Critic labels U.S. paper money design as too static, conservative

February 22, 2021 3 min read

Critic labels U.S. paper money design as too static, conservative

By Arthur L. Friedberg,Published: Feb 22, 2021, 8 AM

The United States global affairs magazine Foreign Policy is hardly the place you would expect to find a discussion about paper money design. But that is exactly the focus, and not in a flattering way for America, in a piece by Paul Musgrave in its Feb. 9 issue.

Musgrave, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, writing under the headline, “America’s Currency Is as Weirdly Outdated as Its Political Structure,” bashes the conservative and static design of his country’s paper currency in comparison to others.

One example is England, where, while the sovereign always appears on the face, the backs are redone with some regularity. For instance, there have been five designs of the £10 note since 1964. Another is Canada, which he points out is already on its second major currency redesign of this century. And while Canadian currency also dedicates its obverses to politicians, their reverse sides include subjects like the International Space Station on the $5 note and civil rights pioneer Viola Desmond on the $10 denomination.

Japan, he says, also displays a far greater variety of portraits and images than the United States. Its next redesign will include portraits of Umeko Tsuda, a pioneer in women’s education, and physician and bacteriologist Shibasaburo Kitasato. The reverse of the 1,000-yen note will feature the famous woodblock print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai.

On the other hand, in the United States, he says, referring to the proposed Harriet Tubman $20 note, “symbols are so politicized and so resistant to change that putting anyone new on Federal Reserve notes takes so much effort.”

He then went into detail, saying that currency design is a reflection of politics and citing a study of the design of 198 countries’ currency in relation to factors such as gender, science, religion, art and culture, and politics. Economics graduate student Kerianne Lawson found that countries with higher political content on their bank notes, such as former heads of state, activists, etc., scored worse on scores of political freedom rankings and on the United Nations’ Gender Inequality Index.

Among the other findings were that the United States had a score of zero for representation of religion (Macedonia, Egypt, and Iran were the leaders); of women (the best were Australia, England, and Anguilla); arts and culture (led by Switzerland, Uruguay, and Romania); and science and agriculture (Somalia, Cameroon, and Central African Republic led the way). On the other hand, the United States was second only to Thailand in the amount of political imagery on its currency.

Musgrave’s conclusions will not please everyone. He writes that these findings “hardly contradict the idea that the stodginess of U.S. currency design reflects an ossified political structure that promotes, rather than ameliorates, inequality.”

He adds that, although Americans love to talk about the youth and dynamism of their country, its currency tells a story of venerating the old — “a mixed bag of historical figures who uneasily represent the country in the 21st century.” Ulysses S. Grant, who died in 1885, for example, is actually the youngest person on current circulating U.S. currency.

Updating designs and upsetting a hidebound monetary tradition, he feels, could go a long way to “getting Americans used to thinking of themselves the way they are now.”

 The original article and others like it can be found at