Aaron Marcus: crank or visionary?
You decide. Envision this: You pull from your wallet — assuming it's not empty in this economy — a one dollar bill.
On that bill is the bust of an older fellow in a suit who 99 percent of Americans wouldn't know from William Henry Harrison, one of the lesser lights of the dead presidents, a group whose members most often get pictured on U.S. currency.
The man is Sheldon Adelson, a casino baron who is the eighth-richest man in the United States who, we'll assume, agreed to pay $100 million to have his face on 10 million U.S. dollar bills.
That $100 million would go directly to paying down the U.S. debt.
Repeat. Charge $100 million for the world's richest people or companies to be given the honor to have images of their choosing on 10 million of the 3 billion dollar bills in circulation.
If the first set of bills sells out, you've raised $30 billion. And don't forget, those bills wear out and must be replaced every 21 months, creating more revenue options. Sell out all the bills over 10 printing cycles and you're looking at $300 billion.
And there you have it. This is how Omaha Central grad and computer graphics pioneer Aaron Marcus proposes tackling a significant chunk of the U.S. deficit, which is running at about $1.4 trillion annually.
Yes, I, too, heard the chortle of cuckoo birds when I first skimmed Marcus's proposal.
I then drove past buildings called T.D. Ameritrade Park and CenturyLink Center.
I tracked down Marcus's remarkable résumé of accomplishments in 50 years of computer design, read the details of his idea and discussed, in a phone call to his home in Berkeley, Calif. — in what I noticed on my part to be increasing tones of discipleship — his plan for getting anyone in government to listen to his plan.
Which brings us to the obstacles ahead, which Marcus can himself list in knowing detail.
"I'm not at all saying there wouldn't be controversy, particularly when you get to the stage of deciding who decides what is appropriate to appear on U.S. currency," Marcus told me. "I have consciously stayed clear of addressing some of those issues that would have to be addressed later. The idea right now is to explain how it could be done. I believe I've done that."
The Yale and Princeton grad articulates the logistics of design and production within the U.S. Treasury as one might expect a Yale and Princeton grad to.
Perhaps the most obviously quixotically lame-brained aspect of the Marcus plan is his attempts to get "fellow Omahan" Warren Buffett to champion the idea. Marcus said he had not yet received a return call from Buffett since presenting the idea to a pair of Buffett assistants. I told him I would bet $100 million that Buffett doesn't return the call but, well — let Marcus dream.
Just know that some of Marcus's past wild ideas are now at least seeds in some of the technologies you take for granted in your computers, cellphones and, also, this 4G tablet presently assisting in the composition of this column.
As is my nature, I could not help but press Marcus on those later obstacles his plan would inevitably encounter, the aspects he deemed "the political, sociological, psychological hurdles." After all, such obstacles are what come to mind when first thinking Marcus is nuts.
Americans wouldn't let this happen. Selling off graphics space on our dollar bill like it was some billboard? Have you no shame?
"It's money," Marcus said. "Why not use money to make money? Why not allow those who have a lot of money to pay a lot of money to choose what's on some amount of that money?
"It seems like there's a certain amount of elegance in the idea."
There is. But. But. I told him about the fun experienced by officials at the Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles every time they think it might be neat to change the design of the state's license plates.
It is easy to go 'round and 'round on the why-nots of Marcus's idea.
He notes, though:
"There is no other proposal out there that raises anything close to the kind of money needed without significantly impacting some very large number of people in a way they did not choose to be impacted."
The rich chose to purchase an honor, advertising space or novelty of novelties.
"It's not a tax," he said. "It's not an austerity program that has unknown consequences."
It is, as I discovered speaking with Marcus, at the very least a bold attempt by a mind of unusual creative power and nuance to address a crippling problem that has most minds befuddled.
"We have serious financial problems that must be addressed but aren't being addressed," he said. "I know the plan is cute or funny in a lot of ways. That's fine if you see it that way. I'm just asking people to take a bit of time to also consider the plan in its entirety.
"I'd suggest that what at first has sounded wild and crazy is at the heart of many of the advances around us that we now take for granted."
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