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The Power of Paper

Two recent news items evoke the power of paper and similar objects in what we often assume is a purely digital world:

First, as the New York Times reported, “In a decision that could radically change the size, the color and even the feel of American money, a federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday that the United States discriminates against the blind and those with limited vision because its paper currency is all the same size regardless of a bill’s value.”  The full opinion in American Council of the Blind v. Paulson is here.  A couple of years ago, Orin Kerr posted some interesting analysis of the district court’s opinion in the case, which was affirmed by the Court of Appeals.  Last Sunday, the Times printed the results of some hypothetical currency reworkings by graphic designers.  Check out the results.  For those of us who remember the world before 2002, some of the revised American currency looks positively . . . European.  Other interesting links:  A brief history of U.S. paper currency. And a paper from researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis (Williams and Anderson) with the following abstract:

Despite the increasing use of electronic payments, currency retains an important role in the payments system of every country. Two aspects of currency usage drive currency design worldwide: deterring counterfeiting and making paper currency accessible to the visually impaired. Further, among the world’s currencies, only U.S. banknotes are widely owned and used in transactions outside their country of issue (although the euro also has some external circulation). In this article, we compare and contrast major currencies and their design features. We conclude that the designs of the two most widely used currencies in the world – the U.S. dollar and the euro – have successfully deterred counterfeiting; data on other currencies are not public. We also conclude that, among the world’s major currencies, U.S. banknotes have the fewest features to assist the visually impaired.

Second, the Times editorialized recently about identity cards in New Haven, which the city issues to any resident — including illegal immigrants:

The ID card — known as the Elm City Resident Card, from the city’s nickname — enables people to open bank accounts and is accepted by libraries and other municipal services. In the last 10 months, more than 5,600 people, from college students to undocumented workers have obtained them.

The positive benefits the card’s supporters predicted for it have materialized. More immigrants have emerged from the shadows and are participating in city life. The streets are safer and crime has dropped because immigrants are now putting their savings in banks instead of carrying them in their pockets, reducing robberies. (Criminals had begun to refer to immigrants as “walking A.T.M.’s because so many carried large amounts of cash.) Immigrants who had once feared the police are no longer reluctant to report crimes.

Critics have long complained that New Haven is too welcoming to undocumented immigrants, especially since 2006, when the police stopped inquiring about the immigration status of residents they interview. The ID card has made opponents angrier — no matter that it has made the city a safer, better place for all. New Haven should be allowed to continue its innovative program.