Stinkin’ Badges

All of us went to a screening of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre on Sunday, one of the old movies that TCM shows in movie theaters periodically, in this case for the 70th anniversary of its release. I can take or leave Ben Mankiewicz doing the introduction, as he might on television, but for someone who hasn’t seen the movie, I guess they’re informative.

No one else in the family had seen it. I had, on tape about 25 years ago. Good to see it again, and on the big screen. Like for Casablanca, the movie didn’t fill the house, but there was enough of an audience for an audible chuckle when the subject of badges came up, as most of us knew it would.

Remarkably, “Stinking Badges” has its own Wikipedia page.

This is the kind of thing I wonder about when I’m watching a movie again: just how far would a peso go at the time when the movie is set (1925, despite the appearance of some later-model cars)? Maybe that came to mind because I was handling pesos recently.

Early in the movie, Fred C. Dobbs (Bogart) panhandles three times from the same well-dressed American in Tampico — played by director John Huston — eventually claiming not to realize it was the same man, who tells him off. The well-dressed American clearly gives Dobbs a Mexican peso of immediate post-Revolution vintage: one of these, I could see.

A very common coin at the time: from 1920 to 1945, about 458.6 million of them were minted. It’s a nice coin, composed of .7199 silver and weighing 16.66 g (12 g silver) though not as weighty as a U.S. Peace dollar of the time, .9000 silver and weighing 26.73 g. So what was Dobbs receiving when he got one?

According to the movie at least, which I realize had no obligation to be accurate, enough to buy a meal or a few drinks or a haircut with change left over. The haircut scene was interesting for another reason: Bogart was bald by this time, but after the pretend haircut and oiling of his hair, he didn’t look like it. Probably the work of hair stylist Betty Delmont, if IMDb is accurate.

Also, McCormick (Barton MacLane) promised Dobbs and Curtin U.S. $8 a day for working on his oil rig. That’s about U.S. $114 in current money, but what did it mean in pesos in 1925, when the cost of living was surely a lot less in Mexico?

Curious about the exchange rate, I did some looking around and found this interesting table posted by the St. Louis Fed: average annual exchange rates to the U.S. dollar in the 1920s. That would be the Coolidge dollar that Cole Porter sang about being the top. To answer the question about pesos, it seems that ca. 1925, the rate was about two pesos to the dollar. So if Bogart could get 16 pesos a day, when he could feed himself for two or three, that’s not bad.

Of course, Dobbs and Curtin didn’t get any of that until they beat it out of McCormick. You’d think that if McCormick had made a habit of swindling oil-rig workers, and still walked around openly in Tampico, he’d at least have carried a pistol.

Another thing I noted while looking at the table. In 1922, a French franc was worth about 8.2 U.S. cents. By 1926, the rate was 3.2 U.S. cents to the franc. No wonder Hemingway could afford to drink himself silly in Paris, and Liebling could afford to eat himself fat. Further examination of the table traces the course of the great inflation not only in Germany, but also in Poland and Hungary.

One more thing: when looking into the value of the 1920s peso, I happened across an interesting essay about the economics of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre by a Wake Forest economist named Robert Whaples.

Toward the end of the essay, Whaples offers this observation: “In these scenes and others, the film examines altruism; bargaining and negotiation; barriers to entry; creation of capital; capital constraints; compensating wage differentials; contract enforcement; corruption; cost-benefit analysis; credence goods; debt payment; deferred compensation; economies of scale; efficiency wages; entrepreneurship; exchange rates; externalities; fairness; the nature and organization of the firm; framing effects; game theory; gift exchange; incentives; formal and informal institutions; investment strategies; job search; the value of knowledge; labor market signaling; selecting the optimal location; marginal benefits and costs; the marginal product of labor; natural resource extraction; opportunity costs; partnerships; price and wage determination; property rights and their enforcement; public goods; reputation; risk; scarcity; secrecy; sunk costs; supply and demand analysis; team work; technology and technological change; the theory of value; trade; trust; unemployment; and the creation and recognition of value and wealth.

Can any other movie offer more?”

50 Oz Cents

I have a few more colorful banknotes from the third world, but today’s Australia Day. I don’t have any notes from that country — being real money, I exchanged them when I got back — but I do have coins. Such as a dodecagonal 50-cent piece dated 1984, one of the 26.3 million minted that year.

It features a fairly ordinary observe.

Australian 50 cents 1984The Royal Australian Mint says: “Since her coronation in 1953, five effigies of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II have appeared on the obverse of Australian coins. Previous effigies were designed by Mary Gillick (1953), Arnold Machin (1966), and Raphael Maklouf (1985). Since 1998, Australian coins have used the current effigy by Ian Rank-Broadley.” So I’ve got the last year of Arnold Machin.

The 12-sided coin replaced a round 50-center in 1969, apparently to help avoid confusion with the round 20-cent piece. The reverse sports the Oz coat-of-arms by Stuart Devlin.
Australian 50 cents 1984I like the distinctive kangaroo and emu. Squeezed on the shield are the symbols of the six Australian states, united as a nation.

I also enjoyed reading that for a while, Stuart Devlin, who was Australian-born but is a resident of the UK, was Prime Warden of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths.

One Nakfa Note

Among the autocratic nations of world, Eritrea has managed an astonishing achievement. According to Reporters With Borders, which ranks which countries abuse their journalists most and least, Eritrea comes in dead last — 180 out of 180, even worse than North Korea.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Human Rights Watch reports that “the United Nations High Commission for Refugees reported at the end of 2014 that 416,857 Eritreans have lodged asylum claims or are registered as refugees, over 9 percent of the country’s population. UNHCR released no comprehensive figures for 2015, but reported about 39,000 Eritreans had applied for asylum by October in 44 industrialized countries alone. In October, 10 members of Eritrea’s national soccer team sought asylum in Botswana.

“The commission of inquiry concluded that grave human rights violations ‘incite an ever-increasing number of Eritreans to leave their country.’ Based on over 500 interviews, the UN commission found that the Eritrean government engages in ‘systemic, widespread and gross human rights violations,’ and that the abuses occur in the ‘context of a total lack of rule of law’ with the result that it ‘is not the law that rules Eritreans, but fear.’ ”

But at least the faces are happy on its money, the nakfa. Interestingly, the currency is named after the city of Nakfa, which was an important nexus of resistance during the Eritrean War of Independence.
One NakfaWere anyone interested in exchanging a 1 nakfa note, in theory it’s worth about 6.5 U.S. cents, but only because it’s pegged to the dollar. And in fact, the note I have isn’t even money in Eritrea any more, having been replaced by newer notes.
1 Nakfa Note reverseI also wonder why the despots of Eritrea kept that name for the country. I understand it’s derived from the ancient Greek name for the Red Sea, and it’s something the Italians dreamed up as part of their jerry-built imperial ventures during the Scramble for Africa. Why not something harking back even further (as woeful Zimbabwe did)? Such as Axum.

One Ngultrum Note

This colorful banknote is a 1 ngultrum note issued by the Royal Monetary Authority of Bhutan, Series 2013.

1 ngultrum note

If I ever knew it, and maybe I did, I’d forgotten that the ngultrum — དངུལ་ཀྲམ — is the basic currency of that insular Himalayan state. It divides into 100 chhertum. The ngultrum is pegged at par to the Indian rupee, so these days my note is theoretically worth about 1.5 U.S. cents.

1 ngultrum note

That’s Simtokha Dzong. Wiki tells us that “Simtokha Dzong (‘dzong’ means ‘castle-monastery’), also known as Sangak Zabdhon Phodrang (‘Palace of the Profound Meaning of Secret Mantras’) is a small dzong. It was built in 1629 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, who unified Bhutan… An important historical monument and former Buddhist monastery, today it houses one of the premier Dzongkha language learning institutes.”

I didn’t pick up the note in Bhutan. Mostly what I remember hearing about visiting Bhutan in the 1990s was that visas were inordinately expensive. These days, I’ve read, the approach is to require foreigners to spend a certain per diem in country — high for the developing world — and hew pretty closely to their organized tours. Nepal, it ain’t.

RBS One Pound Note

What to do here in the pit of winter, with its cold — though not quite as cold this year as usual — and daylight that passes so quickly? Take a close look at your collection of colorful but essentially worthless banknotes from far-flung nations. Or in one case, a subnational banknote. This one, dated 1978:
Royal Bank of Scotland One Pound Note 1978Not too many subnational territories get their own banknotes, but Scotland does. I might have gotten this in change during my ’83 visit to the UK, which took me close to Scotland compared to where I am most of the time, but not really that close. Or maybe I picked it up in ’88. I suspect that by ’94, most cashiers in England weren’t bothering with £1 notes of any kind.

Royal Bank of Scotland One Pound Note 1983

Scottish notes circulate in the rest of the UK, and will until that day when the Scots, peeved about Brexit, pull the trigger on independence. At which point they might go ahead and use the euro, and wind up like Greece. But that’s all mere conjecture.

For now, three Scottish banks are authorized to issue banknotes: the Bank of Scotland, the Royal Bank of Scotland, and Clydesdale Bank. According to the RBS, it’s been issuing banknotes since 1727 and has an average of £1.5 billion worth of notes in circulation on any given day. It’s also the only one of the three to keep issuing £1 notes.

In October, the RBS issued its first polymer banknote, which was a £5 note. Next will be a £10 note. The one pound probably isn’t worth the trouble.

The U.S. Mint, Philadelphia

These days the headquarters of the U.S. Mint might be in Washington, DC, but its main branch is in Philadelphia, put there when that city was the national capital for a decade or so in the late 18th century. Congress created a national mint as part of the Coinage Act of 1792, as it was authorized to do by the Constitution (Article I, Section 8).

The 1792 law is an interesting read for numismaphiles, especially the specifications for U.S. coinage — and the fact that the direct ancestor of our dollar was the Spanish milled dollar “as the same is now current.” This fact ought to be better known.

“By far the leading specie coin circulating in America was the Spanish silver dollar, defined as consisting of 387 grains of pure silver,” notes Murray N. Rothbard in “Commodity Money in Colonial America.” (The libertarian economist who seemed to have no love for that invention of the Devil, fiat money; still, I’ll bet he’s reliable when taking about the nothing-but-metal currency of the early Republic.)

“The dollar was divided into ‘pieces of eight,’ or ‘bits,’ each consisting of one-eighth of a dollar,” Rothbard wrote. “Spanish dollars came into the North American colonies through lucrative trade with the West Indies. The Spanish silver dollar had been the world’s outstanding coin since the early 16th century, and was spread partially by dint of the vast silver output of the Spanish colonies in Latin America. More important, however, was that the Spanish dollar, from the 16th to the 19th century, was relatively the most stable and least debased coin in the Western world.”

Indeed, the Spanish dollar was legal tender in the U.S. until 1857. Then there’s Section 19 of the 1792 law, on the penalties for debasing coins: “If any of the gold or silver coins which shall be struck or coined at the said mint shall be debased or made worse as to the proportion of the fine gold or fine silver therein contained, or shall be of less weight or value than the same out to be pursuant to the directions of this act… every such officer or person who shall commit any or either of the said offenses, shall be deemed guilty of felony, and shall suffer death.”

Italics added. I’m not going look into it further right now, but maybe that penalty was inspired by the penalty for such misdeeds at the Royal Mint, which I suppose would be a direct offense against the sovereign. Also, I doubt that anyone ever was executed in the United States for such a crime, though a few mint miscreants have probably been tossed in the jug over the decades.

In any case, the expectation in 1792 seemed to be that the mint would move with the national capital, but things didn’t work out that way. According to the Mint, in 1801 — after Washington City had been established, though it wasn’t much more than a marshy place on the Potomac — “Congressional legislation directs the Mint to remain in Philadelphia until March 1803.

“Mint Officials were not in favor of relocating the facility to the newly established Federal City in Washington, and addressed their concerns many times. Legislation extending the Mint’s stay in Philadelphia appears throughout the early 1800s. Most extensions were for five years. At some point Congress seems to have tired of these extensions. An Act of May 19, 1828, leaves the facility in Philadelphia ‘until otherwise provided by law.’ ”

Since then, the United States has manufactured coinage in four locations successively in Philadelphia. The first and second sites no longer exist. The current mint facility, a large concrete building not too far north of Independence Mall, dates from the 1960s. It’s the fourth facility, designed by Philadelphia architect Vincent G. Kling and, while concrete, isn’t especially brutal. Or that good-looking either.

As you’d expect, the third facility, completed in 1901, has more style. The Beaux Arts building, I’m glad to report, still exists. It’s home to the Community College of Philadelphia these days. I didn’t have time to see it, so it counts as another reason to return to Philadelphia sometime.

You enter the modern mint building on N. 5th St., through an entrance that has a guard and a metal detector. No photography allowed inside. The first place you come to is a floor that includes the gift shop and an electronic sign that tells you how many coins, and what kind, the facility has made lately. From there escalators rise a couple of floors to two long halls that overlook the mint factory floor. Along the halls, at least where there are no windows to look through, are displays about the manufacture of coins: blanking, annealing, riddling, upsetting, striking, inspecting, counting and bagging.

In front of a display about mint marks, I fell into a short discussion with an elderly couple about them. The displays said, naturally, that until fairly recently Philadelphia-made coins had no mint mark — except for ’40s wartime nickels — but that they do now, except for the penny. As we talked about that, I was astonished to realize that they’d never heard of mint marks, though I didn’t tell them that. The woman thought it a nifty thing to learn, and said that she’d be looking more closely at coins. I encouraged her to do so.

Wiki, though there’s no underlying reference, explains why Philadelphia pennies carry no mint mark, something I’d never seen clarified: “Currently, the Lincoln cent is the only coin that does not always have a mint mark, using a D when struck in Denver but lacking a P when ostensibly struck at the Philadelphia mint; this practice allows additional minting of the coin at the San Francisco mint (S) and West Point mint (W) without the use of their respective mint marks to supplement coin production without the concern of creating scarce varieties. Generally modern S and W coins do not circulate, being mostly produced as bullion, commemorative, or proof coinage.”

I can’t say that I understood by sight much of what was going on down at the Philadelphia mint factory floor. There are a lot of large machines, along with conveyor belts and other mechanical odds and ends down there, but few people. Mostly the process, from blanking to bagging, is automated. I got the same impression of bemusing industrialism at the Denver mint in 1980, and at the Canberra mint in 1991, for that matter (the Osaka mint had a museum, but I don’t think it gave tours).

The factory is unusual in that way down on the floor is a scattering of coins, mostly pennies, presumably those that have dropped from the process at one time or another. For that matter, most of what I saw in various bins and tubs were pennies. Many, many pennies. All that manufacturing effort for a coin no one really wants any more, except for the zinc barons.

It may be just as well when the U.S. cent coin finally dies, as well as the dollar bill. If coins in this country are to have a long-term future — and I’d be sad to think of a future without them — very small denominations need to make way for larger ones. As long as the design is interesting, and the presidential dollars certain qualify, transitioning to $1 coins would be OK. So would $2 coins, for that matter, as the Canadians have done with their loonies and twonies.

The Old Hickory Switcheroo

See? Jack Lew was playing a deep game. Float the idea that Alexander Hamilton gets dropped from the $10 bill, only to pave the way for Andrew Jackson to be demoted to the back of the $20 bill. But I have to agree: better Jackson than Hamilton. Not sure that President Jackson would have been so keen to be on paper money anyway.

Time to change the designs, I figure. The last time any portrait changes happened was in my grandparents’ time, not counting the fairly recent enlargement of the portraits (except for the $1 and $2 bills). Between 1914 and 1928, four portrait changes occurred: $10 — Andrew Jackson to Alexander Hamilton; $20 — Grover Cleveland to Andrew Jackson; $500 — John Marshall to William McKinley; and $1000 — Alexander Hamilton to Grover Cleveland. Practically musical chairs, those changes, and the last two are moot in any case.

Less attention has been paid to the upcoming changes in the $5 and $10 bill, probably because Hamilton and Lincoln are keeping their observe status. In fact, the buildings on the back are going to be the same as well: the Treasury Department on the $10 and the Lincoln Memorial on the $5.

The main difference is that people are being added with the buildings: Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Alice Paul on the back of the $10, and Martin Luther King Jr., Marian Anderson, and Eleanor Roosevelt on the back of the $5.

Reasonable choices, I suppose, yet clearly the work of committees. I have to wonder when Teddy Roosevelt’s going to get his due on some bit of currency, besides his presidential dollar, which no one sees. The 100th anniversary of his death’s coming up, after all. Truman as well, for that matter. A Truman nickel and a TR quarter? Just a thought.

One more thing, not related to money: something to watch this San Jacinto Day. Actually, two more: something to watch on the occasion of Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday.

No Hot-Rod Ford, But I Do Have a $2 Bill

Today’s the day to mention the $2 bill. Or more exactly, the $2 Federal Reserve Note, which began circulating again on April 13, 1976, or 40 years ago today, after being discontinued for about a decade. The date was chosen because today is also Thomas Jefferson’s birthday (273rd today, 233rd back in 1976).

My Series 1976 $2 note is one make for the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. As a collector’s item, I’m pretty sure it’s worth around $2. I keep it anyway, because I want to have at least one.

For the the resurrection of the denomination, someone produced paper envelopes with a canned history of the $2 bill printed on the front and back, and an oval hole on the front to display Jefferson. It’s an odd thing, but somehow I still have one.

observereverseUnfortunately, I don’t have any older notes. The ones to have would be the Series 1886 $2 Silver Certificate depicting Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, or the Series 1891 $2 Silver Certificate, with a portrait of U.S. Treasury Secretary William Windom. Or even the 1896 “Educational Series” Silver Certificate, which features an allegorical figure of Science presenting steam and electricity to commerce and manufacturing on the observe, and Robert Fulton and Samuel F. B. Morse on the reverse. They sure don’t make ’em like that any more.

Anyway, when I take a check to the bank, I sometimes get $2 bills. They sometimes find their way into tips, though more often I get dollar coins for that purpose.

On the FAQ page at the Treasury Department web site, there’s the following question: “Why did the Treasury Department remove the $2 bill from circulation?”

The answer: “The $2 bill has not been removed from circulation and is still a circulating denomination of United States paper currency. The Federal Reserve System does not, however, request the printing of that denomination as often as the others. The Series 2003 $2 bill was the last printed and bears the names of former Secretary of the Treasury John W. Snow and Treasurer Rosario Marin. As of April 30, 2007 there were $1,549,052,714 worth of $2 bills in circulation worldwide. [You’d think Treasury could come up with newer numbers than that.]

“The key for successfully circulating the $2 bill is for retailers to use them just like any other denomination in their daily operations. In addition, most commercial banks will readily supply their retail customers with these bills if their customers request them in sufficient volume to justify stocking them in their vaults. However, neither the Department of the Treasury nor the Federal Reserve System can force the distribution or use of any denomination of currency on banks, businesses or individuals.”

The reserve of the post-1976 note features a reproduction of the painting “The Declaration of Independence” by John Trumbull. Not all of the original image could be squeezed onto the note, however, so some of the delegates depicted at either edge of painting were left off of the note. I remember that caused a minor flap at the time, with (I think) Congressmen of the states so slighted complaining about it. Forty years on, absolutely no one cares.

All My Eye and Betty Martin, Thursday Edition

Sure enough, more snow yesterday. But not much more, and most of it melted today. The snowfall didn’t even mess up the roads very much. Or my driveway. If you don’t have to shovel it, you can’t say it really snowed.

Been reading more by the chattering classes than usual lately, maybe because they’re chattering a lot now. With some reason. There’s also a sizable share of hyperventilating Chicken Little-ism about the political rise the short-fingered vulgarian. He’s going to be the end of Republican party! Of movement conservatism! Of American democracy! Of truth, justice and the American way!

I have to be skeptical on all counts. Of course, I could be wrong, and I’ll be the first to admit it as soon as goons come to take me to one of the detention camps of the new order.

This is some hard candy Yuriko brought back from Japan last month. Or rather, these are images of the Gold Coin of the Meiji Era tin, front and back. We’ve almost finished the candy inside.

Gold Coin of the Meiji EraGold Coin of the Meiji EraThe candy, which is roundish and yellow, is pretty good, but I like the name best of all. The coin pictured on the tin isn’t some fanciful latter-day re-creation, but an image of an actual gold coin of the Meiji era, just like this one, dated 1870 (Meiji 3). Except that the one on the tin is a 20-yen piece, rather than two yen.

Quite a bit of money at the time, and a coin of great beauty, from the looks of the photo. I wouldn’t mind having one, but it isn’t something I want to spend big bucks for. I’ll settle for the Meiji-era copper two-sen coin that I do have, which only cost a few modern dollars.

One more thing along these lines: We cast pearls before swine. The Japanese give gold coins to cats: 猫に小判 (neko ni koban).

And one more coffee cup currently on our shelf.

Oh ShitLilly got that from a friend of hers for Christmas this year. Ha-ha. It reminds me that adults should not use that word. In fact, anyone older than about six or seven should steer clear of it. Certain words should be confined to little children, and that’s one of them. Yet I’ve seen poop used in more-or-less serious writing by people whom I assume are grown. Knock it off.

Coffee Makes Me Crap would be the slogan for short-fingered vulgarians, maybe. Funnier would be Decaf Makes Me Defecate. I don’t drink coffee anyway. Better for me would be Tea Makes Me Pee. True indeed.

Africa-Dzonga 5c

One of my small-change-of-the-world coins has words in the Khoisan language on it. That, I’ve discovered, is a modern umbrella term for the peoples once known as the Bushmen and the Hottentots, and their languages. The words on the coin are rendered ǃKE E: ǀXARRA ǁKE, but don’t ask me how that’s pronounced. The English translation is, “diverse people unite.”

That’s the motto found on the South African coat of arms, which happens to be on the observe of the 2003 South African 5-cent piece that I have. A lot of recent SA coinage features the coat of arms, which was adopted by the post-Apartheid government in 2000.

The coat of arms also includes ears of wheat, elephant tusks, a shield, two human figures, a spear and a knobkierie. Over all that is a secretary bird and a rising sun. Around the coat of arms is Africa-Dzonga, which is “South Africa” in Tsonga, one of the 11 official languages of the country.
SAfrica5cOBVApparently the languages take turns each year on the coinage, beginning in 2002. Tsonga’s turn happened to come the next year, at least on the 5-cent pieces (it seems to be different on other denominations).

The reverse of the coin is simpler: a blue crane and the value.
SAfrica5cREVMinting of the copper-plated steel 5-cent piece stopped in 2012, a victim of inflation, but the coins weren’t demonetized, so it’s still technically worth about three-tenths of US cent. The 1- and 2-cent pieces were discontinued ten years earlier.