Jack Tame: Progressive economy? Don't you believe it

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For the world's biggest economy, America seems to work a little backward with money. Photo / Thinkstock
For the world's biggest economy, America seems to work a little backward with money. Photo / Thinkstock

In America, I'd never met anyone called Pauline. Not that I'd dwelled on the fact. When the bank queue split off for the different tellers I was drawn to her and her golden name badge. I wondered if maybe Pauline fell in the same category as Hamish; a name most Americans seem never to have encountered.

Yes, it was a busy and stimulating day.

The banality of my thoughts was matched only by the banality of my errands. Waiting for Pauline, I ran my fingers through trackpants pockets full of US coins. Quarters, pennies, dimes, my pockets were so heavy I'd had to re-tie my pants tight. The drawstring cut like a tourniquet and the unusually high waistline exposed my socks. I looked pretty cool.

Pauline was a cheerful African-American woman with huge hooped earrings and terrifically manicured nails. I'd describe her as ample-bosomed but truly she was ample everything. She looked lively and kind.

"Sorry Pauline," I said in a thick Kiwi accent, hoping my veil of foreign mystique might afford me a naive charm. "I'm from New Zealand, and somehow I've got all this change. I was hoping you might be able to swap it for me."

Pauline loved it. She flashed me a big, kind smile. "Ohh sweetie, that's no problem!" she sang. "We get people changin' their quarters all the time."

I smiled back and fisted it all out. She swept up the coins, careful not to scratch her nails.

"Wow! You got a lot of change!" exclaimed Pauline.

I really did. In three months in America, I'd filled a coffee mug with spare coins.

My collection could actually have been doubled, but I often tell the supermarket check-out chick or local greengrocer to only bother giving me rounded dollars. "Three dollars, eleven?" I say, as they open the register. I stop them, smooth as. "Give me three bucks and keep the change."

My wild generosity is a trait matched only by my modesty.

For the world's biggest economy, America seems to work a little backward with money. First of all, you need it. Cash. Hard cash. Compared to New Zealand, the equivalent of eftpos is available only sometimes; I visit ATMs several times a week.

The internet banking system is archaic. For me it takes five days to clear an electronic transfer. When I arrived, a bank teller had to give me a lesson in writing a cheque; I'd never issued one before, let alone owned a chequebook. I honestly thought the world had progressed.

All that wouldn't be so bad, if not for America's pricing. The differences in state and city taxes mean even basic items often cost bizarre amounts: $34.17. Why not just make it $35?

In three months, one shouldn't acquire 87 pennies. What a waste of metal and energy and Pauline's time.

So, to Barack Obama, I say: you want another four years? Forget the economy, mate. You're starting too big. How about first sorting out the inefficiency that is the American dollar? Last election you preached "change". How about this time, you preach a little "Changing change".

"There you go, sweetie," said Pauline. "Twenty-six dollars and fifty-seven cents."

Oh yeah, I thought. Not too pathetic, for three months' of emptied pockets. Pauline looked up. "Now sweetie, how do you want your change?"

- Herald on Sunday

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