Winter 2009: Prelude

Girl with a dollar on her mind -- literally

Kay Hinton

The Case against Money Laundering

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By Paige P. Parvin 96G

This morning I found a dollar in the dryer.

A stowaway tossed from a blue jean pocket, it was huddled in the bottom of the machine along with the mismatched socks, a couple of rocks, and a lonely paper clip. The newly clean bill, still a little warm, was curled tightly into a stiff tube and crackled in protest when I unfurled it.

Of course, it wasn’t the first time my twelve-year-old son has left money (or rocks, or paper clips) in his pockets to be washed. Change from the pizza place down the street, leftover quarters and dimes from the school bookstore, the five bucks his granddad might slip him on the sly—all of it has a good chance of becoming laundered money.

For Christmas this year, he got his first real wallet—a Velcro affair with a surfing design on it—and some cash to put in it. My mom showed him how to stack the bills by their value, the largest on bottom, and place them neatly into the fold. That, she told him, is what finance guru Suze Orman advises, because it shows that you have respect for your money. He keeps the wallet (and the cash) on a shelf in his room, using it as a kind of designer ATM. But he hasn’t quite made the leap to carrying it with him, so pocket money is still vulnerable to the clothes hamper.

Not exactly surprising for a middle-school boy, I know. But I can’t help thinking we’ve done him a disservice by tolerating this laissez-faire carelessness with currency. We have somehow failed to impart the understanding that even a single dollar has value—it is, after all, worth one dollar, with the potential for conversion into any number of things from a cheeseburger to a half-gallon of gas—and should be treated with respect. It’s a lesson our son, I hope, has time to learn.

Wallet or no wallet, a dollar certainly would not have been forgotten in the pocket of a younger Dean Judson C. “Jake” Ward 33C 36G, who was a student at Emory during the Depression and remembers when $2.50 would cover his expenses for a week. Back then, “Everybody was looking for any way to make fifty cents or a dollar,” he told me in a recent interview.

These days, too, it seems like a lot of people are considering anew the value of a dollar. As the financial markets oscillate so madly that we seem to be adjusting to a new reality nearly every day, experts are being sought for fresh perspective and understanding—from Emory finance scholars, such as the faculty of Goizueta Business School who answer readers’ questions in this issue, to market insiders like former Lehman Brothers trader Rick Rieder 83B, who offers his own take on the economic downturn. And whether we’re managing billion-dollar budgets or our own bank accounts, we are likely to be doing it with a little more caution than we were six months ago, before the economy’s swan dive became the news of the day.

Regardless of our respect for it, a dollar is still a dollar, no more and no less. But our personal relationship to money is a complex factor in how we make economic decisions, and researchers in the emerging field of neuroeconomics are finding the process is less rational and more emotional than we might like to believe. For instance, many economics experts, including psychiatry professor Greg Berns, are advising us to avoid looking at our dwindling retirement account statements because we’re likely to have an emotional, fear-driven response that could impair our decision making.

At the same time, it’s worth remembering that those figures are more than just numbers on a screen. In the age of debit cards, electronic banking, and online investing, we seem to be out of touch with the reality of money and its worth—a fact brought home to us as we photographed pennies and dollars for this issue of Emory Magazine. Perhaps one positive outcome of economic hardship is that money becomes, somehow, more real. And even a crumpled dollar in the dryer has the power to make you stop and think.

Which is why I folded the rescued bill neatly and slid it into my own pocket, reasoning: Finders, keepers. Hey, in today’s economy, I can’t afford to take a perfectly good dollar for granted.

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