Q: I’d like to know if it’s illegal to throw away, burn, alter or otherwise render unusable any form of U.S. currency or coinage. Can you help me with this question?
Representative of the U.S. Treasury Department: Well, now that’s interesting. Technically, it is not illegal to alter or destroy money unless there is what we call “fraudulent intent.”
Q: Fraudulent intent?
Treasury: Yes, fraudulent intent. That means that you can’t alter money and then represent it as anything but exactly that, altered money. You can’t mark up a dollar and tell someone it’s five dollars. You can’t smush a penny and tell someone it’s a nickel.
Q: But you can tell someone it’s a smushed penny.
Q: Even an official in the U.S. government?
Q: Wouldn’t destroying money change, albeit very slightly, the economic balance of the country? I mean, if money that is in circulation is suddenly wiped out of circulation, doesn’t that kind of, well, throw everything off-kilter? Maybe cause sudden inflation?
Treasury: Well, I really don’t think you have to worry if a few nickels get tossed into a fountain. The economy allows for such occurrences.
Q: What if it’s not just a few nickels? I mean, sure, any isolated case of money defacement will only cost the economy a trillionth of a fraction of a dollar — everyone picks up a few coins while vacuuming the couch, and then throws away the bag. But what if, hypothetically, every American, on a given day, decides to give their couch a good vacuuming? What if each of us sucks up just one penny into the vacuum cleaner at the same time? What would happen?
Treasury: If there’s no fraudulent intent, then no crimes have been committed.
Q: Yeah, but lets say 250 million people all suck up one penny. That’s 2.5 million dollars that has just vanished from our economy.
Treasury: Well, I think the odds are fairly low of such an event happening.
Q: Okay, let’s say that instead of pennies, half of the people picked up quarters with their vacuum cleaners. Not unheard of — I must have a small piggy bank within the pillows of my living room furniture.
Treasury: Yes, but, it’s very unlikely that —
Q: If half of America pulled up a quarter from their couches, in a split second, more than thirty million dollars would disappear from our economy! And that’s just after one vacuuming!
Treasury: Look, it’s great that you’re concerned, but the situation you describe would simply not happen.
Q: How many times a week do you vacuum your couch?
Treasury: Well, uh, I guess about… twice a week. Maybe. Yeah, twice a week.
Q: Okay. If, for one year, every American vacuumed their couch twice a week — assuming every American had a couch — and picked up a penny and a quarter, we’d be down over three billion a year! What if this went on for decades?
Treasury: It was great to talk to you. I have to go now.