Monday, March 3, 2008

Iron Men

In Italy, in 1966 and again between 1974 and 1977, there was a shortage of coins. As a consequence, all sorts of things became legal tender: slugs, buttons, chiclets, chocolate squares, various sorts of quasi-official scrip, potatoes. Somehow, the economy did not collapse--or at least it fell no farther than it already had. Money, after all, is an imaginary substance with real effects. It has been established that if you pretend with sufficient conviction that you have money, people will treat you as if you actually do. Perhaps if you pretend with sufficient conviction that a given substance qualifies as money, it actually does.

It has also been proven that it you attach a dollar bill to a fishing line and drag it along the sidewalk from a height, people will injure themselves and each other trying to grab hold of it. The ephemera shown above illustrate a corollary principle. The pseudo-clams--one promoted a crank running for president and the other two were phone-sex come-ons--were scattered around the streets, tucked in phone booths, left on subway benches, in full confidence that suckers would pick them up. This would not have worked had they been disguised as pork chops or mash notes.

Or coins, for that matter, since money comes in two classes, which have been pulling in opposite directions for some time now. Coins might as well be chiclets, as far as the average American is concerned. You might try an experiment: place a dollar bill on one side of the pavement and a quantity of change totalling, say, $1.50 on the other. I'll wager that every passing citizen without exception will aim straight for the green and totally overlook the corn. Does this imply that someday a fortune in nickels will be worth less than a thin sheaf of Washingtons?