Symbols, Cymbals & Systems – Culture Shift Discussion

As prepared for delivery.

Thank you for that generous introduction and for the invitation to speak with you today in Chicago. I’m excited to be here.

I’m also pleased to not talk too much about a bunch of rules and regulations today—although there will be some. Instead, let’s do something a little different and talk, overall, about what is going on in our financial system.


First, let’s talk about symbols, with the “sym.” And I’d like to use a visual aid here, so everyone pull out a one dollar bill, if you have one. If not, share with your neighbors. We’ll do the buddy system for some of you.

What you are looking at is probably the most identifiable paper money in the world – our U.S. Federal Reserve note. It isn’t just currency: it is highly symbolic.

You see on the front there to the left is the Federal Reserve seal and within it is a letter which corresponds to one of the 12 Federal Reserve Banks – where the bill was originally circulated. The numbers that you see in four places correspond with each bank as well. Now look to the right. There is the U.S. Treasury seal with the scale symbolizing balance and justice. Below is a key symbolizing authority. There is also a chevron with 13 stars. As those who saw the movie National Treasure with Nicolas Cage know, the 13 stars signify a bakers’ dozen and the dual importance to our nation of one, baking, and two, making bread – or at least dough. Oh, wait, that’s not it. Thirteen is obviously symbolizing the original colonies and we will see it several more times on our tour around the dollar bill.

Let’s look at the other side for more symbolism. The Founding Fathers really knew just how critical symbols were when they were deciding what our nation’s seal would look like. So prior to the Continental Congress adjourning on July 4th, 1776, they set up a committee – like governments do – to create a seal for our country. This seal, eventually (you can see there), ended up on our money.

The committee included John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. What a group! If Jefferson and Franklin had their druthers, we’d have a turkey and not an eagle on our seal, by the way. You can see the eagle there, rising and flying freely – “Free Bird.” “And this bird you cannot change. Lord knows, we can’t change.” Sorry. By the way, the phrase, “In God We Trust” wasn’t added until 1957, although it was used on some coins before that.

That first committee work took six years (see, government was slow from the get-go). The final proposal for the seal was presented and approved by Congress, and what you see on the back of your dollar bill is almost exactly it.

The pyramid and the eagle, in tandem comprise the Great Seal of the United States. There are two Latin phrases inside this circle there. On top, Annuit Coeptis, which means, according to some translations, “Providence has favored our undertakings.” The one below, Novus Ordo Seclorum means a new order for the ages.

The pyramid has 13 rows of building blocks. We know what the 13 rows represent. While it is difficult to see, the first row has some Roman numerals. They spell out “1776,” a rather auspicious date for us. And of course, there is the unfinished pyramid block with the all-seeing eye atop.

In the eagle’s beak there is a banner which reads "E Pluribus Unum": “Out of many, one." The shield on the eagle's breast is comprised of two main portions: a band across the top (which in color is actually blue) and signifies Congress, and below the band there are 13 vertical stripes (in color, these are obviously red and white). The 13 stars above the eagle signify a new constellation emerging in the universe, similar to how our new nation was taking place among others.

Finally, you see the eagle holding 13 arrows in one talon. In the other is an olive branch—signifying peace. Well, the symbolism of our seal was so significant that the 13 arrows, at one time on silver coins, appeared in the right talon and some nations’ leaders and journalists suggested that meant an aggressive or belligerent attitude. As you can see here, the arrows are in the left talon and the olive branch is in the right talon. I’m not sure why right-handed eagles were thought to be so offensive. After all, Michael Vick is a left-handed Eagle and he is certainly offensive—I mean, an offensive player.

Since the inception of our nation, symbols – like those on our money – have had serious significance. They still do today.

Banks and the US – the System

It’s not just our currency; however, that holds profound symbolism. So do our banking institutions. There is a reason that banks are often imposing structures: big, impressive foyers, marble columns, and brass scrollwork. These physical surroundings are symbolic and emblematic: they represent solidity, security, soundness. These impressive structures are intended to convey to us that our money is safe and secure, and that the foundations of our economy are sturdy, robust, and enduring. If you think about our great country and the financial system that helps fuel it, you simply can’t underestimate the importance of our banking institutions.

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