The Long and the Short of It

I’ve been gradually reading The Amateur Emigrant and Across the Plains by Robert Louis Stevenson, taking me halfway through a volume of his writings about America (next up is The Silverado Squatters). Edinburgh bookshops often have old hardbacks of his lesser-known works, and they’re entertaining stuff. This passage struck me, in light of current American resistance to ditching the penny and rounding prices up or down to the nearest five cents like Australia does...

There is something in the simplicity of a decimal coinage which is revolting to the human mind; thus the French, in small affairs, reckon strictly by halfpence; and you have to solve, by a spasm of mental arithmetic, such posers as thirty-two, forty-five, or even a hundred halfpence. In the Pacific States they have made a bolder push for complexity, and settle their affairs by a coin that no longer exists—the bit, or old Mexican real. The supposed value of the bit is twelve and a half cents, eight to the dollar. When it comes to two bits, the quarter-dollar stands for the required amount. But how about an odd bit? The nearest coin to it is a dime, which is short by a fifth. That, then, is called a short bit. If you have one, you lay it triumphantly down, and save two and a half cents. But if you have not, and lay down a quarter, the bar-keeper or shopman calmly tenders you a dime by way of change; and thus you have paid what is called a long bit, and lost two and a half cents, or even, by comparison with a short bit, five cents. In country places all over the Pacific coast, nothing lower than a bit is ever asked or taken, which vastly increases the cost of life; as even for a glass of beer you must pay fivepence or sevenpence-halfpenny, as the case may be. You would say that this system of mutual robbery was as broad as it was long; but I have discovered a plan to make it broader, with which I here endow the public. It is brief and simple—radiantly simple. There is one place where five cents are recognised, and that is the post-office. A quarter is only worth two bits, a short and a long. Whenever you have a quarter, go to the post-office and buy five cents worth of postage-stamps; you will receive in change two dimes, that is, two short bits. The purchasing power of your money is undiminished. You can go and have your two glasses of beer all the same; and you have made yourself a present of five cents worth of postage-stamps into the bargain. Benjamin Franklin would have patted me on the head for this discovery.

10 June 2007 · Books

Aye, a canny Scot our Robert Louis!

Added by Rod on 14 June 2007.

I knew I liked Stevenson. That was a feat of reasoning which reminded me strongly, for some reason, of Terry Pratchett. Which is good, in my book, if not altogether explicable.

Added by K on 19 June 2007.

←Be Elk ShrineBotanical→