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The Multimillion-Dollar Snafu Over $100 Bills


Hundred dollar bills don't stretch as far as they used to. They're also getting a little frazzled. New 100 dollar bills were supposed to replace them over two years ago, but the Federal Reserve pushed back the date in 2010 because of a printing error.

The new Benjamins feature two new designs that are aimed at preventing counterfeits. There's a Liberty Bell inside an inkpot that will change color from green to copper when it's tilted, and a blue security ribbon that looks like it's 3D. But this week it was revealed that the Bureau of Engraving and Printing made another error in a batch of the bills. Thirty million of the new notes are being sent back to the printers.

We're joined now by David Wolman, contributing editor at Wired magazine and author of the book, "The End of Money." He wrote an article this week in The New Yorker about all this, and he joins us from the studios of Oregon Public Broadcasting. Thanks very much for being with us.

DAVID WOLMAN: Good morning.

SIMON: So what was the big mistake?

WOLMAN: The mistake as I understand it goes by the term mashing, and what happens with mashing is too much ink gets applied and so you get lines that are aren't as crisp on your artwork as you would like them to be. And no one has showed me a bogus bill yet, but the way I envision it is when a kid is trying to carefully color inside the lines, but they have a very fat marker or paintbrush and so you bleed over the line a little.

SIMON: That's no good, right? I mean, in the currency business, you don't say, my, what an interesting artistic statement?

WOLMAN: No, the currency world and accuracy are close cousins.

SIMON: How much does this mistake cost? Any idea?

WOLMAN: Immediately, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing must pay its one and only customer, the Federal Reserve, $3.8 million for the error.

SIMON: But let me try and be sympathetic though. I mean, it must be hard to get the printing just right on so many bills.

WOLMAN: It must be incredibly hard. I mean, certainly it's not a piece of cake to mass produce colossal qualities of this technologically sophisticated paper. You know, we need to, of course, be demanding of government and government efficiency, but what it also does is it gets people to wonder a little bit about the money itself.

And nothing really breaks the spell of money's value more than either a very well counterfeit note, or an almost note, a note that the money factory itself messed up just a little bit.

SIMON: David Wolman is author of "The End of Money," contributing editor at Wired magazine. Thanks very much for being with us.

WOLMAN: My pleasure.


SIMON: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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