Priceonomics

Source: theskywatcher, Flickr

Somewhere deep in the abyss of an old closet, or in a remote corner of your mother’s garage, they lie in glorious respite. Nestled in prismatic tubes, their sparkles have long since danced with sunlight; they are brought to life only through fits of nostalgia.

We're talking, of course, about pogs. If you were an in-vogue tyke during the 90’s, you had them; even if you didn’t, it would’ve been difficult to escape the decade without witnessing a “slammer” in action. The collectible cardboard discs came in a multifarious array of colors, designs, and textures, and sparked a frenzy among children and hobbyists. For the unenlightened, here’s a commercial, circa 1995 (enjoy the music):

And for good measure, here’s the general gist of pogs, according to Urban Dictionary:

Pogs, thin cardboard discs about the diameter of a half-dollar coin, are utilized in a game in which they are stacked up in lil’ piles. The players throw heavy, thick discs of plastic or metal at them; when the pogs settle after being bashed, whichever ones land face up are kept by the thrower of the slammer. The one with the most pogs wins. 

Pogs are no longer popular. Like Furby, they were simply a fad that died out.

But pogs didn’t die. On the contrary, they are very much alive and well: our military now uses them as currency.

The Varied History of Military Money

Long before pogs were resuscitated by the US Military, soldiers abroad used alternate forms of currency. The idea of integrating special tender for servicemen spawned during World War II, when the use of local currencies by troops proved problematic: it was impractical in combat zones, where governments were hostile, or simply non-existent. So, the Allied Powers issued Allied Military Currency to troops entering newly liberated or occupied countries -- Germany, Italy, Austria, France, and Japan. The currency was produced by Forbes Lithograph Manufacturing Company in Boston, shipped overseas, and declared legal tender by local commanders. When the war ended in 1945, these notes were discontinued and lost their value.

Allied Military Currency note (1944) 

In post-World War Two Europe, the US dollar was in wide circulation due to local citizens not trusting their own currencies (which faced uncertain futures). Worse, servicemen were using US dollars and profiteering from currency arbitrage. The result: local currencies inflated tremendously, and local economies were further destabilized. A few months after the war ended, the US Military stepped in and created the military payment certificate (MPC), a paper currency produced in denominations ranging from 5 cents to $10.

This currency encountered major issues during the Vietnam War. Essentially, a soldier could have a $100 bill mailed from the US, convert it to $180 MPC (due to local vendors paying for US cash at a markup), then exchange the MPC for South Vietnamese piastres at double the legal rate. Then, they would exchange their piastres for prostitutes, snake wine, and Pall Malls. MPCs were discontinued in 1973, a few months after the end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. 

Military Payment Certificate (1970)

Shortly before the Iraq War, the military found that for every $1 million to currency sent to pay soldiers overseas, it as costing them $60,000 in security, logistics, and support fees. So, the payment system went “high-tech;” in lieu of currency, the military created the Armed Forces EZpay card, more commonly called “Eagle Cash.” Similar in nature to a debit card, Eagle Cash allows a soldier to transfer personal funds onto a card, which retains the user’s identity; EZpay machines, which function like ATMs, are peppered throughout bases and exchange stores. These cards are used by the military today, and since 1999, 860,00 cards have been used to make $2.8 billion in transactions. 

But these cards came with caveats: nominal fees were applied for soldiers wishing to transfer bank funds, ATMs faced long lines and technical issues, and the cards proved impractical for small item purchases.

Armed Forces EZpay smart card (1999)

And Then There Were Pogs

When the US Military deployed soldiers to Afghanistan in 2001 for Operation Enduring Freedom, nickels and dimes probably weren’t important concerns. But soon, commanders realized that importing US coins for army purchases was, cumulatively, too heavy: there was simply no room for chump change in supply shipments.

In stepped the Army Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES), the Army’s merchandise supplier and foreign base exchange operator since 1895. On its website, the AAFES pledges to “go where you go in serving our troops worldwide.” And that they did: in November 2001, they brought pogs back into play and began shipping them to Afghanistan. They drastically reduced the weight of shipments: $100 in quarters (5 pounds, 1 ounce), was reduced to 14 ounces in equivalent pog currency. 

AAFES pogs, officially called “POG gift certificates,” were released in 5, 10, and 25 cent denominations. Each only came in one “style;” certainly, for any connoisseur spoiled by the bedazzled brilliance of 1990’s pogs, these would’ve been cringe-worthy:

Source: Bill Meyers, “Pog Guru”

The pogs worked. Soldiers use them to this day to buy anything sold in the 181 AAFES department stores across 30 countries (and all 50 US states). In addition, the AAFES has partnered with over 1,000 major retail and food chains; pogs are now valid as a form of currency at Taco Bell, Cinnabon, Burger King, and Popeyes, et al. But soldiers get more than the pleasure of purchasing tacos with pogs -- they pay no sales tax on in-store items.

The AAFES is contracted under the Department of Defense and, as part of the deal, they contribute roughly two-thirds of their earnings to the Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR), a network of “support and leisure” services for US soldiers. The MWR offers discounts for service members at fitness centers, pools, bowling alleys, golf courses, movie theatres, and video game stores. According to its 2012 annual report, the AAFES reported $8.6 billion in sales, with $342 million in total earnings; $224 million of this was contributed to MWR dividends.

Also in 2012, they reported open two major facilities: a $46 million distribution center in Waco, and a $30 million “mini mall” in Spangdahlem, Germany. They boast products ranging from laundry detergent, to baby diapers, to diamond rings (for the ladies who don’t think they’re bullshit); anything you can find at your local Walmart is likely available, in troves, at AAFES stores.

But many servicemen complain the discounts they receive at these stores is minimal; some even call the stores “a joke,” claiming that expensive renovations and flashy shows of consumer products have taken precedence over necessity and accessibility:

So apparently, pogs won’t get you too far at a base exchange. They also don’t come in a denomination less than 5 cents (this simply wasn’t worth the cost of production for the AAFES), so what happens in the case of odd purchase totals? The Exchange explains:

"Once purchases are totaled, AAFES rounds up prices of 3 or 4-cents and rounds down 1 and 2-cent totals. For example, if a cash purchase is $9.23, the total is rounded up to $9.25. If the total is $9.22, AAFES rounds down to $9.20."

The variation of two cents on either side makes the rounding policy a virtual wash for the customer and AAFES. 

Pog collectors Make a Comeback

The reincarnation of the pog has sparked a second-coming of the collector’s market. But this time around, the enthusiasts seem to be of a different variety. While pogs were once synonymous with Goosebumps and losing a first tooth, they are now of interest to those losing their last tooth: the elder folk. A soldier’s pog-related question is answered with bookish fanaticism below:

Skitty is right, to an extent. Most auction site results turn up nothing more than an amalgam of plastic-baggied pogs for pennies on the dollar. Have pogs reclaimed the spotlight only to be cast back into the dark chasm from whence they came?

We voraciously scanned Ebay, hoping to prove Skitty wrong and retain the dignity of our old cardboard friends; this is what we found:

These pogs aren’t exactly in the $5,000 range Maytag anticipated (albeit, they’re not “Elvis pogs,” so who knows), but the results do tell us there is a collector’s market for these things. In 2008, Marvel Comics even partnered with the AAFES to produce a line of superhero-inspired pogs. Jim Skibo, VP of Marketing for the AAFES, said the demand was overwhelming:

“We got 7,000 envelopes….I can't tell you how many coin collectors asked us for sets of these. We didn't mean to create that demand, but it made them more than just handing the soldiers and airmen a dime or a nickel.”

Bill Meyers is to pogs what Jay Leno is to antique cars: he’s the unheralded guru of AAFES collectibles. On his website, he boasts that his collection has won “Best of Show” at numerous pog tourneys. Indeed, it is worthy of praise: he chronicles every last pog from all 15 printings (November 2001 to June 2011), and sells handmade “pog books,” in which to store the treasures. Bill is part of a fairly large numismatics community (the study and collection of currency), and claims there is a science to pog collecting:

“I use an alpha-numeric classification system. The classification sys­tem first lists a number which identifies the printing. This is followed by a letter for that design (A for the first printing, and A to M, skipping I, for the remaining printings). The next number is the denomination. This is followed by a 1, represent­ing one each. For example, 4H101 represents the fourth printing, design H with the value of 10 cents.”

Pogs are only issued to military personnel, so there are only two ways for Bill to get his hands on the ones he’s looking for: scour the internet, or barter with a soldier overseas. Bill’s takes to online forums, where servicemen stealthily auction off pogs for a markup:

Sometimes, Bill also goes directly to the source: here he is (on the right) with Erick Alberts (who’s probably not used to fan photos), marketing director for the AAFES and its pogs:

Source: Bill Meyers

One Nation, under Pog, with Liberty and Justice for All

From schoolyard to base exchange camp, pogs have lived a life of  variance. They’ve ridden the high tides of the children’s toy market, journeyed to the middle of war zones, and retired to polyurethane sleeves in Bill Meyer’s garage.

They’ve been a part of both primary and secondary markets, and seem unwilling to let time sweep them under the rug. They remain in circulation, and have no had trouble integrating into the US economy: soldiers can use them at any AAFES store in the States, and unaffiliated corner stores even accept them as a token of appreciation to the troops.

Perhaps most importantly, pogs have handily vested themselves in what Aldous Huxley called the “three pillars of Western prosperity:” war, waste, and moneylenders. We look forward to seeing what’s in store for them next.

This post was written by Zachary Crockett. Follow him on Twitter here, or Google Plus here.



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