BEN FRANKLIN never looked better. He's gotten younger, his hair is darker and more plentiful, there's a mischievous glint in his eyes and a Mona Lisa expression on his mouth. It's a cosmetic makeover that should improve Americans' impression of this Founding Father -- if they happen to come into possession of a $100 bill.
Early next year, the new Franklin will start appearing as the U.S. Treasury cranks out its redesigned $100 bill aimed at deterring high-tech counterfeiters. The Franklin image is larger and slightly off-center. Lots of changes have been made to make it difficult to copy the bill and easier for clerks to spot a fake.
More than $25 million in counterfeit bills passed into circulation last year. The $100 Franklin is the favored target. Overseas banks and businesses handle most of these bills and are expected to make a quick transition.
Over the next few years, the $50, $20, $10, $5 and $2 bills will gradually receive a similar makeover. That means an enhanced and enlarged appearance for Grant, Jackson, Lincoln and Jefferson. But what about Washington? Treasury officials have wisely decided to delay work on a $1 bill redesign until the Republican Congress decides it is wants to eliminate that paper currency in favor of a large $1 coin.
Despite the earlier Susan B. Anthony fiasco with a $1 coin, the rationale for replacing the paper dollar is powerful: The move would save an estimated $120 million a year for five years and then anywhere from $400 million to $800 million annually for 30 years. Coins have to be replaced only once every three decades, while paper bills wear out in 17 months. The long-term benefits to taxpayers are in the billions. As Franklin himself might have put it, "A dollar saved is a dollar earned."