Friday, 20 January 2012

The Cult of the Goldfish

 Since 1989 I have (along with my colleagues - Barbara Standish and Arlo Danziger - at The U.S treasury) overseen the Benefactor Dime program on behalf of the Internal Revenue Service. I last appeared before Congress on the 7th of July in 1990 to announce the closure of this program, resulting from a continual failure to meet its stated aims. On that date I also submitted proposals for recouping some of the substantial sums of money that have been invested in the project.  

I have returned to Congress, almost three years after my previous appearance, to formally declare that, as of November  1st , 1993, those Benefactor Dimes that remain in circulation will cease to be legal tender. I will also take this opportunity to summarize what I feel have been the failings of the project:

The Benefactor Dime Bill was proposed in 1978 by the senator John Rideman, with the intention of giving the American people a greater control over where their tax dollars were spent during a time of hardship and recession. The version of the Bill that passed in 1979 allowed a tax-paying individual to reclaim a single percentage of their payment to the IRS, on the condition that this was used to fund public-spirited causes and not for personal gain. This hand-back was given in the form of the bespoke coinage that are now widely referred to as Benefactor Dimes, but which appear in denominations ranging from a penny up to a 50 cent piece. To make these coins easily distinguishable from the formal US currency, they are unusually large and manufactured from thinner, lighter metal.

Despite these measures, over the years there has been a substantial number of incidences in which people, either through a genuine misunderstanding, or through a calculated attempt to defraud the US Government, have attempted to use Benefactor Dimes to purchase personal items. These include computers, cars and even flights abroad. Reports of such incidences have risen considerably over the past five years.   

Up until November 1st  of this year, the only place at which Benefactor Dimes can be deposited are in special collection boxes, placed in secure locations such as post offices and banks. Each box represents a locally-based social project or an approved charitable organisation. This, in theory, grants the taxpayer a range of options where they can see firsthand the effects of their donations.

The initial run of coins were stateless. This allowed highly motivated groups, in particular religious organisations,  to acquire large quantities from all over the US and then pool them into a general fund that they could channel into projects that they felt best suited their aims.  While this has since been addressed, there are many other issues that remain unresolved  and which have collectively brought about the premature end of the project:

During the minting process, the coins were coated in a hard wearing fish-based oil that was intended to act as an anti-counterfeiting measure. The effects of this oil coating are still being researched and debated. I  am one of a growing majority who believe that the sheer number of U.S. citizens who are reporting, on a regular basis, vivid, recurring dreams of goldfish, has exceeded a point where these night-time visions can be chalked down to mass hysteria. These dreams have been experienced by people from all races, social backgrounds and walks of life. I see people in this room today, both to the right and to the left of me who have been personally affected. In the past decade it has become common practice among those experiencing such dreams to throw Benefactor Dimes into goldfish ponds, in the mistaken belief that doing so will increase their personal wealth, or bring about some other positive outcome.

At this point I would like to draw to your attention to Millers Pond on Staten Island, New York, which has grossed in total $4.5 million in Benefactor Dimes. These are regularly removed from the pond by city workers and divided equally between local projects.  However, there have been ugly scenes in which members of charitable groups have attempted to liberate what they regard as money that rightfully belongs to their cause. This has resulted in several arrests and one accidental death. The pond is now under 24 hour armed guard.  

There has also been an increase in Robin Hood style theft in which supporters of one cause have conspired to steal Benefactor Dimes from another cause, that is seen as less worthy in their eyes. This step towards criminality by some of our most altruistic, community-minded citizens is surely one of the most disturbing, unintended consequences of the project.

The widespread misuse of Benefactor Dimes has been another issue. The coins are not covered by the same laws that protect the US currency.  They are commonly used as items of jewellery and have also been incorporated into works of modern art. When the investment banker Bob Dickson was arrested on charges of company fraud, investigators found a custom-made monopoly board game whose playing pieces and play-money were made from melted down Benefactor Dimes, which he obtained by offering 50 cents on the dollar. I would also have it noted that, in his office, he kept a small Goldfish pond that he used as a depository for Benefactor Dimes, and which he referred to as his fiscal karma bank.

There is also evidence of corporations exploiting legal loopholes to tap into funds of Benefactor Dimes and partly bankroll projects taking place in the private sector. The most extreme case has been the closure and demolition of The Pearl Blount Volunteers Hospital in Detroit in order to make way for commercial office space, a small part of which will be offered to charities at a slightly reduced rent.

Benefactor Dimes are also alleged to have been used in at least two sophisticated money laundering operations. I cannot go into the details of either of these cases, without prejudicing the outcomes of the respective trials.

Perhaps most disappointing of all has been the failure of the American people to act as responsible distributors of the nation’s wealth. We estimate that 37% of all Benefactor Dimes remain unspent. That’s an unthinkable amount of money rolling around in desk draws. Public rallies aimed at recouping some of this lost revenue have received minimal support. There is now very little chance of ever getting this money back.  

The only solid benefits that the Benefactor Dime has brought to the US is a slight increase in the number of pet shops and the rise of a financial cult, based around the worship of goldfish. Neither of these outcomes represent value to the U.S. taxpayer.  

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