be blind to benefit from a change like this. If bills were more distinguishable, lines at Starbucks would move faster because people would fumble less when paying.
    Getting old is not a choice and I see no reason to mock the elderly or the blind by suggesting mooing currency. This change would not affect only those totally blind, but all the variations of visual ability across the spectrum. The less you must look, the faster you'll be in handling money. Simple things like adding serifs to letters improve reading speed. Similar changes to money will improve money-handling for everyone, especially those who do it the most. This is simple cognitive science. Something that seems a trivial time or accuracy savings for one person adds up to a lot in terms of productivity.

  15. Peter Hollings asks: "Why is the Treasury Department the defendant in this suit instead of the Federal Reserve Banks?"
    The Treasury Department is the defendant because the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which is part of the Treasury Department, is in charge of designing and printing those Federal Reserve Notes. See

  16. I've been talking about this for about 20 years when I teach macroeconomics and money and banking. Leaving the cost issues aside, the Court has identified a real issue…we make it easy to swindle people with limited visual acuity. And since I first noticed it, I've always wondered why.

  17. MobiusKlein at November 29, 2006 11:03 PM wrote:
    >For maximum differentiation, all new bills would
    > have at least one hole.
    >1$ one hole in the center only.
    >5$ holes near top & bottom, centered in middle.
    >10$ holes near left & right, centered on edge.
    >20$ holes on diaganal corners.
    >50$, 100$ Hmmm. Something else. (think!)
    >Make it so no bill has holes in positions that
    > allow faking other bills.
    Regardless of where the holes are placed, putting more holes in larger denominations doesn't defeat the easier scams. Scammer takes a small denomination bill, punches a new hole, and viola it's a larger denomination.
    So smallest denomination bills should have the most holes, and largest denomination the least.
    Filling in a hole is more difficult. Granted that there are still ways to scam by punching more holes in the bill, but the interaction between scammer and scamee would be more complicated.

  18. The Treasury estimate is just the costs to the Treasury. You're forgetting the enormous transition costs to the private sector of replacing every single cash register, vending machine, money counting machine, etc, all of which are set up for equally sized currency. I'm not saying it would bankrupt America, or anything . . . but it would be some multiple of the cost to the Treasury.
    And while I wouldn't put it past the Treasury to be wrong about this, I find it entirely plausible that they know something about their custom-built printing presses that I don't–like why they couldn't be used to print different sized bills. For example, the cutting machine may be an integral part of the press, requiring replacement of the entire unit. If it's anything like other government equipment, its ridiculously overspecified and inflexible.
    Dollar coins are a huge pain in the ass. The reason we don't have them is that every time the Treasury introduces them, the public refuses to use them. As any American who's lived in Europe can attest, its considerably more convenient to carry around thin, light bills than fat, heavy coins that end up in your change jar. Their unwieldiness means that you spend a lot of time stuck in lines behind people counting out their exact change in pound coins in order to get rid of the things.

  19. Great arguments on the benefit/cost model for dealing with the disabled. The same logic could be pretty easily applied to something like, oh I don't know, slavery.
    The costs of freeing a bunch of people (which came at the expense of their owners!) could have been much more easily solved (and averted a costly war) by just giving those pesky slaves the amount of money that it cost to conduct the war and letting them continue on their merry way. Maybe the author of this post ought to check the wording of the Bill of Rights–it's fairly illuminating on this issue.

  20. Presumably blind people already have social networks or some other system developed to carry out paper money transactions. If they're so foolish as to try to judge the value of bills by touch, they will be sitting ducks for scam artists, regardless of how the bill are printed. Any paper currency is awfully easy to forge if the forger only has to worry about size and paper stock and can ignore the troublesome stuff about actually printing bills.

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