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May, 2009:

#15. The One-Dollar Bill

Savings Time

A fortune to be lost.

Let’s do a hands-on experiment.

Reach into your pocket, pull out your wallet, and take $1 out. Now take a look at it. What is great and uniquely American about the $1 you have in your hand?

I’ll give you a hint.

It’s not the handsome picture of President Washington.

And it’s not the weird pyramid with the floating eye, either.

No. What makes the American $1 note great is the fact it is a banknote and not a coin.

This may seem inconsequential at first. But the fact that American dollars are banknotes means they fit nicely into your wallet or pocket and have a tendency to stay there. Loonies, Pound Sterling or Euro coins, as anyone who has traveled abroad knows all too well, are not only much heavier to carry around, but also seem to slip out of your pocket whenever you sit down.

The results of this can be devastating. No one likes losing a pocket full of spare change to be sure. But in America—where the largest circulated coin is 25 cents—sensible currency design helps to mitigate spare change losses.* You’re only liable to lose a local phone call’s worth of change when you leave a friend’s couch or the backseat of a cab.

But in Europe, losses suffered from leaky pockets can be devastating. An act as simple as buying a coke with a 10€ note is likely to end up costing you the full 10€ before the night is out: 1€ for the coke, and 9€ worth of 1, 2, and 5€ coins that will invariably fall out of your pocket and be lost over the course of the evening.

The problem is even worse in the UK, where a higher-value currency combined with smaller and heavier coins means that sitting down on a couch can easily cost you the equivalent of $10-20 American.

The amount of money lost from pockets in the backseats of cabs, under restaurant tables, and in the crevasses of couches across Europe is particularly high thanks to punitive credit card rules that promote the use of cash and poorly designed banknotes that make it difficult to find correct change in a pinch.

So next time you’re doing the laundry and find a crumpled-up dollar bill in your pocket, take a moment to thank great men and women at the U.S. Bureau of Printing and Engraving whose sensible currency design ensures that the dollar bill remains yours—no matter how many couches you sit on.

God Bless America!

*No, the Sacagawea Dollar doesn’t count. The U.S. Mint tried circulating it in 2000-2001, but Americans reasonably rejected the thing. Since then, Wikipedia reports, it has only been minted in small numbers for collectors.

Previous topics mentioned in this post:

#6. Chargebacks & credit cards

Why Europe Sucks €5. Different sized banknotes

MINUTEMEN UPDATE: American capitalism alive and well

American capitalism has had a hard year of it.

The auto industry is going bankrupt. Retailers are shutting their doors. Our banks are run by the treasury department. Even Circuit City, the company that brought us such useful things as the DIVX video player (you remember that, don’t you?), is liquidating.

It seems like the Great Recession is toppling all the once-great pillars of American Capitalism.

But just when I thought all was lost, I saw a commercial on TV for a new product that renewed my faith in big business and American capitalism: the flat bottom taco from Old El Paso.

What makes this product beautiful is how utterly unnecessary it is.

No one sat around the kitchen thinking that tacos are a big pain to make because they don’t stand up straight. But the men and women at General Mills, the parent company of Old El Paso, realized that even staples that function perfectly well can be improved. More importantly they understood that people will buy the new-and-improved product even if they don’t yet know they need it. You just need to educate them.

So General Mills invented the flat bottom taco. Hopefully they will be rewarded handsomely for discovering and correcting this shortcoming in taco technology.

It is this kind of dedication to incremental improvements in products—coupled with massive advertizing investments to educate people about why they need the latest and greatest—that ensures that in America, tomorrow will always be a little bit better than yesterday.*

After all, a decade ago, who would have thought we needed flat-panel TVs?

*Unless you work for a taco-shell company like Bearitos, which does not have the latest taco-shell technology.

Check out the ad below.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I3KXaF2_UzU&hl=en&fs=1]

PATRIOT PROFILE: Gov. Christine Gregoire

One of the things about freedom, is it is always under attack from those who seek to limit choice and undermine the pillars of American Greatness.

 Some try and introduce European-style credit card fees; others try to curtail our right to talk on the phone; while still others try to bar Americans from using free toilets in businesses.

Thankfully, in America we have patriots like Washington Governor Christine Gregoire, who stand up and fight for the things that make America great—like the right to pee for free.

Consumerist.com has the full story:

Starting July 26th in Washington State, stores with three or more employees working at the same time must allow customers access to an employee restroom so long as it doesn’t pose a security threat. Businesses also have to provide bathroom access to anyone with an inflammatory bowel disease who can present a card or signed statement from a doctor saying they’ve got a condition.    

MINUTEMEN UPDATE: European-style credit card fees averted

Early this afternoon the United States Senate overwhelmingly passed a new credit card regulation bill. Initial reports of the legislation seem to indicate that the Durbin amendment to permit merchants European-style credit card fees did not make the cut. 

Instead, the bill seems to mandate “further study of interchange fees.”

ACTION ALERT: Senators aim to introduce European-style credit card fees

cash onlyOne of the great things about America is that you can use a credit card anywhere, for almost any purchase and merchants don’t charge you a fee.

In fact, merchants are contractually prohibited from charging you either a fee to use your card or mandating a minimum purchase amount, though lots of treasonous types try to ignore the latter rule.

That is not to say that VISA, MasterCard and American Express don’t charge fees to process transactions. They typically charge merchants 1 to 3 percent of each transaction. Last year, this equaled nearly $50 billion.

But in the true American fashion, those costs are externalized. The fees charged for credit card transactions are paid by everyone—including cash and debit card users—in the form of higher prices. The are not born by credit card users alone.

This system allows responsible credit card users to rack up frequent flier miles or cash-back rewards that are paid for both by merchants and the guy behind you in line who pays for his gallon of milk in cash.

But a pair of U.S. Senators is trying to change that and let retailers introduce European-style fees for credit card transactions. The Wall Street Journal reports that Sens. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Bond (R-Mo.) are trying to insert an amendment into the broader credit card reform bill that would allow merchants to discriminate based on whether a customer is paying with cash, debit or credit.

Contact your senator and tell them that freedom means paying the same price no matter what you carry in your wallet.

As for cash customers subsidizing the rewards earned by credit card users, well, externalizing costs is the American way. Besides, paying with credit cards offers some great consumer protections.

MINUTEMEN UPDATE: Senate considering Coke tax

The United States Senate is considering a federal tax on pop and other sugary beverages, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The 3 cent tax on every 12 oz serving of pop would pump an estimated $24 billion into federal coffers over the next four years. Senate leaders are considering the lifestyle tax as a way to fund part of President Obama’s health care plan.

The Wall Street Journal has the full story.

[Update]

This post has been getting a good deal of traffic over the last few weeks. Here are some more recent posts on the push to tax soda.

European-style soda taxes make inroads

Is a “Coke Tax” a threat to Free Refills?

Why Europe Sucks €5. Different sized banknotes

Not mine.Traveling can be a stressful activity.

Not only do you need to navigate an unfamiliar place, but you also need to keep track of numerous little things to make sure your journey goes smoothly; things like passports, airline tickets, bus passes, hotel keys, travel itinerary and, of course, your cash and credit cards.

Normally keeping track of some small papers, an ID, credit cards and money wouldn’t be that challenging of an activity. That is why man invented the wallet, after all.

But as anyone who has traveled to Europe knows, keeping track of your cash and your wallet in order isn’t that easy in Europe.

Why?

Because Europeans think it is clever to have the size of their banknotes increase with the denomination. For example, the €500 note is nearly 33 percent larger than the €5 note.

On the face of it, having different sized banknotes doesn’t seem like that bad. The varying sizes would give an additional visual and tactile feedback as to the bill’s value. But in practice different sized banknotes are a major hassle for most people and especially stressful for tourists.

The wildly different sized notes means that cash doesn’t fit nicely into a standard wallet. Large denomination bills hang out over the top of the wallet and crinkle up in your pocket while the small notes get lost in between the big bills like a scrap of paper in a file full of documents.

The end result of the situation is that you always have money hanging out of your wallet and can never find the small bills when you need them. The latter point is especially problematic because of the well known reluctance of European merchants to offer even the most basic customer service, like making change.

Of course, the Europeans adopt their typical sanctimonious attitude when questioned about their different sized banknotes and claim that they do it in order to assist people who are visually impaired or blind. But if the Europeans really cared about helping the visually impaired they would accept credit cards everywhere and eliminate fees. That way neither blind nor anyone else would ever need to fumble around with a pocket full of crinkled-up banknotes again.

#14. Cell phone contracts

Phone Man

The only thing more unpleasant and anxiety inducing than buying a used car is strolling into your neighborhood cell phone store to replace your broken handset.

Unfortunately, since the typical cell phone has a life expectancy just shy of that of a mosquito, replacing a cell phone is something we all have to endure with a maddening frequency.

You can try to take care of your phone. Buy the $10 screen covers and the $30 cases. But before long, you’ll open the door to your car and hear the ‘clank’ of your cell phone hitting the pavement. That’s $300 bucks down the drain. Or at least in Europe it would be.

But in America, we have something called the monthly cell phone plan that protects us from the little cell phone accidents in life.

The process is quite simple. Once you break your phone, you need to brace yourself and venture into the local cell phone store (Note: The more cheap gizmos and covers in small plastic bags covering the walls the better. These are s signals of quality establishment). The shopkeeper will explain that you’ll have to pay for any repairs because—despite the fact that your dropped the phone—the damage was actually caused by water, and is thus not covered under your accidental damage insurance.

But, the shopkeeper will explain, you don’t need to pay for a new phone because you’re eligible for a “free upgrade.”

All you need to do is swear an oath that you, your family and any future heirs will continue to use your current carrier for all your cellular communication needs, and the free phone is yours.

The cynics out there will say that the “free” phones are actually a horrible deal when you consider the true cost of a two-year contract and all of the various surcharges that the cellular provider will doubtless slap on the bill. But these people have never dealt with European pay-as-you-go cell phones.

Consider the benefits of the American model:

  • You never have to worry about running out of minutes because any overages are just slapped on the bill.
  • You don’t have to “text” all day to save money because you don’t pay for minutes as you go.
  • No one ever uses the terms “top-up” or “SMS.”
  • You’re never cut off of a call because you ran out of pre-paid time.
  • You never need to worry about checking your balance on the go.

To not have to worry about the day-to-day details of European cellular communications AND get a free cell phone every 12-16 months, all in exchange for signing a contract is really quite the deal. Plus, the two-year contract term gives you the freedom to not worry about finding a better deal on your cellular service—because you’re not allowed to switch anyway.

God Bless America!

FOLLOW-UP: Not all credit card companies facilitate freedom

Credit CardsAs we have written before, one of the great things about America is the consumer protections offered to everyone by the credit card companies in the form of chargebacks.

Have a problem with an unscrupulous vender or the incompetent Presidential Inaugural Committee? No problem. Just call your credit card company and start a chargeback.

The credit card company will do battle with the merchant and before too long you get a refund and the troublesome vender will have his account debited by the credit card company. Or, at least that is what we thought.

But it turns out that not all credit card companies have the same commitment to supporting consumer freedom. Mastercard, in particular, has rather European ideas about consumer protection.

 The watchdogs over at consumerist.com have the details:

With Mastercard (MC) the burden of proof lies on you. If you buy something face-to-face, get home and realize that it’s not as described, you’re out of luck entirely as you had a chance to examine the merchandise. Also, with MC it’s entirely up to you to know the merchant’s cancellation/return policy, even if they don’t disclose it. They didn’t tell you that you couldn’t cancel after three days? Too bad.

It looks like sensible consumer protection is one of those things that money can’t buy.

On the other hand, Mastercard doesn’t distinguish between domestic and foreign merchants. So you might have a better shot with them at getting your money back from that French tailor who ripped you off—provided, of course, that you thoroughly documented everything.

MINUTEMEN UPDATE: Starbucks comes to Warsaw Bloc

[starbucks] pumpkin spice latte + chaiFor being the land that invented the coffee house, Eastern Europe offers some dismal choices when it comes to modern coffee shops, as anyone who has traveled there knows all too well.

Coffee shops themselves are few and far between in Eastern Europe. When you do successfully find one—typically disguised as “Café—you’ll likely find that they only offer Nescafe or espresso. Worst of all, coffee in cardboard “to go” cups is unheard of outside of major airports or McDonalds stores (more on this in a later post).

But the tide is finally turning. More than two decades after McDonalds paved the way for freedom on the far side of the Iron Curtain, Starbucks has finally opened a branch in Warsaw.

Hopefully the branch will bring with it everything that makes Starbucks such a great part of America, namely coffee to-go and free toilets.

Lets just hope the trend catches on. 

Slate.com has the full story.

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